The Trilogy Trick – Guest Spot with Michelle Gagnon

Jordan Dane

I am very excited to have Michelle Gagnon as my guest, but she is definitely no stranger to TKZ. Many of you know Michelle was a former contributor extraordinaire to our blog and I’m excited to hear her thoughts on trilogies and her latest release. Welcome, Michelle!

Don't Look Now HC C

Hi folks, I’ve missed you! So good to be back on TKZ.

With the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games, trilogies are all the rage these days. In fact, when I first pitched an idea for a young adult novel to my publisher, they specifically requested a trilogy. I agreed, because hey, what author wouldn’t want to guarantee the publication of three more books? Besides, I’d written a series before. How much harder could a trilogy be?

The first one, DON’T TURN AROUND, turned out to be the easiest book I’ve ever written. The rough draft flowed out of me in eight weeks; it was one of those magical manuscripts that seemed to write itself.

I sat back down at the computer, confident that the second and third would proceed just as smoothly; even (foolishly) harboring hopes that I’d knock the whole thing out in under six months.

Boy, was I wrong.

Here’s the thing: in a regular series, even though the characters carry through multiple books (and occasionally, plotlines do as well), they’re relatively self-contained. In the end, the villain is (usually) captured or killed; at the very least, his evil plan has been stymied.

Not so in a trilogy. For this series, I needed the bad guy—and the evil plot—to traverse all three books. Yet each installment had to be self-contained enough to satisfy readers. 

Suffice it to say that books 2 and 3 were a grueling enterprise. But along the way, I learned some important lessons on how to structure a satisfying trilogy:

  1. Each book has its own arc. Well, that’s obvious, right? But what this really means is that book 3 can’t feel like a mere continuation of book 2. Even if your villain/evil plot spans all three books, you need to provide resolution at the end of each installment. This is a good place to employ what I’ve dubbed, “The Henchman Rule.” At the end of each book, someone needs to be held accountable; otherwise your hero/heroine won’t seem to be making any headway. And the best solution for this? Get rid of the main baddie’s number 2, his right hand man. My favorite example is the stripping of Saruman’s powers at the end of The Two Towers. Sauron must wait to be dealt with in The Return of the King, but his main wizard is handily dispatched by Gandalf (suffice it to say, I didn’t have much of a social life in junior high school). 
  2. Avoid “Middle Book Syndrome.” What I discussed above is particularly challenging in the second book of any trilogy. This is the bridge book, the one where the characters need to move forward in their quest, but not too far forward. Traditionally, this is also the book that concludes with your main character (or characters) beaten down, exhausted, and uncertain of the possibility of success. Which can be a pretty depressing note to end on, unless you also provide them with a key: something that will help them surmount obstacles in book 3. That key can be any number of things: more information about the evil plan, the villain’s only vulnerability, etc. But the main goal is to set the stage for book 3, while still wrapping up enough threads to keep your readers happy.
  3. Character arcs need to span all three books. In a standalone, the main character faces some sort of incident that jettisons her into extreme circumstances (ie: Katniss’s sister losing the lottery). An escalation of events follows: the character is forced to confront her own weaknesses, and to discover her hidden strengths. At the end of Act 2, the character is usually at a low point, facing potential failure. Then, in the final act, the character rises to the occasion and ends up saving the day. In a trilogy, these same rules apply: but the conclusion of each book corresponds with the act breaks. Example: at the end of The Girl who Played with Fire (#2 in the trilogy), Lisbeth is horribly injured; she needs to overcome that incapacitation in order to finally vanquish her father in book 3.
  4. Avoid information dumps. Always a good rule, but trickier with trilogies. While working on the final installment, I kept butting up against this issue: when characters referred back to earlier events, how much background information was necessary to keep readers from becoming irrevocably lost? In the end, I provided very little. The truth is, it’s rare for people to start with the third book in a trilogy; I’m sure it happens, but it’s the exception, not the rule. So what you’re really doing is giving gentle reminders to people who might have read the last book months earlier. Provide enough information to jog their memory, without inundating them. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but I’d recommend erring on the side of giving less, not more.

So those are my tips, earned the hard way. Today’s question: what trilogies (aside from those I mentioned) did you love, and what about them kept you reading?

Michelle_Gagnon_color_09_optMichelle Gagnon is the international bestselling author of thrillers for teens and adults. Described as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets the Bourne Identity,” her YA technothriller DON’T TURN AROUND was nominated for a Thriller Award, and was selected as one of the best teen books of the year by Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Kirkus, Voya, and the Young Adult Library Services Association. The second installment, DON’T LOOK NOW, is on sale now (and hopefully doesn’t suffer from “middle book syndrome.”) She splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

21 thoughts on “The Trilogy Trick – Guest Spot with Michelle Gagnon

  1. Hey it’s my favourite Michelle! Welcome back M’Lady!

    As far as trilogies I have enjoyed several including:

    Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A trilogy in five parts

    Terry Pratchett’s Discworld trilogy…all 40 parts

    …uh… hrm… actually the only trilogy that only consisted of three books seems to be the Lord of the Rings…but that was originally suppposed to be one book.

    I’m lost, hopelessly lost.

    I guess that means I need to read yours.

  2. Michelle, thank you for coming back. This is a very interesting post. Essentially, what Basil said. Doug Adams and T. Pratchett. It seems I’m more familiar with SF trilogies than thriller/mystery. The point Basil brings up is interesting: your description of the three parts sounds a lot like the three-act structure. And, it seems that Tolkien had the same problem in the middle of his book/part 2 of the trilogy: sagging. I understand you have to have a more definite wrap-up at the end of book #1 as compared to the end of act #1, but I would like to hear your comments on the difference. Thank you for this information.

  3. Hunger Games was the last trilogy I read, and it has turned into a favorite, though I thought the revolution wrapped up a bit too neatly in book 3. I paid special attention to book 2, always curious to see how an author handles that. I couldn’t help notice the striking similarity between the end of Catching Fire and The Empire Strikes Back. How else would it work, though? Hero victorious but wounded, on the run. Villian suffering an embarassment, though no major loss, and in hot pursuit. I suspect the trilogy is much more difficult to tackle than an ongoing series.

  4. Very informative, thank you. I can never seem to think in terms of stand alone books. I think my rationale is, it takes me so long to write a book, and I work so hard to create the characters and plot, that I want to milk ’em for all their worth, not just a stand alone book. Well that and my brain is always scheming forward even when I’m working on the current plot.

    So all these tips are very useful.

    BK Jackson

  5. Good to have you back, Michelle, and congrats on the new book. Good series tips here. I think it’s essential to have a two-tiered story structure for a trilogy, or any ongoing series. For example, in the Harry Dresden books there is the case at hand (level 1), but also his ongoing conflict with the White Council (ongoing). This conception makes middle books easier to write.

    For example, when I conceived my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law trilogy, I wanted each book had to have its own self-contained plot. But I also wanted a “meta” storyline that would only be resolved at the end of Book #3. So in each book Mallory has an actual client (in book 1, a vampire; book 2, a boy whose mother is a rakshasa; and book 3, a werewolf). Each case has a legal thriller arc. But over all this is the meta narrative of Satan setting up his war headquarters in Los Angeles, and Mallory’s ongoing fight to find out how she became a zombie and thus regain her soul.

    I was therefore able in Books 1 and 2 to resolve the immediate case, but also leave open the portent of “things to come.”

  6. Welcome back, Michelle! Great tips. Thanks for sharing, and best of luck with your new book. Aside from Lord Of The Rings, my favorite trilogy has to be The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake. It takes the reader into a fantasy world every bit equal to Tolkien.

  7. Hey gorgeous lady! Welcome back! You do realize we aren’t going to let you leave, don’t you . . .

    Your first series with the redhead FBI agent had the elements Mr. Bell describes above. Each book took care of a bad guy, but complicated her life further and muddied her love life further until the shocking resolution in the last book.

    In other words, you got this.

    Can’t wait to read it and if there is anything we can get you, don’t hesitate to ask. Yes, that door is locked for your safety.


    PS: Oh yeah, the question about trilogies. Of course, The Hunger Games (although I could have stopped at book 1 and left it there, I wasn’t happy with #2 and #3). Colleen McCullough did a trilogy set in ancient Rome that was superb and, of course, the uber-trilogy Star Wars. For Hunger Games fans I can highly recommend the “Divergent” trilogy by Veronica Roth. The third book drops this fall.

    My WIP isn’t setting out to be a trilogy per se with a central quest, but it is set up to be a series. I purposely muddy up the romantic element and while I leave it resolved for the moment, there is so much more left hanging. My girl just can’t be happily settled down with this hot guy who looks so much like Springsteen and carries so much of his own baggage. But she can sure dream about him during the next set of adventures. Time will tell if I can pull it off.

  8. Thanks for the warm welcome, everyone! That’s a good point about the “meta” plot, Jim- having an over-arching storyline (the A plot) makes it possible to wrap up your “B” plots along the way. Many TV series make use of this, most notably Fringe, Supernatural, and the X Files.
    Lance, there definitely needs to be a wrap up at the end of Book 1; I’m not a fan of ending each book on an utter cliffhanger, and I dislike it when a book ends in such a way that it feels more like one long book spread over three iterations. I think the trick is to make sure that the hero/es achieve some sort of victory at the end of each part. In Book 1, my characters discover who is responsible for what’s happening, and they manage to disrupt their plan. But it takes two more books for them to discover why the villains are doing what they’re doing, and how to stop them completely.

  9. Have sent this link to a friend who is struggling with the second book in a trilogy for all the same reasons you cite, Michelle. Great advice! Even if you’re writing one book.

  10. Welcome back, Michelle. Really good points here. The last proposal I did for a trilogy, I plotted out all three books in my proposal so I’d have a blue print for how everything would work. In the past, I only focused on book #1 and did a general treatment for how the next two books would work together, but I found it worth my time to detail out as much as possible. I wanted to see how the stakes escalated and if the story arcs for each character held up.

    Divergent by Veronica Roth has been doing a pretty good job of setting the world up in book #1, but hooking the reader with a twist to that world in book #2 (even though that book is self-contained like a single-title). The huge cliffhangers are a big turn off for some readers. Foreshadowing the risks and ramping up the stakes in books 2-3 work better to hook readers.

    Great tips in this post, Michelle. Best wishes on your new release. The success you’ve had on this series is amazing.

  11. Excellent post, Michelle — and I loved Don’t Look Now.

    Another fun trilogy is the one starring gay high school teacher and amateur sleuth, Skyler Foxed, by Haley Walsh. Foxe Tail, Foxe Hunt and Out-Foxed. She uses the romance plot as an additional way to provide ups and downs.

  12. Welcome back, Michelle. Terrific advice. My favorite is a triology plus one, Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet.” The first three books give a different view of the same incident, and the fourth book sums them up. Fascinating and complicated, my favorite of Durell’s work.

  13. Excellent tips Michelle…and much needed! I’m working on the 2nd book in my Historical Suspense trilogy and I’m desperately trying to avoid “Middle Book Syndrome.” I’m still sorting through my ideas on ending well to keep excitement going for Book #3 🙂 Thanks for the big help!

  14. Awesome post. Your last point was my favorite, because (like a billion other writers) I’m working on a trilogy and I can never decide how much to let them know. I’d rather it be virtually nothing, because it always feels awkward to include information. When reading a kids’ series with about 12 volumes, the author always made a few of the same statements in the beginning of EVERY book. After getting to book five or so it made me want to bang my head against the wall.

  15. Fascinating discussion y’all. Thanks. I’ve got a lot over which to ponder from this.

    I’m thinking television series. MI5, Justified and House of Cards (British version) were just superb.

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