Series & Trilogies & Companion Books, Oh My!

A couple of things the last few days have really had me thinking about writers, series, and everything in between.

But first, a little clarification on the differences.  A trilogy is a series of three books that are interconnected and reach a final resolution (of some kind) by the third book.  A series is usually more open ended, and as a result tends to have more self-contained stories for each volume. It can last for four, five, or ten volumes.  And a companion book is typically a book set in the same universe as the books that came before.

So…

A lot of times, writers working towards publication come up with an Idea(!).  And this Idea(!) is so awesome that it can’t fully be contained in one book.  It requires a trilogy, or an outright series.   Or there are tertiary characters that would make a great protaganist in a companion novel down the road.  The fact is that there are a LOT of series books on the market at any given time.

When you start researching agents, some writers see the PM three-book deals, and the dollar signs that accompany it, and that’s a motivator.  I’m not saying its every author, obviously, but I’m sure there are more than a few who think they can cobble together a trilogy and “cash in” as it were.  I’m also sure that these are the writers that won’t get very far until they figure some things out and realize publishing is a business.  And its not always easy.

But I think one of the main inspirations new writers have is their favorite books of the authors who’ve come before them.  The authors that inspired them to write, or inspired them to at least try.  I know I was certainly inspired by certain trilogies of my youth.  Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, and L.J. Smith for just three examples.  So this probably has some part to play in future and upcoming writers wanting to tell THEIR story in three or four books as well.  I totally understand that.  It makes sense.

The first thing that the agents say, however, is to make sure that first book is STRONG.  Strong enough to stand on its own – because of how many series books there are in the market, you have to make your work even more appealing than the things that have come before.  The fact is – your book may not sell as a trilogy.  They may only buy one book, with the option for a sequel if the sales are good.  It happens.  The best thing you can do though, is to really think your ideas through.  Your ideas need to be more unique, your prose needs to be stronger, etc.

At times, I’ve seen people discouraging writers from even stepping foot down the path.  Don’t plan to write a series, or don’t plan to tell that story as a trilogy.  I think this is because agents/editors/people in publishing see a lot of these sub-par ideas, and see how sloppy or lazy they can be.  So to really do that trilogy justice, that first book really does have to win over EVERYONE.  Agents, editors, marketing people.  Not to mention the readers.

My advice is just: if you want to write a trilogy, do it well.  Know why you want to tell this story in three books.  I am ALL for having an Idea(!).  And I’m all for trilogies.  I’m a sucker for them, really.  If I know there’s a new series coming out from Penguin, or from Simon & Schuster, odds are I’m probably going to try that first book.  The series I finish, however, are a different story.

With a trilogy, there’s some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Do the MCs change throughout the course of each book? Do they grow over the course of the entire trilogy?  Readers want characters that are going to grow and learn from their mistakes.  Obstacles overcome, bad habits vanquished.  That sort of thing.
  • Can each book stand alone? This is important – if your books can’t stand alone, then a person reading only your first book isn’t going to find a payoff that makes them want to keep reading.  To make this about television (because I like my television), you want a trilogy to be more like Supernatural, and less like Lost.  Another example – a tripod.  If each leg doesn’t pull its weight, why would someone want a wobbly tripod? 😉
  • Does each book answer enough questions? In a trilogy, particularly those found in urban fantasy, there are usually secrets or hidden plot points that the audience isn’t privy to.  You want to bring one aspect of the story to a satisfactory close, but you also want there to be unanswered questions.  I.E. you want to leave your reader satisfied, but DYING for that next installment.  The best example I can think of for this is The Hunger Games.  Look at how the book ended.  And then look at what happened right towards the end of the book.  You got your payoff, BUT you also had a new thread brought up that made that next book all the more necessary.
  • Do the stakes increase with each book? You don’t want to simply rehash the same actions or consequences from one book to another.  The plot should be growing just like the characters.
  • Can I tell this story in anything less than three books? If the answer is yes, consider whether or not you really want to write that trilogy?  Why commit yourself to a possibly sub-par three book system if this is really going to be a story better told by two solid, amazing books.

Like I said, I’m all for trilogies.  But this is long enough, so I think I’ll continue it in another post.

Any thoughts on trilogies?  Love them?  Hate them?  Over it?

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One thought on “Series & Trilogies & Companion Books, Oh My!

  1. Great post! I especially love your tripod analogy — so very true. I think I’m going to attach a new sticky note to my monitor: “Don’t be wobbly!”

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