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.
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.
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.
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