Writing a Trilogy: How to Plan a Series of Novels
Writing a trilogy creates many amazing opportunities.
A book series is a powerful writing tool, because it allows you to take your reader on a journey. Your trilogy can grow alongside them, and you have far more space to explore your characters, worlds, and themes than you would in a single novel. Trilogies in particular have a unique kind of resonance.
However, the challenges of writing a series are proportional to the benefits. While you only have to worry about one storyline in a single novel, in a trilogy you need to keep track of three—alongside the overarching story that guides your whole series.
The Challenges of Writing a Trilogy
- 1 The Challenges of Writing a Trilogy
- 2 How to Outline a Trilogy (or Series) of Novels
- 3 My Experience Writing My Own Trilogy
Almost every author will think about writing a trilogy at least once (if they haven’t bitten the bullet and published a series already).
Still, that doesn’t mean writing a series is easy.
While I’d argue creating a successful trilogy isn’t significantly more difficult than planning a single story, it definitely comes with its own unique challenges. Fortunately, outlining your trilogy can solve many of these.
You see, when writing a single novel, you only need to consider one story and one set of character arcs. This means you should have a single outline with a clear story structure running throughout. As long as you have that, you’re good to go.
A series of novels is a whole other beast.
You’ll need to consider everything you would for a standalone novel (story structure, plot lines, character arcs, et cetera…) multiplied by however many books are in the series. That may not seem too bad on the surface, but the real complicating factor is your series’ overarching storyline.
The Overarching Storyline:
To figure out what your series’ overarching storyline actually is, consider all the events of your story as a single whole. Then, take out a pen and paper and write down the beginning, middle, and end of this whole story. That’s your story’s overarching storyline.
However, this doesn’t stop there. You also need to consider the story structure and character arcs that run throughout that overarching storyline. For instance, in Episodes IV through VI of Star Wars, Han Solo transforms from a selfish, independent rouge to a hero of the rebellion.
That doesn’t all happen in one movie, of course:
The Original Star Wars Trilogy: Han Solo’s overarching character arc sees him transform from a selfish, independent rouge to a hero of the rebellion.
A New Hope: Han Solo starts out only willing to help for money, before returning at the last minute to save his new friends. However, he isn’t sold on the promises of the rebellion just yet.
The Empire Strikes Back: Han is becoming more involved with the rebellion, Luke, and Leia, though he continues to claim he’s working only for his own benefit. This shifts when he protects Luke and Leia on Cloud City, giving up his own chances to escape.
Return of the Jedi: Han finally completes his arc, embracing his role in the rebellion and leading the rebel forces on Endor.
Notice how each film has a small arc of its own that feeds into Han’s larger character arc for the whole trilogy. This same principle applies to every other element of the Star Wars prequels as well—including Luke’s character arc and the overall plot.
Trilogies Versus Series:
Of course, not all series are built the same.
This article focuses on how to plan a trilogy of novels, though many of these principles will work just as well for duologies, quintets, or however many books you plan to write. The real distinction you need to make is between these types of series and serialized fiction.
Trilogies are a single story told across many novels. Serialized fiction, on the other hand, is a series of individual stories told across many novels, connected by a common cast of characters and a similar setup.
Sherlock Holmes and the Nancy Drew series are both great examples of serialized fiction. Each book stands on its own, following a common protagonist and cast of characters as they solve a mystery. The basic premise is always the same, but there’s little by way of an overarching story.
For serialized fiction like this, you can approach each book the same way you’d approach a standalone novel. Outline it as you normally would, while making sure the characterization of your cast is kept the same across the series.
Trilogies are where things get more complicated, as we saw above with Star Wars.
This complexity is ultimately what makes planning and outlining your trilogy so important for the success of your series. You don’t want your books to feel disconnected, but you especially don’t want to write yourself into a corner come book three.
How to Outline a Trilogy (or Series) of Novels
Starting Your Outline:
When you’re first getting started, outlining a trilogy is no different from outlining any other book—which makes things much easier!
As with any outline you create, you’ll want to start by brainstorming ways to further develop your ideas and expand on your story, before moving on to create scenes and characters. From there you’ll organize your scenes into a chronological timeline, and flesh out your characters with fully formed character arcs.
At this stage, the key is to approach your outline as if you were planning a standalone novel; basically, as if your trilogy was just one, gigantic book. While you’ll be splitting your scenes into three separate books later on, the overall premise and timeline you develop here will be the foundation of your final trilogy.
Of course, outlining a single novel can be complicated in its own right.
I’ve written up a detailed, ten-step process for outlining your novel that I encourage you to check out before moving on. If you’re following along with that guide, you’ll want to return here once you reach step #7: Incorporating Story Structure.
Plotting the Overarching Storyline:
With a rough timeline and a cast of characters created, you can shift focus to your trilogy’s overarching storyline. Again, you want to think of your trilogy as a single book for now.
Your goal at this stage is to incorporate story structure into the scenes you created previously. This will form the plot of your trilogy as a whole, and will give each book the feeling of being connected and meaningful to the larger series. After all, structure is such a vital part of storytelling because it gives your reader a sense of progress and leaves the events of your story with lasting consequences.
While there are many story structures out there you could use, I strongly recommend The Three Act Structure, especially if you’re writing a trilogy. You see, the plot points of The Three Act Structure line up perfectly with the three books in a trilogy of novels, giving each book a distinct mood and role in the overarching storyline. Plus it’s simply easier to manage, since they both line up so well! 🙂
This means you’ll want to include these six plot points in your overarching storyline:
Once you have a solid outline of your overarching storyline’s structure, you can finally shift focus to your individual novels
Planning Each Novel in Your Trilogy:
With a strong storyline in hand, you can begin splitting your outline into individual novels.
Your six plot points should be easy to divide across your trilogy:
First Book: Starts with the Hook, ends with the First Plot Point.
Second Book: Contains the Midpoint, ends with the Third Plot Point.
Third Book: Ends with the Climax and Resolution.
Of course, these may not line up 100%, but as a general rule, this is how most trilogies are formed. Other types of series will be split differently, but this setup can still serve as a rough guideline, especially for six or nine book series. Duologies are also easy to split, with book one ending after the Midpoint.
Regardless of the type of series you’re writing, now that you have a clear idea of where your books will begin and end you can turn to the more difficult task of outlining each individual book. This is essentially the same process you completed for your overarching storyline, but with some added complexity.
To start, you’ll need to incorporate The Three Act Structure into each novel in your series. Consider the main conflict of that individual book as well, along with any book specific character arcs that don’t span across the series. Outline those just like you did for the overarching story, but separate them into their own outlines.
This goes for any overarching character arcs as well.
Thinking back to Han Solo, while his arc played out over all three movies, he still underwent a significant change in each film. Any character whose arc stretches across the series should have both an overarching arc, alongside smaller book specific arcs that feed into their main journey.
Staying Ahead of Your Story:
Finally, with an overarching storyline and a rough outline for each book, you can relax.
This final step is largely up to your personal style, but here’s my recommendation: outline as much as you can for your series before you ever start writing book one. I’d even go so far as to complete the entire ten step outlining process for each individual book before tackling your first draft.
While this seems like a lot of upfront work, the payoff can be huge. After all, the events of later books need to be set up and prepared for in book one. The worst feeling is when you’ve already published books one and two, only to realize you need to make a major change in book three that you forgot to write in.
My Experience Writing My Own Trilogy
I recently had to confront this for my own trilogy of novels, The Sunrise Council.
You see, I had already outlined books one and two, and was considering starting on the first draft for book one right then. I was excited to write and felt good about my outline thanks to the ten day process I developed in The Ten Day Outline. I even had a rough idea of how book three would end thanks to the process above.
However, I stopped myself and outlined book three like I knew I should and, in the end, I had to change a major aspect of book one to prepare for the Climax of book three.
If I had already started writing, I would be in a major bind when I realized my mistake!
Ultimately, whether you’re outlining a standalone novel or a series of novels, having an outline makes the whole writing process faster, easier, and much less stressful. I hope you’ll give this outlining method a shot if you’re planning to write a trilogy, and definitely try out the ten step outline I developed here too!
I’m confident both will serve you well. 🙂
Thoughts on Writing a Trilogy: How to Plan a Series of Novels
Thanks so much for your reply, Lewis!
I just got suggestions from my writing teacher for revisions to the draft to make it stronger as a stand-alone, and she thinks after I do those, I can start querying agents and small presses. And she says as far as she can tell from a bit of research, this short article seems to sum up the common opinions on querying:
– basically, it says don’t even talk about the trilogy in the initial query. Do you agree?
I would trust her judgement on this one! Though that may not be true always, she’s more familiar with your specific situation, and that is generally good advice. She’s probably on the right track.
Thanks for this blog post and all the comments and replies. I am a new novelist. I began writing my story almost 5 years ago, and eventually decided, like many others, that it was far too long for one book. I spent part of this last summer working with the “Save the Cat Writes a Novel” structure, to outline the 15 “beats” for each book, and have just finished a complete draft of book 1. I know it has plenty of revision and polish still to go, and I want to make sure to do enough on books 2 & 3 to not be leaving out any important setup for them from book 1, but my question is, should I start looking for a publisher now, or wait until books 2 & 3 are also fully drafted?
Hi Rebecca, and congrats on your first draft!
For now, I recommend waiting to find a publisher and focusing instead on making book one the best it can be. Once you’ve completed a few rounds of edits, then you can start thinking about publishing. I would also wait to write books 2-3, though I would recommend having a rough plan of how they’ll go. Not all publishers want to pick up full series, especially from debut authors. Once you’ve secured an agent, they’ll be able to guide you on what the best path is for you and your series.
Best of luck! 🙂
Im writing a trilogy and I’m gonna have each book have a different story but still have the same characters and have them all connect, should I have cliffhangers at the ends of the first two.
Each book should be a complete story in its own right, and should resolve the main conflict of that book. If you include other smaller cliffhangers, that’s ok. Just be careful not to leave readers unsatisfied.
I started writing a book and it quickly has lead to me planning out a trilogy. I didn’t plan this in the beginning so I’m already deep into the first draft of the first book. Should I step back and plan more before I continue?
I also was wondering about cliffhangers. The way I have it planned so far is the first book to end with a character on his deathbed because that is the cause for the second book. The main conflict of the first book is over, but at the end of the conflict is when one of my characters is wounded. I can’t see any way around the incident, so is there any advice you have?
I’m also wondering if it’s a bad idea to split perspectives in the second book. A side character becomes one of the perspectives alongside the protagonist. Is that a good idea? Will readers be put off by this? Also, thank you for this article! It helps quite a bit!
Personally, I would recommend stepping back and planning at least the basic structure of the trilogy before continuing. There’s nothing worse than finishing book one, only to realize you need to go back and scrap whole sections of it to make books two or three actually work.
In terms of cliffhangers, check out this article on chapter structure: https://thenovelsmithy.com/chapter-structure/#What-About-Cliffhangers
Though the article is about ending chapters on cliffhangers, the principle is similar for novels. Just make sure you resolve the core conflict of your novel by the end of book one, even if you introduce a new conflict that will stretch into book two!
Hello Lewis. Sincerely thanks for all of your inspiring guidance. I might just finish my first novel because of it!
I am wondering? just how bad an idea it is to have the books in a trilogy/series in different sub-genres? I didn’t plan for my project to get this big. Some side character’s back story just got too long to include and too good to let go, and there happened a prequel. Then I fell in love with my redeemed villain and had to follow his life’s next chapter. There’s the sequel. I have an overarching conflict for all three books, but each has a different main character. That lead to rather different atmospheres and content. I know each genre has a different target audience and I would hate to disappoint my readers (should I someday have any). How much difference can people stomach? Would a rebel story – adventure – college romance be to much?
That’s fantastic Smit, so glad to hear it!
To be honest, I’ve never heard of an author switching genres halfway through a series, and probably for good reason. You want readers to have a smooth reading experience, and part of that includes knowing what to expect (genre, tone, style, etc…). However, having a different protagonist for each novel in a trilogy is definitely possible, and could be very interesting! I recommend thinking carefully about how you could make each story feels like part of a cohesive whole, and reading up on genre expectations: https://www.savannahgilbo.com/blog/genre
I’m under contract to produce a Trilogy series. I’ve completed drafts of Book 1 and Book 2 and have outlined Book 3. I’ve studied your guidelines and there’s one aspect of my over-arching storyline that I find missing in your advice to trilogists. It’s a question that’s been hounding me for some time. Should Book 1 leave the reader hanging, anxious to go to Book 2, and so on, or should each book standalone? I think a series needs strong connectivity with common protagonist/antagonist arcs across the same timeline and setting. BTW, not all of my cast of characters make it to the end.
It sounds like you’re asking about cliffhangers, which are a rather complex topic. Typically, I would argue against ending a book with a cliffhanger. You should always resolve the main conflict of each book in order to create a cathartic experience for your readers. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t leave some questions unanswered (or even introduce new questions) to pull readers to Book Two! Just make sure your book-specific conflict isn’t left hanging.
This article should provide a bit more context: https://thenovelsmithy.com/creating-catharsis/
Great info! I just completed the first draft of book 1. I initially started writing it a single novel, but I kept hitting a wall – too much to fit in the story. Someone casually suggested making it a trilogy and bing! it all started falling into place! I quickly outlined the other two books and finished the first. Of course, this was before I found your site.
While I’m pretty happy with the first book, it’s obvious I’ll need to tweak it some more to set up the other two books. I’m finding this process has taken the overall story to a whole new level that I hadn’t considered.
One question I have is how to organize and track all the plot points and arcs. I’ve created a plot-point table for each book and one for the trilogy as a whole (essentially incorporating the major plot points from the three books).
I know from screenwriting, some writers will write out individual scenes on index cards and put them up on a wall so they can see the “big picture” and can easily rearrange the order if necessary. Is there a similar technique for trilogy novels?
I’m actually a big fan of using index cards to plan my novels, so I’d say you’ve hit the nail on the head! Personally, I write out all of my scenes using the six parts of scene structure (https://thenovelsmithy.com/scene-structure-basics/) and then lay them out on my living room floor. From there I organize them and shuffle them around until I’m happy with the basic shape of my story.
You might also consider creating a chart covering the plot of each individual book and your characters’ arcs. Write down the major plot points of your overarching story, and then organize the plot points of each book below that. From there, simply describe where your characters are in their arcs for each of those book-specific plot points.
Of course, you may need to tweak this to fit your story (for instance, a crime novel might also need to plot out clues or big reveals), but hopefully this gives you some idea for how to plan your trilogy! 🙂
I came accross your structure guide for writing a trilogy in Pinterest – an amazing moment of sychnronicity as although I have been scrawling away notes for a trilogy for the last 20 odd years, it is only in the last three days that I have actually embarked on writing seriously, outlining a structure using the manuscript template in Final Draft. Your trilogy structure guidance is brilliant, just what I needed to underline my way to progress. Thank you. I shall be reading more of your posts.
Glad I could help Nina!
Thanks for your clear comments about putting together a trilogy. I have already written the draft of a long novel. However, I have had problems with too many plot and sub-plot threads, and, as a result, too many characters, all of which slows down the tension and momentum, and also makes it sometimes difficult for the reader to follow. So I am thinking about dividing the existing novel into a trilogy. Probably, as you suggest, the most important thing will be to develop an outline for the overall trilogy and the three individual parts / novels. But is there any other advice or experience regarding operating on an existing long novel and dividing it up into a trilogy?
All the best.
Hi Peter! My recommendation would be to choose a specific story structure you want to use, and then study that structure carefully. You’ll hopefully find that there are easy dividing lines in your current draft that could be split off into separate books. While you’ll probably need to make some changes to your current plot to work as a trilogy, this should give you a good starting point.
This series of articles should be able to help: https://thenovelsmithy.com/complete-story-structure-series/
My best friend and I started a writing project together about two years ago. We deliberately avoided thinking of it as a trilogy, and instead as one cohesive story told in three acts. We outlined the whole thing, and hold regular brainstorming sessions. His strengths lie in organization and Big Picture focus, while I am better at writing detailed scenes, but have more trouble transitioning from scene A to scene C. So our skills compliment one another. However, now that our first draft of act one has passed 45,000 words and is barely half done, it is fast becoming clear this will need to be three full books. Thankfully we have our master outline to keep us on track!
Hi Stephen! It sounds like you have a great foundation for a trilogy there, and a great co-writer too. 🙂
I’m considering which outline would be best for my story. I started off thinking my idea would suit a standalone, but the more I delve into it, the more I can see it growing to encompass a trilogy! A daunting thought, as I’ve never considered a series before.
However, this breakdown made it sound less like Mount. Everest, and more like Kilimanjaro.
Yes, I am writing a trilogy- I have finished: A- the first draft of the first volume; B- about half of the first draft of the second volume; C- and a very, very, VERY rough outline for the third volume.
It sounds like you’re making excellent progress Nancy! That’s great!
The theme layout is very nice. I learn something after reading your wonderful page. All the stuff above are very interesting and important in my writing project in the future.
Thanks for the info. I had to read something about writing trilogies because I’m stuck in book 3. What was supposed to be just one stand alone book, turned to book 2. Then book two had enough meat to fill and I started book 3. Right now, book 1 is completely finished, I will be done with book 3 by the end of this year. However, although book 3 has enough to work on (And I feel book 2 needs to be finished so I can focus solely on book 3), I don’t want my audience to lose interest. Of course, I haven’t applied your strategy listed in this blog post. I have to work on how book 3 will finish with a bang, and leave this strategy for another trilogy.
To be honest with you, I got lots of mistakes from my previous books on outlining a trilogy. I would like to say thank you so much that I was here reading your wonderful tips. I will apply your idea to my next writing project soon.
Glad I could help Joab!
Thanks for the helpful tips! I’m currently world building, character building, and plot structuring a YA Fantasy trilogy loosely based on Celtic mythology. I’ve never even written a novel let alone a trilogy but I’ve always wanted to and the time of COVID and isolation seems like as good a time as any to try. Happy writing!
That sounds like a super interesting story Amanda! Good luck, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you ever have questions. 🙂
I’ve tried to read several writing blogs, but I have’t found them so useful, I get more confused than I was before. I think I can understand yours.
You see, I have written amateur short stories, I’m not a professional writer or anything. This whole thing of writing started a few years(!) ago now, with a dream. Some strange creatures appeared in it and I immediately thought it would be great to write a trylogy about them, but, I have to come up with all the story, just based in characters that I have to complete myself. I haven’t been able to do that. I’m blocked and I’m trying to fulfill my desiere still. Do you have any helpful idea? Please and thank you
Hey Gaby! I think the best thing you can do is read up on outlining. The purpose of outlining is to organize your ideas, but also to help you brainstorm new ones. You can read the article linked below, or check out my book on outlining for more info. Both would be a good starting place. 🙂
I’m actually planning to write one, i’m justing starting to improve on my writing , So yeah, It tends to make me procrastinate since im in highschool and all but i still get work done
I am currently writing my first book, but as I have gotten further and further along I felt like my characters needed more….adventours, love, time, everything! So I was playing with the idea of a second and possibly 3rd book. Being a novice, I didn’t have the confidence that I could pull it off. After reading this I feel much more confident! Thankyou so much!! I am going to hold off revising my 1st book and work on planning the 2nd/3rd before I go any further to make sure I am not missing out anything.
I’m glad to hear that Maddy! Definitely don’t let being a beginner hold you back. You can learn anything you need to know with a bit of patience! 🙂
Hi Lewis! After giving the jump from writing fanfiction to the world of original stories, I’m glad I found your amazing site. I have a question though; see, I’m in the process of writing my first novel (the first of a six book saga), and I’m struggling a bit with the outlines. How do you balance/combine the outline of the overarching story, the structure of the acts within the novel, and the character plots?
Hey Miguel! My tip is to tackle your outline in stages. First, outline the overarching plot of your entire series, and then decide where each of your six books will begin and end within that overarching plot. Then, once you know where your overarching plot points fall in each book, you can outline your individual books. Character arcs would work in a similar way. I hope that helps, but let me know if you have any other questions! 🙂
Thank you so much for this information. It really helped my writing. There is one thing I’ve been wondering, though. I am writing a trilogy an I don’t want to cram the entire story into the first book, but I am worried about not giving the readers enough excitement to keep the readers engaged enough to read the rest of the series. Any advice?
Hey Cass, I definitely understand your concern! The key for creating a compelling story, whether a trilogy or a standalone novel, is to have strong story structure and pacing. By making sure each individual novel has a conflict and a Climax that feeds into the overarching plot of the whole series, you’ll keep your reader engaged during each book. I recommend checking out these two links for more:
Thank you so much. I found your advice invaluable.
I have a query.
I am working on volume two of a Quartet.
How much do I backtrack in vol two with info from volume one, if at all?
Or do I plow on regardless of the new reader?
I would value your input. Thank you
Hey there Therese! That’s a great questions, and it really depends on your unique story.
Is there a lot of complex information readers will need to know from Vol 1? If so, it may be worth recapping some of it in a prologue and having your characters remember or talk about it in early chapters as well. If there isn’t a lot of complex information, you’d probably be fine to jump into Vol 2’s story, simply letting your characters mention old information wherever necessary. The key is not to front load too much information at the beginning of your novel. If there are ways to sprinkle it naturally throughout your story, that’s usually the best option! Good luck! 🙂
Lewis, Thank you so very much for your prompt reply.
That is pretty much what I’ve been doing.
But it is very reassuring to have your input. This can be a lonely job without people like you. I really appreciate your way of giving structure to things.
Many many thanks.
Thanks for your information on writing a trilogy. I embarked on a trilogy last year called Death Agents and wrote an outline for the three books. I followed your format, making my writing easier and enjoyable. The first book called Whispers Before Death to be published Dec. 8, 2019. The next two books will follow approximatley nine months apart. Your article will help me fine tune my trilogy.
Hey Greg, I’m so glad to hear this process worked for you! I’ve definitely found it helpful when writing my own series as well. 🙂