In my book BOOT CAMP, I really emphasize that writing a “trilogy” is the best way to launch a career. Perhaps too much. My point was to write a SET of books—3 book trilogy, 4 in a series, etc, so you have a plan and because it’s much easier to build a career on a series. Standalones don’t do as well, especially to launch a new author (caveat being if you make those standalones a series, as romance often does. Or thriller/mysteries. But then I just consider that a series).
TRILOGIES ARE GOOD… FOR THE RIGHT STORY
A trilogy is a three book series that tells a story in three parts. Makes sense, right? Think of it like a 3 Act structure, where the thing that evolves over the three books is both internal and external to the character (like any good story).
People make the mistake of thinking they can write an awesome first book and then just write two more that essentially say “and they did more stuff.” Writing the second book in a trilogy? That’s actually the HARDEST book to write. Think about it—how many trilogies do you know that sag in the middle? That feel like a retread of Book One? (In movies, it’s a given that the sequel is never as good as the first movie.) Even the Hunger Games, which I love and was a huge hit, does this—I mean, really? ANOTHER Hunger Games in Book Two? To Suzanne Collins’ credit, she pulls it off, but still… I mentally groaned when I first opened that book.
The Gold Standard for Most Excellent Sequels is The Empire Strikes Back—people actually like that sequel BETTER than the original. Why? Because it taps into all the potential of the first movie, taking it broader, deeper, more spiritual, more romance… More MORE. And that’s the key with a second book in a trilogy—it has to make you realize that the first book (which appeared completely awesome when first reading it) was actually just a setup (Act I) for the TRUE STORY… which is what we get in Act II (Book 2). Then the finale is always going to be awesome because all the things have to come together and that’s Book 3. So Book 2 is really your challenge here.
(CLICK HERE for a whole workshop I gave on writing series—it’s in powerpoint and audio)
UPSHOT: You need to make sure you have the kind of character development and worldbuilding/story development that can support a trilogy.
SERIES ARE ALSO AWESOME
Series are stories that may connect the larger worldbuilding/story elements, but the character doesn’t have a huge character arc moving through it. Or there are different characters for each book, but all in the same world. If you don’t have an EPIC internal evolution of a character arc, one that can take 3 or more books to write, then series might be the way to go. These books can even be technically “standalones” that are connected in some way.
Example: ROMANCE SERIES
You can write one-book-per-couple, so they get their HEA, but then connect them in a series with either an overarching bad guy they’re chasing or by making a series of secondary characters become primary characters. Penname does this all the time. In one series, she has three brothers who are all chasing the same bad guy, and each gets his heroine in turn, all in furtherance of the greater mystery. In another series (this time 5 books), each member of an extended family gets their shot at an HEA while all playing pivotal roles by turns in catching the bad guy. The nine book series I just finished is actually three trilogies—again three brothers, but this time each couple gets three books, because there are three distinct “phases” to the romance. Much more unusual is to have a sprawling romance with one couple over many books—those, in fact, may be ensemble pieces where you have a large cast of characters all taking turns at romance.
These are Law n Order type series, where we have a cast of characters, or Murder She Wrote, where we have one main crime-solving sleuth. In these, the characters may evolve but their evolution is slow and shallow (shallow as in slowly changing, not in the derogatory sense of “not meaningful”). Each book is a “standalone” in a way, but they’re really a series because they’re connected by the MC and the fact that we’re solving a crime in each book.
Urban Fantasy series, where we’ve got one demon slayer going after an endless evolution of bad guys, is the ultimate/classic type of a series. These are really all about the worldbuilding. Yes, you need character arcs, and one signature thing that your MC has to “learn” for each book, but the emphasis isn’t on character evolution—and that’s not really what’s driving the book. In fact, your character may not evolve at all. What changes and shifts and evolves is the larger story—the world is changing.
Some genres/stories/character arcs are better suited to trilogies, some to series.
Your individual story will be suited to a particular kind of structure. It’s possible to CHANGE your standalone into a series, but that’s major surgery, so you better know what you’re doing.
My SKQ Mindjack books? Trilogies. Why? Because they’re centered on the character evolution of my MC. (YA is especially driven by character)
My SKQ Singularity books? Five book series because my YA character’s evolution is so HUGE that it needed more than three books to tell it.
My Debt Collector books? That’s a good example of a “standalone” series. Each “season” (which is like a “book”) is the complete character evolution of one character (there’s also HEA romance in it). But then the “larger world” story continues with the next season, new character. Only two are written so far, but I’ve got it outlined for four characters, then a final fifth book where all the characters come together Avengers-style to solve the larger worldbuilding crisis.
So there’s flexibility.
TL;DR – make sure you have the right structure for your books—trilogy or series—just make sure you plan to have more than one when launching your career.
AND REMEMBER: check out that workshop I did on Series and Serials to understand how structure is your friend in planning out a set of books to write.