I recently came to a part in my Work in Progress (WIP) when I said, “Huh, this doesn’t look like it’s going to be a standalone after all.”
While I believe there are a lot of important decisions to make about your book (awesome characters, coherent plot, enough giant roach mutants, traditional vs. self-publishing), one may be the decision to write every fantasy writer’s dream: the Great (Insert Nationality Here) Fantasy Trilogy.
Many of my favorite books of all time were part of trilogies, but the thought of beginning one myself brings thoughts of both excitement and apprehension. Is it the best choice for the story I want to tell? If I don’t write a series, am I cramming too much into one book? After some writers squeak out, “I’m writing a book,” the next question from curious minds may be “Will it be a trilogy?”
Well, will it?
Before, After, or Somewhere in the Middle: When to Decide
When I was younger, I’d sit down at my desk and one of the first things I’d write on a new manuscript would be something like Drunk Dragon Mothers: Book 1 of the Blow It All to Hell Trilogy. I’m not sure why I had the propensity to do that, but I’d already made the decision to write a trilogy before I even came up with the first smidgen of actual writing. However, while barreling toward finishing the first draft of my WIP recently, I had a moment of, “Well, I guess this being a standalone just flew out the window.”
For me, there are pros and cons of deciding when and if you are going to write a trilogy:
1. Before (or the Hopeful Trilogist Method)
Pro: Allows you to anticipate a much longer overall story arc
Con: Can overwhelm you or overshoot your goals, when the main priority should be finishing the first book
2. In the Middle (or the Fence-Rider Method)
Pro: Allows you to weigh your options once you’ve actually started getting into your story and put off your decision
Con: May confuse or disrupt an otherwise complete standalone by falling into “Unnecessary Trilogy Syndrome”
3. At the End (or the Oh Crap, This Just Became a Series Method aka Hell Yeah, This Just Became a Series Method)
Pro: Enables you to go with a less final ending and therefore expand on your story and characters that you love so much
Con: Could cause your head to explode Scanners style when you realize your standalone novel can’t be completed in under 200,000 words
I’m at the point now where I have to come to this decision. I think I’ve become the “Hell Yeah, but Oh Crap This Just Became a Series” writer. My WIP has gotten bigger and bigger. Some people have suggested that means it’s sequel time, but does it have to be? Couldn’t I just cut some of the bulge and see where that leads me? Questions, questions.
Is Three the Magic Number?
But is writing a trilogy the only way? Sure, there are lots of successful fantasy trilogies out there, but why a trilogy? Is it because three is the loveliest number that you’ve ever known? What makes three books so appealing for fantasy authors specifically? Is it because Tolkien set the standard for modern fantasy with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit? (Everyone knows The Hobbit is a trilogy, that’s why they made three movies. Duh.)
…OK, that was a joke. Don’t kill me. And as an aside, I love The Hobbit movies so far. I’m glad there are more than one because movies based on Tolkien’s books are like potato chips: I can’t eat just one. Wait…what?
I do think a trilogy can be a great choice for authors. There’s a reason so many writers choose to tell their stories this way. Is it just a marketing technique or is it a way to tell a complete story? If you look at it as a marketing technique, that can very well be successful. As a reader, I have “must buys” from certain authors. If they write a series, I’m most likely going to buy the whole series. As a story-telling technique, it also serves you well because you can keep expanding your world and your characters. Especially if you love them and you don’t want to let them go. The hope is that readers feel the same way.
Let’s look at a sample trilogy, something I call The Stampede of Undead Unicorns Trilogy. Catchy, right?
Book 1: The Dread Unicorn Rears Its Shaggy Mane: The first book usually introduces some kind of major conflict brewing. Undead unicorns riding down from the frozen wastes, for example. Our hero (reluctant or no) must rally forth the courage to face this onslaught of horseflesh head-on. Perhaps he faces off with several smaller villains (hyena-people, a maniacal druid, and a demon possessed chicken) and attains his goal of becoming an 18th level ninja warlock.
Book 2: The Plight of the Minotaur Princess: The second book may have the hero wading into the fray and making significant discoveries about himself, his friends, and his enemies. Maybe he makes a love connection with a minotaur princess and gets his butt whooped by a giant wolf made up of many significantly smaller wolves. This book may end with the hero looking to give up on his quest after significant set backs. Despite this, he rallies his allies and defeats Wolf-Made-of-Wolves. He is now ever closer to stopping the horde of undead unicorns from trampling his homeland, but maybe the minotaur princess is kidnapped before he can do so.
Book 3: A Storm of Hooves: The third book brings the story to a thrilling conclusion with our hero saving and marrying the minotaur princess, smiting the undead unicorns, and uniting the kingdom of Trilogosis together. Hooray. “Trilogy Complete” achievement unlocked.
However, could you still tell the stories you want to tell in different ways? I think so. Let’s look at some healthy alternatives to the sometimes blessing, sometimes curse of trilogies.
Wait a minute, buckoo. I don’t want to do a standalone! Well, OK, but maybe it’s something to consider for your particular story. If it feels like you’re stretching and stretching to get enough material to necessitate a trilogy, maybe it’s best to focus on the key aspects of your book. Cut extra characters, trim sub-plots (damn, no more hyena-people…), and boil it down to what’s needed to tell your specific story.
So maybe get rid of the sub-plot to impress the minotaur princess’s family by hunting down the assassin that killed her uncle’s friend’s sister’s brother. There are loads of standalones that are doing well in the fantasy genre at the moment, so it’s worth considering cutting, editing, killing some darlings, and seeing what bubbles forth from the depths of your mind.
I personally have to decide if I’m stretching just to stretch or does my WIP need sequels to tell the story I truly want to tell.
Many authors have decided to write standalone books that all take place in the same world, but with a different focus on characters, setting, etc. I like this approach a lot, because it allows you to keep the world you’ve spent a load of time developing, but has the added bonus of letting you see your world through the eyes of new characters or characters who were previously minor ones.
Using this approach, you can write multiple books in the same world, but still keep it fresh by honing in one new conflicts and new developments. So you can have one book all about your hero slaying an amorphous psychic blob made of strawberry jam and then another book about the hero’s cousin fishing for leviathans in pirate infested waters only two hundred miles away.
Same world, new stories. Limitless possibilities. (That sounded like a commercial…)
Some writers are even going a further step by creating longer series of six, ten, twenty, or more books. This is also a good approach as it allows you even more breathing room than a trilogy would. However, it also poses dangers. Some readers may not take to such long investments. They want completed works that they can finish in a lifetime.
On the flip side, this allows a lot more opportunity to build a loyal fan base since you’re constantly providing them with new content. Contrary to what some others say, I think many readers would love to see their favorite writer keep cranking out books about their favorite characters.
You may say, “I thought this was about novels?” That may be, but short stories are a great way to continue writing side-quests and stories of your favorite characters without the investment a trilogy or series might take. Many authors have taken to writing short stories in the down time between publication of their novels to keep interest going. I think this is an excellent approach to give readers a taste of the worlds and characters they love, but with a lower cost and time investment. With services like Kindle Singles or blogging, you can also share your short stories in a variety of ways. By writing short stories in your world, you can create new storylines that may even play a part in future novels. Exciting, right?
With all that said, perhaps writing a trilogy is what is best for you. However, I’d largely consider the other options you have before you and see how they pan out. Perhaps a trilogy is best for one story while a standalone may work better for a completely different one.
So let’s turn the discussion to all of you. Why did you decide (or will you decide) to write a trilogy? If you don’t want to write a series, why did you choose a different path? I’d love to hear from you all in the comments!
For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.