I never intended to commit trilogy, I sort of fell into it, and here I am, two published trilogies later. I wish I’d known at the outset what I learned while doing it.
A little background:
Having made the rookie mistake of trying to write a trilogy before I’d sold a book I realised that you can waste a lot of time writing Book Two (in my case, two years) but it will never see the light of day if Book One doesn’t sell. Having learned my lesson I decided to write standalones with potential for sequels. By the time I got my first book deal from DAW, I had seven completed novels, some (not all) with potential to turn into trilogies. DAW bought Empire of Dust (SF), ordered a sequel on a one-page synopsis, and bought Winterwood (F). Later I got the go-ahead to complete both trilogies.
Trilogies take a lot of writing, and they take a lot of planning.
You may write your trilogy as a set of connected (or loosely connected) stand-alones with different lead characters in each book, however, if you’re going to spend three books with the same set of characters, you’d better damn well like them. They don’t have to be sweetness and light, but you have to want to spend time with them. It’s likely that you’ll have the same lead characters (one or many) all the way through the trilogy, even if you add or subtract some supporting characters. Make sure you note down your character details. Don’t have her/him with brown eyes in one book and green in the next. Keep their personalities consistent, too. Are they timid or brash, serious or funny? What moves them? What are their physical quirks? What have they got to lose? What do they want? What do they need? Over the course of writing three books it’s easy to forget the little details.
Maybe you’ll have a multi viewpoint trilogy and one book might lean more towards one character and others to another, or maybe you’ll stay in tight third viewpoint all the way through. I did both. I have my Rowankind trilogy in first person, narrated by my female privateer and witch, Ross (Rossalinde) Tremayne. My Psi-Tech (space opera) trilogy is in tight third person with two main viewpoints, Cara Carlinni and Ben Benjamin.
The other thing you need to figure out at the outset is which characters are going to make it to the end of the third book. Hey, this is science fiction and fantasy. Someone always dies. When Ned Stark meets his end in Game of Thrones, you know that no one is safe, and, indeed, George R.R. Martin is still keeping us guessing as to which characters will make it to the end of the book and/or to the end of Season Eight on the TV series. George knows, but the rest of us are on tenterhooks.
I hate, hate, hate series or trilogies that have every book but the final one end on a cliffhanger. Hey, it’s your trilogy, your choice, but consider the sheer frustration levels in your readers when you leave your hero dangling over the edge of a fiery volcano for a year until the next volume is published. By the time I get my hands on the sequel, I’ve gone off the boil. The perfect balance, for me, is a set of three books, each with its own story arc and satisfactory ending, but with enough unresolved plot threads to lead naturally into the next volume. And, of course, it needs an overall story arc—a big picture–across all volumes, concluding with a walloping ending (happy/bittersweet/tragic/whatever) to keep your reader happy. Some trilogies are one big book in disguise with suitable stopping points to divide the volumes. (Think Lord of the Rings, or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy.) For every obvious front story, there’s probably something else going on in the background, too, and you have room in a trilogy to examine that.
We’re talking about science fiction and fantasy, so you probably can’t pick a mundane setting and stick with it unless you’re doing present or near-future Earth. You’re probably going to be worldbuilding to a greater or lesser extent. Whatever world you choose to tell your story in–a space station, five hundred years in the future, or a Britain with magic, two hundred years in the past–you need to work out every aspect of your setting carefully. What’s the level of technology? Is religion important? Of course this is all stuff you need to do for a single book, too, but there are long-term aspects to be addressed in writing a trilogy. With a single book, you don’t go to press until all the quirks have been worked out, however with a trilogy the first one is probably going to press as you’re writing the second. You can’t get halfway through your Book Two and decide to change the parameters of what can and can’t be done with magic, or suddenly handwave faster-than-light travel in the second book if it didn’t exist in the first. The trick is to be consistent. Don’t have a character suddenly overstep the bounds of his abilities in the climax of Book Three simply because you need him to be able to shoot fire out of his eyes to get him out of a tight spot. You can introduce new concepts in the second and third books, of course, but only if they are consistent with the world you’ve already built. And if you’ve planned it all out in advance, you can foreshadow them in the first book, or at the very least leave an avenue open for them to appear. Make notes, write a style sheet, keep a database, but whatever you do, be consistent.
Plotting or Pantsing?
I sound as though I’m an advocate for plotting, so what are the ‘pantsers’ to do? I confess I’m a bit of a pantser myself. I often write to find out what’s happening. If I plot out every little occurrence I feel as though I’ve written the book already, so I have less enthusiasm when it comes to actually doing the slog of the first draft. I’m advocating planning the skeleton of the trilogy, the background, the society, and the parameters of what is possible and what is not, but not necessarily planning the detail of the plot.
My next book is going to be a standalone.
Jacey Bedford‘s overnight success took 16 years between the publication of her first short story (1998) and her first novel (Empire of Dust, 2014), which was the beginning of her Psi-Tech trilogy. Ironically that book was the one she’d workshopped at her first Milford in 1998, and she will be eternally grateful to Alastair Reynolds for his insistance that straightforward FTL travel is not the way to go. She’s a great advocate for critique groups, and has been to so many Milfords that they eventually made her secretary. In between doing Milford stuff and orgnising gigs for folk musicians (the day job) she finds time to write – often into the wee small hours of the morning.