Trilogies are one of the staples of genre writing. They are particularly prominent in the sub genres of science fiction and fantasy within YA, as well as in genre sff outside YA. While there is much that can be said about the history of the three-volume novel, I’m not going to say it here. I’m not a scholar. Instead I’ll approach the topic as a writer in order to discuss options that writers have when they are conceptualizing a narrative that may or may not work as a trilogy. As always, these are my thoughts, not Prescription or Pronouncement, and you may take or leave them as you wish.
What is a trilogy? The easiest answer is that it is a series of three related volumes. But not all trilogies have the same form. Here are some examples.
The three-volume novel, which became popular in the 19th century, is a single story published in three installments. Each installment is incomplete without the others, and if the story was bound in a single volume it would be read as a standalone. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is an example of a three-volume novel. These days I more often see duologies of this type in YA: a long book split into two installments. Often this seems to be because the book is too long to bind, or to profitably publish, in a single volume. This type of “single season” story has also become popular all around the world in finite-season tv dramas such as telenovelas, K-drama, and increasingly in USA television shows.
In the episodic series (once the most common type of show on American tv) each episode/volume essentially works alone. The episodic series is most commonly found in genres like mystery, urban fantasy, and paranormal where it often extends to many more than three novels. The two crucial ingredients of the episodic series are, first, that the reader or viewer is familiar with the recurring characters (except for the pilot installment). Second, each individual volume (or episode) must tell a complete tale of some sort. The story may “re-set” the characters and situation at the end of each volume (everything going back to Point A, as in Gunsmoke), or there may be a secondary over-arching narrative that slowly unfolds over multiple episodes (as in Leverage). The episodic series qualifies as a trilogy if there are–surprise–three volumes total.
In a thematic trilogy (N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) each volume tells a complete story. While each story is linked thematically in terms of setting or plot and may include related or recurring characters, it is not a single story published in installments. Each book could be read separately although often it makes the most sense and creates the biggest impact if read sequentially.
Another example I’ll call the “but what if there’s more” trilogy. In this case, a writer’s standalone novel can be and is meant to be read alone, but after the writer finishes they realize there are other aspects of the story, world, or characters they can write about. Sometimes a publisher asks for more books after a successful standalone publication. Such stories may be written years apart, or close together, and may share any combination of setting, characters, or plot.
The final form, and the one I’m going to analyze most closely, is the architectural trilogy (I made up this term; don’t @ me). This form of trilogy uses the fact of its multiple volumes as its architecture. While the story needs all three volumes to tell the entire tale, it is not just one book split into three installments; the installments are part of the way the story builds, as I will explain.
A not uncommon complaint about the trilogy form is the conviction held by some people that writers will “pad out” a single volume concept into multiple books to “cash in.” Listen, a person’s got to eat, so I’m not sure why this is an artistic crime if the books are entertaining people. Personally I haven’t found “padding out” to “cash in” to be a common practice anyway (and I wonder if the people who say this have any idea how long it takes most writers to write a novel). What’s more common and what interests me most is when a writer sets out to write a trilogy but struggles to use the form as effectively as perhaps they could.
So let me analyze one way of building a trilogy. Again, this is not the only answer or the One True Path. It is a way that you can think about, or ignore.
An architectural trilogy uses the fact that there will be three volumes to build the story. Imagine, if you will, that you open a door and walk into a room and explore it. Then you discover another door, which leads to a entire wing of a building in which you find multiple more rooms some of which look out onto gardens and wings you can’t reach. Next you discover a flight of steps leading up to a vista that allows you to see the original room and wing as merely parts of a vast edifice and its surrounding landscape which you now have access to.
Act One introduces the setting, presents the protagonist with a problem which (often) gets solved in book one, although the solution or its repercussions may open up a window onto a new set of complications at the book’s end. This opened window creates the ladder, as it were, that ascends to Act Two.
Act Two explores how the events and complications arising from the events in the first book revise or complicate that earlier success. Additionally an act two expands the reader’s (and protagonist’s) understanding of the world not in a superficial way (more of the same only maybe faster or bigger, more beads on a string) but in a way that raises the stakes and that amplifies or torques the initial problem from book one. An Act Two may end with a flanking blow that upends the protagonist’s view of the world or with a reversal that reveals an unanticipated (although carefully set up) obstacle.
In Act Three the stakes must revise upward with the most complex problem of all to be dealt with, often as a result of what happened in earlier volumes. Dilemmas can be potent at this stage if the groundwork has been laid, because the reader has had two books to get to know the characters and situation and thus will be as invested as possible in what seems an unresolvable conflict in a way that would not have as much weight in volume one. The protagonist may ultimately triumph, or triumph at great cost. (It’s unusual but not unknown for the protagonist to fail utterly without some positive achievement somewhere for somebody.) Regardless, one key to a great volume three comes from using the reader’s knowledge of the world to intensify the stakes.
I recently picked up a children’s fantasy novel, first in a series, that had all the likely ingredients: an appealing protagonist, a cool set-up for the world, a nifty plot device, interesting secondary characters, and suspense wrapped around a tidy plot that came to a satisfying, if temporary, conclusion. Finishing the first book, I started the second. And I realized that the second novel was much like the first, only more of the same thing. And the third, likewise. There was nothing in particular to set volume three apart from volume one. There was no lift to a higher level, just more rooms.
In an episodic series, events start looping in the sense that there will be more events, perhaps newly introduced characters to freshen things up, a big bad who either is temporarily thwarted but comes back with a vengeance or who goes down and is replaced with a newer boss. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s a classic and popular form of series in which the reader is deeply engaged with the recurring characters and their interactions with each other. When readers want to continue reading more of a world and characters, then the author has done something right.
But the trilogy form can be used to expand and complicate setting, story, and character, and how the three elements interact.
For example, in my Spiritwalker trilogy the phrase rei vindicatio (“a legal action by which the plaintiff demands that the defendant return a thing that belongs to the plaintiff” [Wikipedia]) is introduced in Cold Magic. At its initial mention it may come across as a tangential throwaway line added for atmosphere, but the phrase is central to the thematic structure and plot of the trilogy. It recurs in each subsequent volume and always in a new and more expanded context. Using thematic repetition can be part of any novel, whether standalone, duology, trilogy, or series, and is particularly effective when used in an ascending spiral of magnitude and consequence.
Here’s my analysis of what Scott Westerfeld does with the trilogy structure in his Midnighters books. Note with respect to spoilers: I will speak about the plot in generalities but not give names or details.
In volume one, The Secret Hour, a newcomer comes to town, discovers something weird is going on, finds out others are involved, falls into danger, gets out with the help of those others, discovers a secret power, and accepts that their life has changed.
Westerfeld uses the first book to lay out the basic situation without trying to overcompensate by developing too much. It is enough to be introduced to the world and situation, the characters who will matter, their basic conflicts and abilities, and through several suspenseful events and a series of encounters reveal what is at stake. In addition, the first character we meet is revealed as a powerful player, and accepts her role.
In volume two, Touching Darkness, he raises the stakes. Every way in which he raises the stakes is set up and foreshadowed in volume one; that is, nothing revealed in volume two hits as a random explosion because you’ve already been fed the hints. The stakes are raised with a clear and immediate impact, one that ratchets up the tension level for the entire plot. Instead of a string of episodic danger-escape scenes and a bigger badder antagonist who is, at essentials, just like the first one, our entire experience and comprehension of the world and the characters is heightened. Throughout this, Westerfeld deepens both the external conflicts, and especially some of the internal conflicts and inter-relationship conflicts, leading us into:
Volume three, Blue Noon, in which he again raises the stakes with a new and yet even greater threat and conflict that now overshadows everything that came before because it embraces everything that came before. In fact, the full impact of that threat could not be felt without all the set up that has led to this moment. Meanwhile, several of the characters are changing in profound ways that make them quite different people from the ones we were introduced to in volume one. At the same time a couple of the other characters do not radically change. This contrast between characters who alter and characters whose nature remains relatively static, although never uninteresting, provides a restful contrast. If everyone is changing, that’s exhausting. If everyone is static, that’s boring.
In the Court of Fives trilogy I use a similar architectural structure in the sense that each volume builds on the foundation of the one before: in book one Jes is catapulted out of the safe and narrow world she’s grown up; in book two she discovers that the world doesn’t work the way she has been told it does; in book three she has to decide what world is worth fighting for.
Instead of dumping the entire setting into volume one, subsequent volumes can expand on background, history, culture, and character situations exactly when that expansion is necessary to understand the plot complications. For example, a minor character named Talon has an important backstory which isn’t revealed until book three because it isn’t specifically germane to the plot until book three. But if she was only introduced (in book three) for her scene of impact, that scene wouldn’t have the same weight and emotion as it has when we have glimpsed her periodically (and wonder about her) throughout the entire trilogy leading up to that point.
If I’ve done my job right, events in book three have impact because of what the reader knows and has put together from the first two volumes. In book one, antagonists Jes and Gargaron have no history; their history starts with their first meeting, and by book three I never have to explain anything about the way they interact because the reader has watched the relationship develop and deepen. In book one, the question of whether Jes will kiss Kal is framed in an entirely different context than in book three.
In this style of trilogy building you should never be able to pull a scene from book three and readily insert it into one of the earlier books. The goal is to create that ascending spiral of magnitude and consequence from each volume to the next.