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February 14, 2017

Story Structure: What Should We Do for Trilogies?

Three blue chairs against a wall with text: Making Trilogies Work

Even though I’m a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants), I still enjoy digging into the structure of stories. (Hence, all my beat sheets. *smile*) In fact, I suspect most of the stereotypical issues of those who pants rather than plot come down to a need for understanding story structure better.

In my opinion, every writer should have at least a subconscious understanding of story structure. After all, if we don’t understand what helps readers experience a story’s ups and downs or keep turning pages for the next twist, we won’t be successful at plotting a story either.

So I was intrigued by a comment on one of my older posts about character and plot arcs. Specifically, she wanted to know how trilogies should approach story structure.

Joanna asked:

“I’m wondering though how this works in a trilogy that focuses on the Hero/Heroine’s journey? At which point does the first book get cut off? Will the character/s heal the wound in the first book, then heal another wound in the second? I’ve noticed many romance books cutoff the first book right at the Black Moment. What are your thoughts?”

Great question, right? *grin* (I love when my readers help me come up with blog post ideas!)

Now, before I get into my thoughts, even though Joanna’s asking about romance trilogies, much of what I mention here would apply equally well to other genres as well. That said, I know the romance genre better than others, so I’ll be focusing on that genre the most.

What Is Story Structure?

Story structure—at the most basic level—is how a story is put together. From our youngest days of reading, we’ve seen that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Each of those three sections (or three Acts) has a purpose:

  • Act One: introducing the story, character, and problem
  • Act Two: adding complications
  • Act Three: resolving the story or problem in some way (failure counts too)

Story structure (and the beat sheets that quantify the turning points of story structure) simply give guidelines on the timing of story events to improve storytelling:

  • Near 25% (end of Act One), a starting point for the main conflict:
    • an event that drags the protagonist into the situation —or—
    • an event that forces a choice to get involved.
  • Near 50% (middle of Act Two):
    • an event that changes the protagonist’s goals/choices —or—
    • an event that adds new stakes to the situation.
  • Near 75% (end of Act Two):
    • an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution.
  • From about 80-95% (Act Three), an ending point for the main conflict:
    • an event that forces the protagonist to face the antagonist.

(Note that some story structure systems break out the acts differently or use slightly different percentages. That only proves that all these numbers are guidelines and not rules. *smile* All that really matters is our finished product and whether it feels like a story.)

How Do Those Percentages Apply to Trilogies?

Quick answer? It depends. *grin*

I’ve seen series of all genres—including romance—handle trilogies differently, so I don’t think there’s one “always right” answer. We can look at the different structure styles and see if one fits our story better than others, but even the styles themselves aren’t held to hard-and-fast rules.

However, we can dig into the three most common trilogy structures I’ve seen to understand our options and why those structures are the way they are…

#1: Complete Stories with No Cliffhangers

One common approach to trilogies is for the three books to each contain a full story structure (all three acts, with all the major turning points) and end with enough of a resolution to avoid cliffhangers.

In other words, Book One would solve one plot problem (and potentially one character flaw) but leave other issues to solve in future books. Those other issues might be mentioned in the first book and left as intriguing hanging threads, but the main goal for that story would be resolved.

Style #1:
The trilogy is a journey with significant progress marked by milestones at the end of each book, reaching the final destination in the last book.

Think of the Harry Potter books for an example of this style. The main conflict/antagonist of each book (the basilisk, Dolores Umbridge, etc.) is resolved by the end. Obviously, the struggle with Voldemort carries over from book to book, resulting in bigger cliffhangers for that plot thread as the books progress, but each story’s current situation comes to a resolution.

In the romance genre, this can be a tricky structure to make work because the genre of romance expects happy endings (especially if there’s no cliffhanger), and that would be the goal to reach for each story to feel complete. Yet at the same time, the romance of the couple can’t reach completion until the end of the trilogy.

So if each story is complete, the first and second book should end with a Happily For Now ending and save the Happily Ever After (HEA) for the final book. For example, the couple might agree to start dating in one book, decide to get serious in another, and get married in the last one.

Other tricky aspects are that we might struggle to write books that each feel fresh and not reboots of the previous story. Or we might struggle to increase the stakes from book to book, making the later books feel like a downward trend.

Story Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Book One:
    Act One / Act Two / Act Three
    (with each of the turning points usually found in each act)
  • Book Two:
    Act One / Act Two / Act Three
  • Book Three:
    Act One / Act Two / Act Three

Arc Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Plot Arc: Most plot complications and obstacles would be resolved within each book, perhaps with different antagonists in each (major villains and subplots could carry over).
  • Character Arc: The character arc can either heal different wounds in each story or make progress on healing a single wound in each book (much as the romance arc is about making progress).

#2: Each Book Is an Act

Another common structure for trilogies is to think of each story as one of the three acts. Each story would contain the turning points for their act (with plenty of complications to fill in-between). (Some of these trilogies actually start as one 1000-page story that the author splits up for friendlier publication.)

So Book One would end with the protagonist moving forward with their new situation and/or choosing to get involved in the bigger situation, like the turning point found at the 25% mark. Book Two would end on the cliffhanger of the Black Moment usually found at the 75% mark. And Book Three would resolve all the issues.

Style #2:
The trilogy is essentially a single story broken into three parts.

A frequently cited example of this style is the original Star Wars:

  • In New Hope‘s “Act One,” Luke accepts the mantle of hero from Obi Wan at the end, stepping into that role for the “new world.”
  • Empire‘s “Act Two” ends with the Black Moment cliffhanger—Vader isn’t so easily beaten, as Luke has literally lost a part of himself, and Han Solo needs rescuing.
  • Jedi‘s “Act Three” brings it all together for the Climax.

Just as many consider Empire Strikes Back to be the strongest of the Star Wars movies, the second book in this style of trilogy would have to carry a heavy load. Many writers struggle to avoid a sagging middle with their books, and this style creates an entire book that could fall victim to that fate.

In the romance genre, the first and third books might have a similar feel to the structure mentioned in #1 above. Acceptance of the “new world” could include acceptance of the relationship, and just because the first book doesn’t need a Black Moment in this style, often a dilemma of some sort would force the couple to reach a decision to move forward.

Likewise, an HEA would fit the final book of either structure. However, unlike above, the second book would end on a cliffhanger, as the couple seems to be doomed by their Black Moment.

The tricky aspect of this structure for the romance genre is that with a positive-ish ending for the first book, readers might not expect a cliffhanger for the second book. Especially if the conflicts in the second book feel like filler, readers might suspect the author of dragging out the story for more sales and money.

On the good-news side, because style #1 and #2 are so similar for book one, we might be able to put off the decision of which style to follow until book two (good for pantsers!). And we can hope that after two books, readers will be hooked enough to not abandon the series in disgust because of the cliffhanger. *smile*

Story Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Book One:
    Act One (25% mark turning point)
  • Book Two:
    Act Two (50% and 75% mark turning points)
  • Book Three:
    Act Three (story climax)

Arc Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Plot Arc: Some plot conflicts will be resolved at the end of book one (those relating to taking up the larger cause), but the remainder won’t be resolved until book three.
  • Character Arc: Book one will often show progress in emotional growth, but that growth might be erased in book two’s Black Moment and not be fully healed until book three.

#3: Cliffhangers Everywhere

The last common trilogy structure I can think of off the top of my head is when the author chooses to use cliffhangers every chance they can. Only the final book contains resolutions.

In this case, Book One and Book Two would each end with a cliffhanger, as they would generally include the turning points for Act One and Act Two, breaking off at the Black Moment. (Depending on the story, book 2’s Act One might wrap up the Black Moment from book 1.) Book Three would wrap up the story either with just the Act Three turning points or with all the turning points for a full story.

Style #3:
The trilogy is a journey (like style #1), but each book is marked not with progress but with setbacks, only finding success in the last book.

This style is often seen in high-energy stories of various genres. For the cliffhangers to act as an effective hook to interest readers in the next book, this style usually works best with stories filled with action and angst. (I’ve heard them called literary crack. *smile*)

A few genres that have successfully used this style are Young Adult, New Adult, and Erotic Romance. However, there are a few issues that can make this style ineffective, especially for some romance stories.

No matter the genre, it’s easy for these types of stories to go “over the top” with too much angst or melodrama, or the multiple Black Moments can feel repetitive. Even more than with #2 above, readers can suspect the author of adding angsty drama just to drag out the story over more books.

Before using this style, we’d want to make sure that our story idea had enough genuine, non-repetitive conflict to justify three books. Many stories simply won’t have the amount of meaty conflict necessary for this style to avoid melodrama (unless that’s what we were going for), as there are essentially two books that focus on what could potentially be a “sagging middle.”

In romance specifically, outside of some subgenres that specialize in higher-angst stories, the multiple Black Moments can make the couple look less stable and able to survive for the long haul. Unless one of the Black Moments deals with a life-and-death situation or something other than romance issues, this back-and-forth drama of the couple breaking up and getting back together several times can feel like flip-flopping and make readers less likely root for the couple.

The multiple cliffhangers automatically add a sense of angst and drama, so authors need to be sure that’s the right tone for their story before trying to make this style work. For genres or subgenres that thrive on those elements, this style can work well to pull readers in, especially if our book description warns readers about the cliffhanger ending (preventing angry reviews from pissed-off readers).

If we’re reluctant to notify readers of the cliffhanger ending because we’re afraid they’ll pass on our story, we might want to ask ourselves if this style is a good match for our story’s tone, angst and drama level, and genre. Readers who love high-angst won’t be put off by a cliffhanger ending, but if our readers or stories aren’t a good fit for drama, we might want to think twice before using this style.

Story Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Book One:
    Act One / Act Two (25%, 50%, & 75% mark turning points)
  • Book Two:
    Act One / Act Two (25%, 50%, & 75% mark turning points)
  • Book Three:
    Act Three (story climax) (or could include Acts One/Two/Three)

Arc Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Plot Arc: The plot conflicts increase in stakes (perhaps with different antagonists growing in strength) and aren’t resolved until the third book.
  • Character Arc: With the multiple Black Moments, emotional issues are often revisited in the first two books, which could feel repetitive if we’re not careful.

*whew* There are probably other styles I’m forgetting or other pros and cons to each of these, but that’s far more of a brain dump than I thought I had time for while being sick. Hopefully, with this information we can match our story to the structure that will work best for us, our characters and plot, and our readers. *smile*

Have you read or written trilogies before? What style were they? Do you have preferred styles or styles you avoid? Can you think of other styles or other insights to these I’ve listed? Do you have any story structure questions about trilogies that weren’t answered here?

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What do you think?

24 Comments on "Story Structure: What Should We Do for Trilogies?"

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Alexis

Great stuff! Any insights on trilogy structure with a different couple in each book? Specifically about series plot arc and series hook. Thanks!

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

I’m actually writing a style #2 quadriliogy (after numerous changes of mind regarding the format) and the timing percentages you’ve given are very helpful! I want to have all four books drafted before getting heavily into revisions to make sure the structure and continuity are sound 🙂

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

It’s very helpful 🙂 I’m working on the first draft of book two at the moment and it ends with the MC having big arguments with her best friend and her sister, leaving her completely isolated. Books three and four take a bit of a dark turn.

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Great post!
Once again, your image at the top of the post is excellent. Now every time I see three chairs in a waiting lounge, I am going to think of story structure of trilogies.
Especially liked the “Story Structure and Arc structure for This Style of Trilogy”. Have never seen it broken down quite like that before. Great insight!
Thanks and Stay Well,
Donovan

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Me again. Sorry to blurb all over your blog.
But you know something, the image at the top of this page is really insightful. I don’t think I would ever have thought to use three lounge chairs that way.
Possibly many of us write for different venues where visual aids add something extra. Could be Church, at the office, or for a social club. Whatever. So for a future post someday, if you would be so kind, expose your process for image picks.
Just an idea.
Stay Well,
Donovan

Leslie Bird Nuccio
Leslie Bird Nuccio

Hi Jami,
Great article! A quick question: so what do you recommend for a larger series? I’m writing the Zodiac Assassins series so there will be 12 books, one for each male, then a 13th to wrap up the macro arc. In addition, I have novellas sandwiched between each big book to highlight a secondary character who will play a larger role in a future book. The only thing I could think of was use the Hero’s Journey structure for sheer preservation of my sanity.
Thank you,
Leslie

Joanna
Joanna

So helpful Jami, thank you! I’ve been turning this question over in my head for some time and you’ve given me much-needed insight and clarity :). I discovered your blog recently and it’s become one of my go-to sources to improve my writing. Hope you’re feeling better!

Lyla Lawless

This is so helpful! I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this applies to a debut author querying a potential series. I know that can scare agents away, so I’d love to hear what you feel are the pros and cons to each of these styles for someone hoping to publish for the first time with the first book of a series.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks. With trilogies I have seen a different couple develop a relationship in each book while aspects of the main plot thread are also developed.

A good start for a story is to jump in at the start of Scene Two, then go back and relate Scene One before progressing. Just don’t give a big infodump about the character’s entire life.

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Laurie Evans

Great resource! I have a trilogy planned, so I’m bookmarking this for later.

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[…] As Donovan Quesenberry, one of my blog readers, noted about my blog image for my post on trilogies: […]

Stephanie A. Cain

Hi Jami! I’ve had the email about this in my inbox for ages, because I keep coming back and reading this post–but I just realized tonight that I’ve never commented!

I’ve been working on what I originally thought was a trilogy, and then decided it was just a duology. Well, this week I finally ran the book 1 synopsis past my critique group, and they said I have too much for two books, so now I’m back to a trilogy! 😀

Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for this post, because I keep coming back to it as I wrestle with this story!

Katelyn Stapleton
Katelyn Stapleton

I feel like my current WIP is a combination of style #1 and style #3 if that is even possible! There is a definite character and plot arc in each, but the 1st and 2nd books end with a cliffhanger. The first book is what I am currently revising, and there is definitely a climax/resolution of the main issue, and then there is a short paragraph after the crescendo that leaves the readers wanting more (I hope!)
Does this sound crazy? Or so crazy that it just might work?

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