A reader asked:
“I’ve been listening to a lot of trilogies lately (and I’m writing one!), and I’ve noticed that in a lot of trilogies I get sick of the main characters, and I have to force myself to read the last book, or I give up entirely. It’s extremely disappointing when a series starts off with tremendous promise and then fades off. Examples of this for me include Hunger Games and Divergent, along with others.
“On the other hand, some series hold my interest – LOTR, HP, Steelheart, Mark of the Thief, etc.
“What makes these books different? How do I write a trilogy that gets better with time, not one that disappoints?”
The answer to your question is actually pretty complex, since there are a lot of ways that you can screw up a series. I mentioned some of them recently in relation to a Star Wars series.
So here are some guidelines to keep in line.
1. Give the reader what you promised at the opening of your series.
Every opening makes some promises to the readers. For example, if your protagonist in the novel is Harry Potter, then the last book shouldn’t belong to Hermione or Dumbledore. Yet a lot of writers get bored with their protagonist and will try to switch to someone new, hoping to increase interest. You can’t do that and hold your audience in most cases.
As Tom Doherty, the President of Tor put it, your story should have a “persistent character in a persistent world.” What that means is that you are not only telling the story for the same character (or sometimes group of characters), but you are also setting it in the same world. So if your protagonist starts off in a fantasy world in book one, you can’t switch to a science fiction world in the second book.
But there’s a third element to the promise you make in your story: your conflicts. If in the first book you promise that this is going to be a mystery, then in each of the novels the mystery needs to deepen, the consequences need to be more engrossing and earth-shattering. You can’t just solve the mystery in book one and then move to romantic conflicts or an adventure. Your mystery readers will typically get bored, and the romance readers or thriller readers out there won’t want to read through a mystery novel to get to the good stuff. Yet I see writers make this same mistake over and over.
2. Escalate. Escalate. Escalate—with each book.
What this means to you is that when you begin plotting your novel, you have to make sure that the conflicts are complex enough to support the character’s overall story arc through all three books. For example, let’s say that you want to write a fantasy, and you begin to tell the story of a young man who goes to battle with an undead king. You can’t have him overcome that undead king in book two and have nothing left to do in book three. Yet I’ve seen the equivalent done by inexperienced authors.
That means that you have to develop a complex plot that deepens and broadens with each succeeding novel. By “deepening,” I mean that as the protagonist goes through a conflict, he discovers that they affect him more profoundly than he would imagine, in unexpected ways. By “broadening” I mean that the protagonist’s family, friends, community, and perhaps even the whole world become embroiled in the overall conflict. (See the topic “Deepening” and “Broadening” in my book Million Dollar Outlines.)
Most likely, as your plot deepens and broadens, you’re going to discover that your protagonist is going to discover secondary and tertiary conflicts that you will have to deal with. For example, let’s take our young protagonist fighting the wizard king. As he does battle with the king, what if he discovers that the king has a daughter that he loves, a girl his age, who is nothing like the evil spawn that one might imagine. What if he meets her accidentally and even falls in love? Now you’ve got a romantic entanglement that you have to deal with. Or maybe he discovers deeper personal conflicts. Perhaps like most young people he is terrified of death, and is secretly drawn to the wizard king’s apparent power over death, until he has to make peace with his own feelings about it. Or maybe there is a social conflict that he needs to explore. For example, we might have a society where wizards are respected for their magical powers so greatly, that he as a non-wizard is considered a second-rate upstart, unworthy of challenging the wizard.
3. Find the right break points and look for satisfying conclusions.
With each of your novels you’re going to discover that there are natural “break points,” good places to end. For instance, perhaps in book one our young protagonist has his first epic battle against the wizard king and his men are routed, but in the process of being routed, he falls in love with a young woman that he tries to rescue, only to discover that she is the daughter of his enemy. At this point, we have the ending of one “try/fail” cycle, but also introduce an interesting new complication. This makes a pretty natural breaking point for book one. Later, as the young protagonist has to defend himself from retaliation by the wizard king, and his lands are overrun while his friends are killed and “converted” to the wizard’s army of undead, that might make a good place to end the second book.
Then of course, “All is well that ends well,” as Shakespeare put it. A series has to come to an ending that is both profound and emotionally satisfying, so that the conflicts are resolved, and we bring the characters’ lives to a new state of enlightenment and peace.
This is hard for most new writers. You need to learn to pace the story at a series length. A lot of new writers who are used to writing short stories, for example, might find it difficult to develop a story at a stately pace. They’re so used to sprinting, that they can’t run a longer race. For example, when I wrote the novel In the Company of Angels, I wanted to write an ending that would keep the reader in tears for fifty pages. I teased out the conflicts with various characters in order to make each scene as emotionally powerful as possible. After I finished, I got complaints from my editor saying that they couldn’t edit it because they were crying too much. I gave the book to my wife in manuscript format and watched her read part of it. I noticed her sniffing at page 250 of a 500-page manuscript and stay in tears until the end. The novel went on to win the Whitney Award for best book of the year. But really, I think that until that book, I hadn’t really learned to write a powerful ending. I felt that I’d mastered openings pretty well, but had to learn how to end well.
4. Just as your conflicts must grow and escalate, your reader’s satisfaction needs to escalate with each book.
Here’s a simple rule: Make every book that you write better than the last. This forces you to grow as a stylist and a storyteller with every single book. If you can do that, you’ll just keep on satisfying your fans.
Writing Enchanting Prose Workshop
The Writing Enchanting Prose Workshop in DALLAS is now FULL.
But you can still attend the one happening in Provo, Utah:
Provo Courtyard Marriott
March 19-23, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
10 Attendees Total
In this workshop we will work heavily on imbuing your prose with the richness and details that bring a story to life. The goal is to teach you how to fully transport readers as you take them on a journey that captivates their hearts and minds. David Farland will teach you how to totally transport you readers so that they become so immersed in your story, they forget where they are—they forget they are reading at all.
This workshop is similar to the Writing Mastery workshop, but will be more exercise-oriented, with in-class practices. Writing Enchanting Prose is more in-depth than any of David’s past prose workshops.
In this workshop, Dave would like to create an intimate environment where individual students will receive ample time for one-on-one interaction and critiques. Dave will be spending personal time with each student. Because of that, we will be strictly limiting the number of students allowed to attend to 10.
Learn more or register here.