10 Things I wish I’d known before writing a trilogy

Three Covers

With the publication of Genesis Redux only a handful of days away, I thought I’d share with you some of the things I’ve learned over the past four years of writing the Transcendence Trilogy. Here are my top ten:

1 It’s better if each book works as a stand alone story

There is nothing wrong in writing a trilogy which has to be read in order. Some of my favourite books were written that way. If you tried reading The Two Towers before The Fellowship of the Ring, you’d be totally lost. But as an indie author, you need to maximise the opportunity of each book launch.

The one thing I’d change if I started my trilogy over again is to make each book work as a stand alone novel. As the first book, Second Chance works on its own. I’ve been told Absent Souls works as a stand alone novel, although it wasn’t designed that way. However, you really need to have read the first two books in the series to make sense of Genesis Redux.

Why is this a problem? Because, while having this structure works for the story, it means I’ve restricted the audience for Genesis Redux significantly. Having three books that work as both stand alone and in a series allows readers the chance to join the story at any stage, rather than just at the beginning.

2 The longer the series, the harder it is to avoid back story dumping

Are you one of those people who hate the ‘previously’ montage at the beginning of a TV programme? Me too. I’m the same with books. There’s nothing worse than having to read a chapter-sized synopsis of earlier events before you start. Actually, there is. It’s multiple paragraphs of back story – often explained through ‘as you remember’ dialogue – slowing the whole book down.

Yet I can understand the temptation, because when completing a trilogy you often have to bring together elements that happened one or two books previously, which is fine if you’re binge reading the series but not if you read book the previous novels more than a year before.

For me, the best authors solve this problem by drip-feeding small memory joggers throughout the text, usually in earlier chapters, so the reader is informed without realising and but doesn’t have to wade through pages of exposition to get there.

3 Multiple storylines are and blessing and a curse

I love books that entwine multiple character journeys into one narrative whole. It’s why I wrote the Transcendence Trilogy as I have. It’s a great way of introducing different perspectives to a situation, moving the story forward in a non-linear way, and keeping the reader engaged. But the more storylines you add, the more difficult it is to retain focus on the overall story arc. At the same time, there is a danger that readers are more likely to become attached to one character more than others, especially if they aren’t your main protagonist.

The key here is always to look at what’s best for the story. I used to play in a band and our mantra was ‘it’s all about the song.’ It doesn’t matter if you are playing the most simple, repetitive baseline or beat, if it makes the song sound great, don’t over-complicate it. It’s the same with your novel, if a storyline or POV becomes a distraction from the main story, cut it out.

4 The cast list can become uncontrollable

Most trilogies start small and expand as the series goes on, both in location and cast size. Developing such a large cast is great fun to write as you get to play around with many different personalities and perspectives, but when it comes to the third book you need to bring everything back to a satisfactory closure. This isn’t easy when each character has their own ideas of what they should be doing. It’s easy to end up either trying to herd cats, or to end up with cast members being wheeled in for one chapter just to close their storyline, only to be wheeled off again.

While I have many supporting characters, I’ve always focussed on one main storyline shown through the lens of the core cast members. This has meant that I’ve been able to leave whole swathes of my extended cast list to carry on living their lives ‘off camera’ while focussing on the main storyline. Of course, on the odd occasion I’ve also gone all George R R Martin on them – warning, Game of Thrones spoilers.

5 Small points in earlier books can trip you up later

You’re at the climax of book three. Years of effort has got you to this point. You’re protagonist is tied up next to a bomb with the counter close to zero – because you have to have a countdown, right? If the bomb blows up, so does the boarding school, killing the President’s son and possibly starting world war three. But your hero has enough movement to get his teeth next to the handful of green and red wires controlling the device. He has to bite through each green wire with his steel teeth in the next ten seconds to save the day. If he bites through a red one, bye bye Pres junior.

It’s at this point you remember that way back at the beginning of book one you decided to make your character colour blind. It was a quirky choice, made to give this otherwise alpha male a weakness. You loved it at the time as it was far less clichéd than him being an orphan, but now this small detail has ruined months of work. If only you’d given him a club foot.

You’ll be amazed how many times a small, throwaway detail in an earlier book will cause you problems later on. Keeping track of these, especially three books down the line, is incredibly hard. Many authors keep detailed character profiles to help avoid these issues. However, there is another way to help solve these issues …

6 There are advantages to waiting until all books are written before publishing

By waiting until all three novels are written, you can go back and change or add detail in earlier books to help solve later plotting issues. You can also cut characters out or add prominence to others due to their importance – or lack of – in the final book. Then there is the fact that over the period of creating your three novels, your writing skills will have improved, allowing you the chance to go back an improve your earlier books. The other main advantage is that you will concentrate solely on your writing, rather than marketing and promotion.

There are also good commercial reasons for waiting. Many readers won’t buy a book series until all books are published, and launching each book rapidly, one after the other, gives you a great chance to make a noise and to continue to push your series without the message becoming tired.

7 There are advantages to publishing each once written

Despite everything I said above, there are also advantages to publishing each book as they are written. The longer your book is out there, the more chance you have of building an audience for your second and third books. And the shelf life of books is long. Even if you are only selling one or two books a month, the total numbers of readers you’ve built up by the time your third novel comes around will be significant.

The other advantage is that you can gain some great feedback on what works and what doesn’t from your audience, helping to shape and focus your writing. However, this isn’t always a good thing.

8 You can end up liking your characters too much

As a writer I want readers to relate to your characters but this only works if they do that despite a character’s flaws. I really loved the first couple of seasons of Dexter because I found myself rooting for Dexter only to be shocked each time he returned to his true character and murdered somebody. It was a great balancing act. However, as soon as he gained control of his impulses and he lost his edge, I lost interest.

When a writer falls too much in love with a character, especially an antagonist, and starts to change their personality to make them more likeable, they lose the essence of what made the character great in the first place. There is nothing wrong with flipping a story around to empathise with a character’s motivation, but avoid the temptation to smooth out your character’s rough edges, or even worse, change their personality completely to make them more likeable.

9 Tying everything up is incredibly hard

Writing endings can be incredibly difficult. One of my favourite writers, Stephen King, is notoriously bad at it. One of the reasons it has taken nearly 18 months to finish Genesis Redux is that I wanted to get the ending right, and with many characters and multiple threads, ensuring each storyline reached a satisfying conclusion was very difficult.

The key here, for me, is to know where you are heading. Before starting Absent Souls I had a very clear idea of where the main story was heading and why. What I didn’t know was the how, and that’s been the fund part over the past few years. I think this is the main reason I’ll always plot my books out, even if just in a rough outline form. By knowing where I was heading early enough, I was able to nudge things in the right direction without it looking as if the plot was driving the characters. At least, that’s what I hope!

10 In the end, it’s a relief to move on to something else

The great news about finishing the trilogy is that I can finally start work on the many other ideas I’ve had since I began writing the series back in 2012. Don’t get me wrong, I love the characters and will miss them all, but it’s time to let them go and allow others a chance to shine. That said, I could always go back at a later date …


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44 thoughts on “10 Things I wish I’d known before writing a trilogy

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Dylan, particularly with point no 1, 5 and 6. The third part of my Blueprint trilogy is due out in September and I have to accept that its sales won’t match those of the first part. But you don’t think of that when you set out to write a trilogy, do you? Good luck with Genesis Redux, can’t wait to read it!

      • Yes and, like yours, you need to have read the others first. Hard to let go of a set of characters you’ve spent so long with, isn’t it? Can’t wait to see what you write next.

  2. Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned! I can particularly relate to #6. I was really itching to publish my first book when it was done, but I waited until I had finished a rough draft of the sequel to make sure everything was consistent. I didn’t want any “colorblind” issues coming up to mess up the ending of Book 2. Congrats on your upcoming book release and on finishing your trilogy!

  3. Great points, well made, Dylan, particularly the ones about detail tripping you up and acres of backstory. You’ve learned the hard way, but produced some properly great work in the process.

  4. This is great! I’m writing book three and working on turning book one into books one and two. It’s quite the process, and I’m glad nothing is released yet as I work on the ending! Thanks for this, Dylan. 🙂

      • Thanks, Dylan. 🙂
        Both, actually. I pared it down from 214K words to 160K, but it’s still long. And then when I went to write a blurb, there were two complete stories, each with a natural climax. 🙂
        Thanks for asking!
        Looking forward to reading the first in your trilogy. 😀

  5. I have a YA book that might well be a trilogy and I’m waiting to give it time to write book two and possibly three first so following the idea of all done first before moving on. We’ll see

  6. My current series will be six books, so I can totally relate! That being said, I’d written four of them before I published the first one, and had a pretty good idea of what would happen in five and six, so I haven’t had to really adjust much of the storylines. However, keeping all the details straight is tough, definitely! A great list and so very true 🙂 My next book will be a standalone…

    • Six books! I admire your commitment! *must not tell Helen I think she’s crazy*
      How have you coped with point 10? As much as I love my characters and the universe I’ve created, I’m so looking forward to developing other ideas. Do you have the same pressure?

      • Oh, I know I’m crazy! 😀 I had intended to do a trilogy at first, but the books were so long I ended up splitting them, hence ended up with six. As for point 10, I’ve managed somehow to write another book concurrently (well, I did it as a NaNo project a couple of years ago, then went back to it) which is now going through editing, and I have a few other ideas sketched out. The thing about Ambeth is, I think that, even when I’ve finished the sixth book, there are other stories there to tell. It does get a bit hairy jumping between stories at times, but so far I’ve managed to keep up with it. So point 10, in some ways, hasn’t really been an issue for me. But yeah, starting off with a six book series probably was a bit mad! 🙂

  7. You hit the nail on the head here! I just finished my third book in a continuing series and you are so right on each point. I have taken to providing a character list at the beginning so I don’t have to explain relationships over and over. I’ve tried hard to make each book a stand alone but wow! is that hard.

    • It really is hard to make each book stand alone if you set out to tell one, over-arching story. That’s why next time I do anything like this it will be as a series of stories based around a character.

  8. Great points! Especially the one about writing them all before publishing – although if I did that there’d be nothing out from me for 6 years! And plot complications! Holy smoke! The K’Barthan series nearly did my head in by the end. Only place I’d disagree is that despite loving my antagonist he got nastier and nastier. Otherwise, so true. The last scene of book 4 – at least a variant – was one of the first scenes I wrote, too but like you I hadn’t a blind clue how it would get there.



    • Thanks, MT. I’m with you on the wish to publish than waiting until they are all complete, despite the benefits of doing so. I think one benefit I missed of publishing early was the chance to have confirmation that you’re writing wasn’t complete rubbish by people with no emotional link to you. Putting in years’ worth of effort without knowing that takes real guts (or blind optimism/delusion)!

  9. Great post Dylan! I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with each point as I read it, but for me, the best bit of advice is not to release a trilogy till all books are written. I really wish I had done that. Now I have 2 books of a trilogy out there, and no sign of the last one being finished just yet, and meanwhile everyone who read #1 and #2 have forgotten all about them. Sigh! Best of luck with yours!

  10. Great advice, thanks Dylan. I am currently working on a WIP with at least one sequel planned, but they will be stand alone stories with nothing lost if somebody starts with book two. Being in a Facebook group for readers, I see how negatively many people see serial stories. I hadn’t realised just how much anti-serial feeling there is today. Yet I have done it for many years too. It’s what stopped me even trying to read Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time for starters.

    • It’s interesting. I love a good series as you can become truly lost in alternate worlds/lives but also understand the frustration of having to wait a long time – I’m looking at you GRRM – between books.
      I think the key is delivering relatively quickly. There have been some serials released recently I’ve really enjoyed, with each book really just a few chapters of the whole. When done well, it’s incredibly engrossing.

  11. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, high five on finishing too 🙂 these are wise lessons but now I am a bit stuffed on deciding whether to wait to publish a series or do them one by one

    • I wish I could tell you the answer! There are pros and cons to both options. How about publish a stand alone and then write a trilogy which you publish once ready? 😉

      • Hehe, I’m almost done with the first in what will be a 5/6 book series, I’m thinking of holding off until 2 are complete and the third is going into editing, but but but having to wait when I am desperate to publish would KILLLLLL ME!

  12. I think the idea of a colour blind hero trying to cut the right wire with his teeth adds an extra element of panic and suspense. He wouldn’t know exactly which was which, but may have been able to figure it out due to the different ‘brightnesses’ between red and green. (I have no idea I am not colour blind) 😛 I enjoyed your post! Congrats on finishing a trilogy. I am still slogging through my first. How long did it take to get from an inkling in the brain to a full printed first book?

    • Ha, ha! Feel free to use the idea if ups want to run with it!
      My first novel took 18 months from the first idea through to publishing, second took just over a year and the third was another 18 months. There isn’t really any hard and fast rule. I know some writers who can knock out good quality books every couple of months, others that take years. The hardest part is the editing and knowing when to stop. After three books I now recognise the signs of when I’m just changing things rather than improving them but it’s much harder when you start out.
      Good luck with your own novel!

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