Lessons Learned While Writing a Trilogy

My work on the Taken trilogy is pretty much complete. Sure, Forged doesn’t come out until April, but as far as writing and revision is concerned, I’m off the hook. All that remains is printing and production of the book. And then of course, promotion.

As I move on to new projects, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of writing a trilogy. I’ve learned a lot since I began working on Gray’s story in 2010, and I want to share some of those lessons now. Naturally, no writing experience is universal, but to anyone sitting down to draft a trilogy for the first time… Well, maybe this will be helpful…

1. Know your ending

It might change, but you should have an end goal in mind from the very beginning. Who is the person your main character needs to become? What massive battle (figuratively or literally) needs to be fought to get him/her there? If these questions are answered by the end of book one, you might be better off sticking to just that: one book, a stand-alone. No one likes a series where subsequent books feel like repeats of book one. Or worse, like nothing happens.

2. Similarly, know your secrets

Is the main character hiding something? Is the villain? If there is going to be any type of game-changing twist in your series, you want to prepare for it upfront. Sometimes a twist reveals itself in the act of drafting, and this is great if you can introduce and resolve the twist all in that book, but the long-term surprises are most effective if you can weave them in throughout the series. Foreshadowing, people! Think of Harry Potter. We don’t learn what a Horcrux is until book six, but once we realize that Harry’s been interacting with them as early as book two, they’re importance in the series is that much more powerful.

3. Start your series bible early

It can be a physical notebook or a document on your computer, but start keeping track of your characters. Their ages, birthdays, appearances, wants and fears, strengths and weaknesses, and so on. I went as detailed as recording injuries that occurred throughout my series, especially anything that would scar (if you’ve read my books, you know why). Basically, anything that will affect how your characters react moving forward is worth noting. Also be sure to include maps, world-building details/rules, tech and terminology, etc, etc. The sooner you begin gathering this information in one place, the better. Trust me. It’s way easier to fact-check against your series bible while doing copy-edits than flip aimlessly through book one, trying to find that one place where you mention Secondary Character’s birth month.

4. Book 1 is just the tip of the iceberg

It has it’s own beginning, middle, and end, but that end—whatever conflict the hero overcomes—is merely the start of a much bigger battle. In a trilogy, you need the stakes to rise with each book, until the true enemy is beaten. Think of The Hunger Games. Katniss is just trying to survive the Games, and she does. Conflict of book one resolved. However, her trick with the berries creates a new series of conflicts, and the true enemy begins to reveal itself. It’s not just the Games Katniss is fighting against, but the Capitol.

5. Book 2 is your bridge to the final conflict

Or perhaps more importantly, Book 2 is the point of no return. There’s a lot of setup that happens in book twos—tensions rising, getting the characters in place for the final showdown, etc, etc—but if this is all that happens, you’re left with a book of preparing. You have the bridge, but no oomph. Just as every book has a point of no return, so should your series. Again using Harry Potter as an example, book four is when everything changes. Elana Johnson points out in her “writing a trilogy” posts that this is when “we realize how far Voldemort will go to achieve his desires. He will kill and kidnap. He will send in spies. He will do whatever it takes.” Realizations like this often leads to a dark moment for the hero, a feeling that all hope is lost. For Harry, it’s the fact that Voldemort can now touch him, that his last defense is gone. For Katniss, she’s lost Peeta despite surviving the Games yet again. Work these emotional stakes into your middle book.

6. Don’t lose sight of the end game

If you’re writing the trilogy under contract, there will come a time when part of the story is in the world and the rest is still on your computer, a work in progress. I’ve found it useful to not read reviews in general, but one way or another, reader reactions will reach you. Don’t kill the sidekick! I ship so-and-so! If such-and-such happens I will be so freaking mad! People are passionate about your story. This is great. But don’t let these voices get in your head. Block them out, carve out a safe place to work, and write your story exactly as you see fit!

7. There will be loose ends

No matter how much you try, there will be a few plot threads left dangling by the end of your trilogy. The goal is to make sure they’re not the main ones. Because…

8. The entire point of Book 3 is conclusion

Remember what I said back in point #1? Who is the person your main character needs to become? What massive battle needs to be fought to get him/her there? This is the soul of your final book. There shouldn’t be an onslaught of new characters introduced. There’s no need for new sub-plots. You’re wrapping things up, not making it more complicated. If you did your job right in books one and two, you should already have all the threads in place for a strong conclusion. Grab hold and wrangle them into the best looking bow you can manage.

(And then have a good cry. Because no matter how many headaches writing a trilogy may cause you, it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to a world you’ve spent so much time in. There’s a good chance it will hit you harder than you expect.)


21 Responses to Lessons Learned While Writing a Trilogy

  1. Anita Aug 12 2014 at 7:25 am #

    Excellent advice! Especially number 5. I always knew book 4 in the HP series was a significant turning point, but I had never stopped to think about why. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    • Erin Bowman Aug 12 2014 at 11:54 am #

      Thanks, Anita! Glad you found the post useful.

  2. PK Hrezo Aug 12 2014 at 9:09 am #

    Thanks Erin. I’m about to launch my sequel and haven’t yet read written book 3 but I have my series bible. I’m bookmarking this page.
    And congrats on finishing! 🙂

    • Erin Bowman Aug 12 2014 at 11:55 am #

      A series bible is so crucial! Good luck with your sequel. 🙂

  3. Erin Aug 12 2014 at 9:39 am #

    AAAH!! Thank you so much for the post!!! This is an awesome post!! I always think that planning for a series is difficult because each book has to have its own beginning, middle, and end, so this is very helpful. And a series bible!! That is such a smart idea! Thanks for the great advice!! (Ooh! And I love that you used Harry Potter examples!)

    • Erin Bowman Aug 12 2014 at 11:56 am #

      I’m so glad you found the post helpful! (And yeah… Harry Potter and The Hunger Games seem to be my go-to books for examples. Love.)

  4. Natalie Aguirre Aug 12 2014 at 10:50 am #

    These are such great tips. Thanks SO much!

  5. Alex Ray Aug 12 2014 at 10:58 am #

    I love this post. *bookmarks* It’s like, I know this stuff conceptually, but having all these points written simply in front of me is exactly what I need to look at sometimes. Thanks for this! And I never thought about a series bible before. I have docs for each of my characters, but not stuff that specific… and then I wonder why I forget little but important things like a rip in a cloak in the middle of winter! Brilliant.

    • Erin Bowman Aug 12 2014 at 11:59 am #

      Thanks, Alex! Glad you liked the post. The series bible has been a life saver for me, precisely for reasons like your example — ripped clothing in bad weather will have an impact on coming scenes for your character! And even more so for world-building details. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten what I named a certain location, or how many people live there, or how many miles it is from the nearest village, etc, etc ;P

  6. Azaria Aug 12 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    I’m about to start a Helpful Tips Bible by E.Bowman. This is the third post I’ve bookmarked, and which I’ve found helpful. The idea of a trilogy is frightening, yet exited, and presented this way-it seems less overwhelming. Thanks for the great post!

    • Erin Bowman Aug 13 2014 at 9:55 am #

      Hehe. Glad the post made the prospect of planning a trilogy a little less overwhelming for you. 🙂

  7. Heather C. Myers Aug 12 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    Hi Erin!

    This post comes at such an important time for me. I’m currently working on Book 3 for my Trilogy, and it’s amazing to me how much my characters have grown and matured and how much they’ve remained the same. It’s almost like watching children grow up.

    The ones I feel strongly towards are 1 (Sometimes it’s the ending that comes first, and you can’t help but write an entire series based on HOW your ending happens); 4, 5, and 8 (It’s helpful for me to label each book with a reminder of what the goal is for that novel. For example, Book 1: Intro to Everything, Book 2: Bridge, Set up, Rising Action, etc.; Book 3: Conclusion and your descriptions are definitely on par); 6 (It’s amazing to me how much story my characters write themselves. Where I’ll ship my heroine with one character that I created just for her, but it doesn’t feel RIGHT and she’s drawn to this secondary character I have to flesh out more. Sometimes, you can’t even listen to yourself if your characters are pulling you away); and 7 (I really like that you added this. Because stories don’t just end. Maybe they conclude, but they’re not over. And it wouldn’t make sense for EVERYTHING to be tied neatly up with a bow.)

    Thank you again for this – and CONGRATS on finishing your trilogy! What an amazing accomplishment!

    • Erin Bowman Aug 13 2014 at 9:56 am #

      Isn’t it amazing how much our characters can surprise us and lead the way? Best of luck with your Book 3!

  8. Krispy Aug 12 2014 at 7:34 pm #

    Loved this post, Erin! Very helpful and insightful – especially about Book 2s and series bibles!

  9. Kairee-Anne Cooley Aug 13 2014 at 12:52 am #

    After reading this post, I think I finally understand why I’ve been having such a hard time writing my trilogy lately. It all makes sense to me the more I read this repeatedly today and its making me want to work on it with full force in a positive matter instead of a ‘ehh’ feeling towards it.. Thank you so much for this amazing insight and congrats on finishing Gray’s story!!

    • Erin Bowman Aug 13 2014 at 9:57 am #

      Thank you! So glad the post helped clear things up for you. Good luck with your trilogy! You can dooo itt! 🙂

  10. Adam Silvera Aug 13 2014 at 1:07 am #

    This post is GENIUS, Erin! Thank you!

    • Erin Bowman Aug 13 2014 at 9:57 am #

      Thank *you* for proposing the topic. 🙂

  11. Amir Hosein Jun 2 2015 at 6:48 am #

    It was great and very useful,thanks a loooot !!

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