On Planning & Writing A Trilogy (Or Series)

Some of you probably already know that I’m a pantser; in other words, I don’t really like to plan my writing!

Well, I take that back.

I do like having a little bit of a plan, but it’s so sparse that most probably wouldn’t even consider it “a plan.”  It’s more like this: “I want [insert big event] to happen in [insert cool locale], where the characters then find/achieve [insert objective]!”  Then I just figure out the rest from there.  And I think this only has a chance at working because my WIP is a quest or adventure series; it’s “mission-driven fiction,” essentially.

Not plot-driven, exactly, ’cause I still focus on characters along the way, but in terms of planning I think of the story in terms of missions…if that makes sense.

So yeah.  That seriously has been my plan for an Element 7 series, in a nutshell.  (“What?  A series, you say?”  Yes, dear readers, you read that right.  I should have probably already mentioned that on my E7 page…heh.)

Planning A Series

So I’ve read only a little about how authors like J. K. Rowling went about their work. Apparently, she took around five years to plan the Harry Potter series before writing it, though I can’t recall reading the specifics about how she did this.  (It’s probably out there; I just haven’t really looked it up,.)  But honestly, there isn’t really a lot of advice out there for folks who do want to write a trilogy or series (not in comparison to other writing topics, anyways).  Most times, it seems writers are actually discouraged from doing so–at least when they are working on their first novel.

Apparently, it’s too “cliché,” when you’re writing fantasy…

As for me, “planning” a series has kinda just naturally been happening while working on this first novel—like I’ll be in the middle of a scene and think to myself, “Hey, that would make for a totally cool thing to explore in Book II/III!”  And then I just plant the seeds, make a note to water them later and roll with it.  (I’ve actually got probably half of Book II planned out by specific scenes I’ve already written or summarized in my journals, with a few ideas for the other half and Book III still subconsciously cooking in my messed-up head.)

But really, all I’m doing is using that basic formula I mentioned at the beginning for each subsequent book and designing each end objective so that they tie into one another, leading to the final objective in the last novel, while also figuring out the interconnecting threads (or those “ah-ha!” moments) along the way.

I bet some people wonder why it would possibly take 5+ years to plan out a bunch of books, but now I’m pretty sure I understand why…

There Are Just SO Many Little Details That Have Got to Work Together!

Especially when you’re writing secondary world fantasy.  Every piece of invented information that’s in that bad-boy-of-a-series is coming from your brain.  It’s like this giant sprawling 200,000-piece puzzle of your own personal design; everything’s gotta fit together.  And when you do sit down to try and put this puzzle together, it typically doesn’t happen overnight.  Plus, you gotta handcraft all those pieces before that can even happen–nope, none of that computer-aided/die cut business.  So you can’t just toss in stuff willy-nilly because you think it’s oh-so-cool (learned that the long, hard way); everything has to have a reason for being in the novels or else you have to work backwards and find a gorram reason for all the dangling stuff to matter.

Harder to do, imo, but doable.

When I first started learning how to write a novel, my mind just couldn’t even begin to grasp this concept.  “Whaddya mean I can’t just throw in what I want and expect it to work? Bah!  Watch me…”  And y’know how that turned out…

Lots and lots of experimental drafts that went nowhere.

But that’s okay! ’cause I eventually figured out how to make all that cool stuff I originally wanted to shoehorn into the same story actually work together—haha! (Or at least I think I have…)  Plus, I learned oodles, like…

The Importance of Foreshadowing

…which, I think, is extremely important when you’re planning and writing a trilogy.  Foreshadowed details provide rhythm and continuity. They’re like the threads that bind the novels in a series together–along with recurring themes, characters, settings and/or ideas, which all help to create a sense of unity and cohesiveness.  (Sorry, I’m using those pesky Principles of Art/Design again…but you’ll find them everywhere that good art or designs reside.  Writers and literary critics just tend to use different terminology for them, I think.)

You know how excited you get when you pick up Part II of a book, game or movie series and learn that some of your favorite characters are back?  Or the telltale hint—or sometimes outright slap—of a promise that “hey, there’s more yet to come”?  For me, that’s part of the excitement of reading/watching/playing a series; it’s also one of the reasons I want to write one.  (That, and getting to my favorite “candy bar scenes.”)

…Because I just love the characters that darn much.  And the world.  They’re just people and places that I’d like to come back to again.

Trust me, if I didn’t love them, I wouldn’t still be working on this project, haha.  (5.75 years is a looooong tiiiiime to be attached to the hip with the same ideas…)

For more posts like this, check out my “series” tag!

So how do you plan for a trilogy/series?

Or maybe you’ve never worked on one before; that’s cool.  You’ve probably read at least one, though, right?  What kind of things do you like about series?  What do you wish authors who write series did a better job of?

I know one of the reasons I started writing was because of my own “fantasy novel pet peeves”; I thought hey, why do writers keep doing this and that?  Let’s write a story that does it differently!


15 thoughts on “On Planning & Writing A Trilogy (Or Series)

  1. I’ve never tried! I’ve left some threads open for a possible next book, but I don’t know how long the story can go beyond a sequel really, and that’s only vague. Sometimes I think it might be fun to plan, but I also know that I’ll probably not stick to my outline anyhow LOL so, I guess it really depends on how you write hehe. That’s not much help. I wish I knew.


    • LoL, no, I think you’re right. A lot of it probably just depends on your writing style. Like you, I know I wouldn’t stick an outline, heh. Beyond that…

      Que sera sera, I guess!


  2. My Angel Odyssey was always planned as part of a trilogy, so the planning for the sequels happened pretty early with me. Same with Smooth Running, though that had the advantage of starting out as a 200k word novel that I cut down by a third in the second draft. A lot of the stuff I cut can be used in later books.

    It’s all about setup and themes. Each book should have its own theme, I think, that builds on the last book. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, for example of a three book arc…really dumbed down.

    Series are complicated though, I have a fantasy trilogy in mind that I’m still not sure I’m good enough to pull of.


    • That’s a good idea, with the themes. Never thought about trilogies that way before!

      I hate feeling that you’re working on a project that’s too big for you, but then again I’m pretty stubborn and just dive in anyway over and over again until I feel like I’m getting the dive right (or close to it). 😛


    • I figured that, since there were notes to yourself. 🙂

      i don’t plan that much (though more than I used to) but I do plant things for the future. I usually don’t have any idea what they’re going to grow into, though.

      But everything I write is a big series, so if i plant something there’s usually some time later for it to grow.


  3. The book I’m in the middle of now is the third book in a trilogy that I had no idea was going to be a trilogy.

    Book 1 (my first NaNo novel) was written as a standalone, and I was perfectly content to leave it that way. …Until the characters kept developing behind the scenes. Then I felt I owed to the characters and their future fans to put that development on paper, so I had to plot a second novel.

    There. Done. Yay for Book 2 (which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written), I was fairly certain that would be the end. …Then another character got into this huge behind-the-scenes drama (which I guess is just part of the perks of / price you pay for hanging out with fictional people outside of their books), and I could see no way to resolve it without plotting it out and writing it down. So that’s where I am now. And given the conclusion I’ve found for Book Three, I am VERY, VERY SURE that it HAS TO BE the last of the series. (…Please?)

    Almost all of the series’ I’ve written have come about as post-The-End decisions on my part. My usual foreshadowing method (given that no one’s foreshadowed to me that more books are coming!) is your “go back and make it matter” trick. I’m always excited when I can look back and say, “Oh, wow! That actually makes sense, how did I not see it all along?! Of COURSE Vader is Luke and Leia’s father!” Lol, I paraphrase, but you get the idea; it’s a cool phenomenon that makes me half-believe these stories are putting themselves together independent of me, and I just happen to be the lucky one who stumbles across the pieces.


    • It was like, “Surprise! It’s triplets!” :O

      “And given the conclusion I’ve found for Book Three, I am VERY, VERY SURE that it HAS TO BE the last of the series. (…Please?)”

      Haha. Well, it’s good that you still have the chance to go back and “make it matter.” I’ve been wondering if I should write the whole trilogy before trying to sell it…but I don’t think I could wait that long! Plus, it’d likely be counter-productive in my case, being that I work slower…

      *sighs* I just don’t want to get trapped into the accept-a-contract-and-produce-a-book-a-year deal I always hear about. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be writing full-time. I do want to see if I can finish the second novel faster than this one though, lol (I know readers are always complaining about authors who write too slow for them), but even then I doubt I’d be able to finish it in less than two years & still get the same thought-out fullness I’m going for in the first novel…

      In any case, we’ll see how querying plays out. Then I’ll decide if it’s worth going the self-published route, heh.

      “[I]t’s a cool phenomenon that makes me half-believe these stories are putting themselves together independent of me, and I just happen to be the lucky one who stumbles across the pieces.”

      I feel the same way! Like sleuthing a trail of fictional breadcrumbs…slooooowly, lol.


  4. My current project was supposed to just be a single book. But then it became a trilogy. And now I think a tetralogy is in my near future. I didn’t plan it that way – it just kinda happened.


    • So are you taking more of the 3 or 4 stand-alone-novel approach, then, where the plots in the sequels don’t necessarily depend on what came before though still share some of the same characters and places? (It seems a lot of authors advocate this approach because it makes it easier for new readers to jump in at any point.)


  5. I step away for a day or ten, and you come out with this, and I just miss it entirely… Boo.

    Anyway, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the sort of common advice, these days, about avoiding writing multi-volume books early in your career. It seems sound in some ways (why commit time and energy to a multiple-book saga if the first is never going to be picked up for publication), but it’s limiting, artistically. And, besides that, it can get difficult to come up with examples of successful books that are truly stand-alone. Especially in the Fantasy genre. So, I take the opinion that if it’s what the story you want to tell demands, then do it.

    The book I’m working on now is a stand-alone with series potential. As a story it stands alone and requires no sequel. It’s complete. But it does raise questions that it never answers. I’ve already got some ideas for a sequel, though no ideas for a third, so right now I sort of consider it a duology. In that regard, I am trying to stay conscious of seeds I should be planting in this book that will not blossom until the second. But the second will be its own independent story, too – stand-alone in its way.

    If I were writing a single story in a multi-volume format – the more traditional trilogy or whatever – I’d have a very different approach: I’d be more conscientious about plotting later books, even if not at the same level of detail as the first, still with some detail.

    Right now, I don’t have any detail on the second book, just some random ideas.


    • LoL, no worries. 🙂

      Yeah, I feel the same way. I’m not gonna worry too much about it, though. I’ve known for a while this was going to be an interconnected series, so there’s really no going back for me!

      You seem to be writing “that other type of series,” for which I do not have a name, lol. I guess I’ve seen it called “episodic” or “serial” before, though I don’t really know if there’s really a widely accepted technical term for it… Anyway, that seems like it would be a nice way to work without having to worry about planning for the future, heh.


      • Yeah, I think that’s not how I would normally go about writing a book or series, but when I decided to table the novel-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever for a while, I did so with the conscious thought that I’d like to focus on a single-volume stand-alone book. It wasn’t until later that I came up with a sequel idea. But it’s not really episodic in the way, say, that like the Dresden Files or something like that are… I don’t know what to call it… the plots are linked in an arc-like fashion, but neither one, conceptually, needs the other to tell a complete story…


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