Writing a Multivolume Story

Writing a novel is fraught with challenges. Writing a multivolume novel, such as a trilogy, compounds those challenges. While there are different approaches to tackle this problem, this post summarizes how my solution to the Griffin Hunter trilogy developed.

Parker Samuels

When I set out to write Corruption, I knew it was going to be the first volume in a multivolume story. Originally, I envisioned a five-book series to tell that story. Partway through the first draft of Corruption, I realized I was biting off more than I could chew. I had no idea how to structure the multivolume story arc. I faced a few problems:

  • I am a “pantser”. I hadn’t plotted out Corruption in advance, much less the trilogy. I knew how the trilogy arc would start and how it would end, but little else. 
  • As a detective story, I didn’t want to openly reveal the identity of the arch-villain in the first volume. Drop the clues and let the reader see if she can figure it out, but save the big reveal for later.
  • I didn’t know the A story of the second volume. How could I insert the required story arc elements into that volume without knowing the storyline?


I saw some authors tackled the problem by writing the entire trilogy before finalizing the first volume. While this approach allows the author to seek perfection in the overall story arc, it creates a fresh set of problems:

  • The author cannot leverage reader feedback from the first volume to shape the remaining volumes. Depending on your genre, this could be critical.
  • The author may get distracted from the required story elements in the first volume. If the first volume isn’t strong on its own, readers will not bother to read the second volume, unless you are J. K. Rowling or a similarly popular author. Imagine spending years to create the “perfect” trilogy only to have the first volume fail.
  • Most books never get published because they never get finished. I was struggling to finish my first volume. If I were to multiply that three, four, or five times, I would have given up.


I knew how I was going to structure Corruption; the traditional three-act story structure. As I continued through my first draft (along with some research) it became apparent that the same structure could apply to a trilogy. Volume 1 is Act 1 of the trilogy, volume 2 is act 2, etc. As a result, I changed my goal to write a trilogy instead of a five-volume story. 


With that approach, I could concentrate on making the first volume a complete story in its own right, while taking the multivolume story in smaller bites. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. 


The solutions became visible. In the first two volumes, the trilogy story arc was the B story. All the pieces would be put into place, including a cliffhanger for the B story, so that the reader would realize that there was more to come. The arc would become the A story in the final volume. It became imperative that I sketch out the trilogy arc for key characters.


Understanding the long arc for the main character and sidekick was not difficult, but it was more challenging for the villain. Additionally, I didn't have any “glue” to pull the story across the three volumes. That caused me to write an extended bio for both the villain and a tertiary character.


The bio for the tertiary character is 2,500 words. It describes how she came to be involved in the story, what happened to her along the way, and, ultimately, how she dies. I was able to write her story by the seat of my pants. Once it was written, I edited it to fit the three-act structure. Her act one was then woven into the B story of Corruption. Her act two story will be written into the first half of the next volume, Relentless. Her act three story will be leveraged in Relentless as the “all hope is lost” moment. Remember that the second volume is the second act of the long arc. Finally, her voice from the dead will reveal the name of the villain and serve as the catalyst for all A story action in the final volume, Destruction.


I am pleased to announce that Corruption is at the beta reader stage. Segments of Relentless are already written as a result of completing the extended bios.


What did I learn as it relates to a multivolume story?

  • Focus on making the first volume great.
  • Allow feedback from your readers to shape the rest of the story.
  • Keep your work manageable. Don’t overwhelm yourself with a project that you will never finish.
  • Be willing to change your plans. Be pragmatic.
  • You don’t have to know the details of subsequent volumes, but you do have to know the structure that you want to follow.
  • You do have to know enough details about your characters' long arc to pull you through to the end.


Epilogue

If you would like me to post the bio mentioned above, or have a suggestion for what my next post should be about, let me know in the comments below.

6 Comments

Wendyg

I found the process you followed for your trilogy really interesting. I read that JK Rowling spent years planning out the HP series.
Your process sounds logical and sensible. As a full-on pantser though, it wouldn’t work for me as I would then never finish a story let alone a series.

Focus on making the first volume great.
Allow feedback from your readers to shape the rest of the story.
Keep your work manageable. Don’t overwhelm yourself with a project that you will never finish.
Be willing to change your plans. Be pragmatic.
You don’t have to know the details of subsequent volumes, but you do have to know the structure that you want to follow.
You do have to know enough details about your characters' long arc to pull you through to the end.

For others with the same writing mentality as me, I do offer an alternative (illogical and less-commercial) approach which gave me 8 in a series (plus potential for more) and a duology.
Instead of allowing the readers to shape the rest of your story, then consider allowing the characters to do so. If they only give you a stand alone then that is what you have. If they give you more then that is what you write. This does overcome the issue of taking on a project bigger than you want, as there is only one book to cope with at a time (until you get to the rewrites/editing). Yes, the drawback is that the whole thing might not be commercial, but even well-planned books can end up like that and alpha readers can give great feedback along the journey.

I would disagree on this point: You do have to know enough details about your characters’ long arc to pull you through to the end
The backstory of my characters evolved as I wrote, and i found that a lot of the foreshadowing to that was present from near the beginning (without realising it). The characters developed into themselves then demanded i provide the answers to the clues they gave me. My book 2 actually only started because I couldn’t tie up all the loose ends in book 1, ditto for book 3 etc.
I made a decision to finally tie the knots on all the threads in book 7, so book 8 is actually almost a stand alone set in the same universe (book 9 wants to be a prequel but has stalled because i can’t write when i already know the ending – a skill i will have to master).
I think that longer series and epic sagas are easier in the sci-fi/fantasy realm though, as different planets and realms offer different possibilities for ensemble casts and antagonists (e.g. Dr. Who, whose backstory evolved over time).
Although detective series would be close too because you there will always be more criminals. You might find you don’t stop at the end of that trilogy after all…

Sometimes, the structure evolves from the story, rather than the other way around. The 'be willing to change your plans’ part covers that. I fear that some writers don’t take this to heart enough and lose interest in a project purely because they feel that they can’t change things they have already decided on.

It would be great if, in the future, you did an update on how much your own plans changed (if they did) by the time you finished the third in the trilogy. I read JD Robb In Death series and at the beginning it certainly doesn’t seem like it will be an extended series but the backstory gets more detailed and involved as the series progresses. The series has now topped fifty books.
I’ve certainly read about authors who planned a trilogy and ended up with a five-book boxset (as you yourself originally planned). Or, maybe you will end up with a second trilogy using the same detective but with a different archenemy, or maybe your detective will turn into a Sherlock Holmes or Poirot type and take on more and more cases.

Jun-10 at 01:09

Jcgreen

Hi, Krunch,

I’ve just started writing a (magical detective) series myself. I would describe myself as being halfway between a plotter and a pantster. I’ve got the plot of the opening book sorted, along with the theme and overarching storyline that will flow through the series as a whole. My hope is that I will come up with plots for the following books that will feed into the bigger storyline. I’ve had enough experience with other books to at least hope I can come up with the material when the time comes. As to how many books it will be, I’ve no idea yet.

Of course, that overall storyline is optional. It’s reassuring to have a final goal in sight. However, other paths open up as you explore your world, so I might end up heading in another direction.

One thing I have struggled with is making the opening book appear to be a standalone. I need to feed things in for the overarching plot, but I don’t want them to be dangling threads. Also, the plot for my first book originally had the villain winning. I’ve had to extend the plot to get it to a position where it appears the main character has won. That victory will then have to be unpicked in book 2.

Jun-10 at 07:47

Onalimb

Congratulations on getting this far. I’ve done some multi-volume writing and there are definitely many challenges. I started as a pantser, but after rewriting book 2 three times, I took up planning. Even with it, the going was tough and I still haven’t ironed out all the problems.

I notice that you’ve only submitted one chapter to CC. You might, have course, have gotten feedback from other sources, but I wonder whether the stories would benefit from additional critting, before proceeding to beta.

Jun-10 at 11:49

Nathanj

Good to see some ideas about this.

I had not started out intending to write a multivolume story.
In the course of trying to get my novel down to an appropriate size, I found an appropriate stopping point.

The first novel will finish at about Chapter 29 with a Happy For Now type ending.
But hopefully, still enough loose ends that they’ll want to read the sequel.
The 16+ chapters I’ve already drafted, plus a few I have planned, will make up the sequel.

The question I face, and it’s a good one to have, is what information to leave out of the final chapters of the first novel that will be covered in the first seven chapters of the next novel since there is some overlap.
Enough that the ending is mostly satisfying, but not so satisfying that they won’t want more.
I will probably get crits seven chapters into the next novel before I finalize some of that.

Jun-10 at 18:58

Flicka

I’ve written a six volume series - about 640,000 words, none of which was planned out beforehand. Three are traditionally published so far. Of course I had ideas in my head, but I didn’t have it planned out at all. And yes I knew exactly where it would end right from the start but not how I’d get there. Handily everything fell neatly into place.
For book six I did have to make a few notes and put the events I roughly knew were going to happen into an order, so I wouldn’t forget someone’s end story, but that was the most planning I ever did.

Jun-10 at 20:30

Xavier

I’m going through the same EXACT THING with my MG Fantasy Trilogy. After the first book was beta read, I added alot of the suggestions from what came back… plus even more of the ones I had thought of on my own. Then when i finally had my book “ready”, I looked at the word count. It was much too long for a MG Fantasy novel… but much too short for two books. I had to think of what to do, as I knew I did not want to cut out alot of the great scenes and characters I had spent months writing.

So, I decided to make two books out of the first part of the trilogy. Looking for a place where I could cut, book one fell right in with the word count. Book two needed 30,000 more words. Ugh! So, I’ve been writing new scenes. It’s a different kind of exciting because I know I don’t have to write a whole book. It’s kind like filler… good, plot progressing filler I am writing these days.

Big lesson!

If I can, am willing, and can sew the pathway through all of this… I feel like I’m a writer now.

Kind regards,
Xavier

Jul-06 at 13:37
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