Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Writing a trilogy.

Well, it’s high time I got back on that horse and started posting again. I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus, but since I don’t actually have any followers its really ok. Anyways, today we are going to dig in and explore the intricacies of writing a trilogy.

Now, first of all, let us be clear: a trilogy is different from three books, or the first three books in a series. The trilogy is a specific format which mirrors the three-act structure and the heroic journey we’ve been over so very many times.

In a Hollywood, a lot of things get mistakenly called trilogies. Just because you’ve got three movies or books written in the same universe and using the same characters does not make them a trilogy. The Indiana Jones franchise is not a trilogy, its just three movies about the same guy. Back to the Future is a trilogy, as we have previously mentioned. For the purposes of this entry, we will be using examples from Back to the Future because its really such a good and simple example of the storytelling technique used in a trilogy.

First of all, as you plan your series, you need to be thinking in terms of a three-act structure. You’ve got to have three parts to the story to tell, and each book(or movie) needs to be a complete story. That means it needs to have it’s own conflict, and it’s own beginning, middle, and end. A good negative example here would be the recent Pirates of the Caribbean “trilogy” in which the second movie was essentially half a movie, and the third was the second half. That’s not a well-written trilogy and mostly an irritating gimmick. It’s also why I never watched either of the second two.

However, drawing on Indiana Jones as another negative example, lets keep in mind that you are telling an over-all story arc that runs throughout you’re entire trilogy, you are not telling three separate, unrelated stories that happen to include the same characters and settings.

So let’s go over the basics of what needs to be in each volume of your trilogy:

  • Volume 1 needs to stand on its own. Readers should be able to read/watch/listen to part one of your trilogy and not walk away feeling jaded. This does not mean you can’t leave a cliffhanger or set up the next piece, but you must have a complete beginning, middle, and end. The central conflict of the first volume needs to be resolved. In Back to the Future, the central conflict, Marty getting home from 1955, is resolved by the end.

  • Volume 2 should still tell a complete story, but leave events basically unresolved. The conflict is less major, and your audience should leave knowing full-well that there is more to the story. In the Back to the Future example, Marty and the Doc succeed in repairing the timeline(that is, repairing it to the altered timeline created in the first movie) and preventing the horrible future Old Biff created. However, at the end of the second movie, Marty is left once again stranded in 1955, literally hours after he left in the first movie. And this time, he’s standing alone on a desolate rural road. The main story is completed, but things are essentially worse off than when the movie began, as this time he is stranded without his trusty DeLorean.

  • Volume 3 is the climax, the primary conflict and resolution. By the end of this volume, your story should be complete. The day needs to be saved, the hero needs to get the girl, and the villain needs to be defeated. All the loose ends should be tied up, and your audience must not be left desperately wondering what happens next. Do not set up a fourth volume, you intended to make a trilogy and you have done this. Back to the Future III ends with Marty safely returned to 1985 in the good alternate timeline, and the dock having built an awesome steam-punk time machine that looks like a flying locomotive. Everyone wins.

Perhaps a better example of this sort of storytelling is the epic Lord of the Rings cycle. A cunning reader might note that there is considerably more to the story than is contained in those three volumes, and you’re correct. Tolkien created an entire world, and filled a shelf with books explaining every aspect of it. But his central treatise was the three volume Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And as I have previously gone over, Tolkien laid out all sorts of details in his trilogy which he intended to explain in later books. But these were all separate stories, he did not write a “Lord of the Rings Part IV”.

So these are all the basics of a good trilogy. If you build your story properly, tell it right, you two can create something as epic as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Back to the future, or my much less well known series: Author of the Gust.

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