Planning a novel vs. planning a trilogy

There are  a truckload of considerations for a writer during the planning stages of a novel.  Sure, you have to come up with compelling characters with relatable flaws, the amazing setting that will develop in the reader’s imagination and whisk them away to sprawling urban centers or fantastic fantasy realms, the main conflict that will have them squirming in their seats, etc., but there’s a bigger decision that needs to be made before any of that.  Standalone novel?  Or series?

What’s the difference?  They’re still just words on a page, right?

Whether series or not, every novel is generally broken into a three act structure.  The first act contains the Hook (the delicious little bit in the first chapter that raises questions the reader will be compelled to discover the answers to), Backstory (what happened before the story) and trigger (some intense moment that launches the protagonist into the main conflict).

The second act includes the crisis (the character’s emotional reaction to the trigger because of the flaw) , struggle (overcoming of obstacles) and the epiphany (the protagonist realizes their flaw and overcomes it somehow).

The third act is where the plan (where the character decides how to overcome the antagonist in a way that wasn’t possible before the epiphany), climax (the final showdown to end the main conflict) and ending (the nice bits at the end that close out the story).

So, how is writing the first novel in a trilogy or series different than a standalone if their basic structures are the same?

The answer is in pacing and backstory, and as well (and this applies to a 2-4 book series), a broader three act structure should encompass all of the novels at a very high level, which will most likely go unnoticed by all but the author, though no less important.

When planning a standalone, the only backstory you have to worry about is what led up to the crisis which is about to hit the protagonist, and what needs to happen to make the character overcome their flaw and beat the antagonist.  Weaving all of the subplots in this sort of novel is relatively simple when you compare it to a series.

When planning a trilogy or a series, there’s much more to consider, especially if there’s one central conflict or goal that spans all of the books.  The author has to consider all of the events up until the big showdown at the end of the trilogy/series –not just the ones that take place in that book–and how he or she wants to get there, then pace the story over the novels correctly.  Some subplots may span books as well, characters will come and go, and they’ll change and grow, too.  The author needs to have a clear vision of the tangled web they’re weaving so that no storylines are left dangling in the wind without being tied up by the end.   Also, each book after the first needs to contain enough information about the previous book(s) so a new reader could pick it up and know what’s happening without drowning in information.

Not as easy as it sounds.  Along with that, the author has to know enough about the next books in the series to drop foreshadowing hints into the first few books of the series, making the upcoming events plausible.

I’m not a big planner, nor am I an outliner.  I do, however, have a clear path in my head from book one to book three in the current series I’m writing, and have had since I sat down to write The Glass Man.  Now that I’m writing the second book in the Lila Gray trilogy, I’m discovering just how hard it is to find the balance between too much information and not enough, and to tie up my storylines before book three.

How do you plan your novels?

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14 thoughts on “Planning a novel vs. planning a trilogy

  1. I normally figure out what I want the ending to be, the big dramatic climax, then work out the series of events that lead there. I don’t know if I’m able to plan in terms of just a stadalone novel. Whenever I start a new project, I always think ahead to how it could grow as a series.

    I’m working on a sequel to my first novel at the moment, trying to drop enough tidbits of information as recurring characters and places crop up to let the reader know about them.

    • That’s pretty much me, too. I’ve written a standalone, and a few series openers, but I much prefer the standalone. I’m struggling with the backstory element of book 2, but I’ll figure it out.

      • I never feel like I can tell enough story in a standalone, I guess.

        I’m not working on a trilogy right now, so I don’t have the luxury of applying the 3-act structure to the series as a whole. I’m hoping it’ll end up as 6 books. I can imagine how the story will go over 6, but still manage to keep each book fairly self-contained, at least as far as book 3.

  2. Jo, I, too, am writing a three part saga. That being said, I still try to make my books standalone pieces. Kind of hard to do when there is so much that still needs to be told.

    I do not outline but i do have a story board, a timeline showing where and when things happen. That way I don’t get mixed up in books two and three when it comes to dates and events.

    there are plenty of questions that arise in my first book as well as subplots. My ending to the first is sort of that

    tonight I need to sleep. Tomorrow I’ll . . .

    kind of thing.

    I am writing on my second novel in the saga and have parts of the third written. I think I’ll amaze myself when it all comes together as I have it in my head, but putting it in black and white is a totally different beast. It’s a daunting challenge at times but one I wouldn’t trade for all the chocolate in the world. 🙂

  3. I don’t plan. I’m a 100% panster. Some novels are born from a handful of sporadic scenes that have popped into my head and I somehow manage to grow them into something bigger. One novel, I decided I wanted watches in it, so I hunted for spells I liked the look of, and created scenarios as I went along that would allow me to use each one. My current NiP, I had only the idea of what the conflict would be–I didn’t know any of the journey, but then I didn’t know who the MC would be until a couple weeks before I began writing, just as I’d already started writing before I figured out who the love interest would be. So far, just going with the flow of what pops into my head from one scene to the next hasn’t worked out too badly for me. 🙂

  4. The furthest I’ve plotted ahead on the WiP is three chapters. The last few chapters I’ve plotted a chapter at a time, just so I don’t get fuzzy about what the goal is. I’m still kinda surprised that I appear to be a pantser. In real life I’m a major plotter!

    I know how I want the WiP to end and I have a few one-line plot points that need to be reached, but other than that I think about the chapter on the days I work (I mean a day job, not the good stuff) and when it’s formed some sort of shape I sit and type.

    I have enough on my plate just juggling the threads in a standalone (which the WiP definitely is) never mind a series!

  5. When I started writing ‘Travels to Fahdamin-Ra’, I kept thinking of branches to the main story. As I wrote along, it started coming to me what branch to develop in the next book, and how the end of the series would go. Because I had the beginning and visualized the ending, filling in the middle parts seemed to be easy.

    However, as you know from writing a series yourself, it is like juggling. Every time you add a book, you add more things to juggle. I have forgotten things and had to go back and check my first book and my second, ‘Across the Savannah.’ My third book should be out in a few months. It is called ‘The Voyage North.’ I plan to write two more for the series, but one will take place in a different location and the other is a prequel.

  6. Planning is so not me. While I like to have a general idea of the beginning, middle, and end… that’s about it. Other than that, I make sure the who, what, where, how, and why are answered.

    I’ve often jumped ahead when writing if a scene pops in my heads. I may or may not use it in the story if, when I get to the part it should be, it no longer fits. I can’t (or maybe won’t) write something from beginning to end the first time around.

    I have two NiP that have sequels and one I planned on being a trilogy of sorts. I don’t think that one will pan out. I guess it comes down to demand. I like to leave a little bit that, if by some big fat chance, the novel becomes a success I can write more on the characters. I guess I don’t think that far ahead. My character won’t allow for linear thinking.

  7. I can’t speak with any experience on the subject of plotter or pantser. I’m still trying to finish my first novel. But, I think I use a little of both. I have a clear start and finish, and a number of plot goals/scenes to hit along the way. In between that structure, its seat of the pants stuff.
    As for standalone or trilogy, I’m leaving my options open (tend to do this in real life too). I have the continuation of the story in my head, but I’m going to wrap up the first book nice and tight 🙂

  8. So true, so true. The difference is tremendous, yet none at all. I love that I have one planned trilogy, yet I still write like a pantser. What happens in between point 1 and 2 and then again between 2 and 3 … well that’s the fun part. But 1-3 are already mapped out — in my head at least. Writing it down would not be in my character. 😉

  9. Here is a question… I’ve had 2 agents request pages. I am on the verge of sending them. Then what? What should I expect, that is, if they actually want more pages or to represent me? Just wondering how it went for you.

  10. I decided against looking for an agent, so I’m not sure I have anything helpful to tell you. 🙂 I submitted my work directly to publishers, waited, and received some acceptances and some rejections. That’s about it.

  11. I am having a hard time trying to figure out how I will turn my book (which I have all of six pages completed, but the whole thing outlined) into a series. I know I want to turn it into a series because I’m pretty sure I left the future readers with a good cliffhanger. The only problem is how…

  12. Hi Joce, my method is I wrote one novel then went back to edit and expand on the story-line and characters turning it into a trilogy, with the possibility of a fourth if the first three hit that threshold.
    P.S. absolutely loved the advice, Thanks.

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