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Thinking in Threes: Tips and Tricks for Writing a MG Trilogy

So you’ve decided to write a trilogy. Maybe a longer series than that. Seriously? You know that you’re on the hook for at least three books then, right? Probably years worth of your life on one story. Is that really…I mean do you honestly…? I’m sorry, but I can’t even…

You know what? Fine. You’re clearly going to exhibit the exact same poor judgment as I did and maybe enjoy your vainglorious endeavor just as much as I have. Since I can’t talk you out of it, maybe I can offer some helpful (or, failing that, at least not utterly terrible) tips. As I do I’ll be using the original Star Wars trilogy and the Harry Potter series as examples, since at this point you’ve either watched and read them or have been so thoroughly harassed by the rest of the planet that you at least know the broad strokes of each.

Book 1, the “Stand-alone with Series Potential”

Let’s start by getting down to brass tacks. You’ve got too much story to fit into just one book, and you really want that multi-book deal so that you can get all of it out into the world. But…unless you’re an established author with a proven sales record, that’s asking a lot of potential publishers. Publishing any book is a gamble and more often than not, it’s a losing gamble because the majority of books sadly do not turn a profit. And here you are asking them to double, triple, quadruple, or whatever down on that bet. That’s enough to give even the most enthusiast publishing house cold feet. So what do you do?

You do what almost every agent and editor suggests you do: you write the first book in a way that allows itself to stand on its own and pitch it as “a stand-alone with series potential.” By doing that, you give publishers a lot more wiggle room. Maybe they love the book and your pitch for the rest of the series so much they sign you to a multi-book deal. Fantastic! Maybe they agree to publish the first book and contractually call first dibs on any sequels. Cool. Maybe they only commit to that first book but nothing else. Well, you’re still getting one book traditionally published, which is more than the majority of writers get. And the thing is, if you look at the first Harry Potter book, the first Star Wars movie, and the first installment in most series, they’re usually complete stories that do not need to be continued (but fortunately are).

Sow the Seeds

While your first book, ideally, is complete in and of itself, it should also lay the groundwork for the rest of the books in your series. Is there a big bad that your protagonist will have to face by the end? Will they need to acquire some sort of special weapon or artifact to take the big bad down? Do they have some hidden power or untapped potential they will need to discover? Is there some deep personal flaw or hidden truth that they will have to grapple with at some point along the way? Little clues to some or all of those things should be there in that first book.

Again, consider our exemplars. Star Wars: we know that Luke knows next to nothing about his father; the Empire, while it has lost its Death Star, still exists as does its emperor; and Vader is alive and out there somewhere. Harry Potter: Voldemort has found some way to come back from the dead and could possibly do it again, and Harry has six more years of study at Hogwarts. To varying degrees, both first installments contain the seeds of their series as a whole.

That said, you don’t necessarily have to have every last thing figured out about your series by the time you’re done revising and submitting that first book. There is—and I would argue should be—room for discovery, play, reaction to critical and popular responses, and so on as you work (knowing that Lucas had not yet decided that Luke and Leia were siblings makes that incestuous kiss in Empire Strikes Back slightly less creepy, although it’s still really creepy). However, you should have the all the big stuff figured out and seeded in that first book.

Expanding the World, Increasing the Stakes

So the first book is done, and you’ve teed up those future installments of the story. Now it’s time to start branching out and turning up the heat. In addition to telling more of your overarching story, consider each book a chance to explore with your readers more of your world. No matter how much you packed into Book 1, there are still new sights to see and new people to meet, and that’s what your readers want. We’ve seen Tatooine and the inside of some spaceships—now let’s see Hoth and Dagobah. We know the staff of Hogwarts really well, so how about we bring in Gilderoy Flockhart and Sirius Black?

As the scope of your world increases, so should the stakes of each adventure. Obviously, the final book is going to be the biggest—you have been building to those final face-offs, ultimate sacrifices, and whatnot—but there should be a build in intensity in the middle book or books along the way. In The Empire Strikes Back, the empire rallies, the emperor and Vader both take an interest in Luke, Luke finds out Vader is his father, and Han gets captured and frozen in carbonite. Potter? The further you go in that series, the more powerful the Death Eaters get and the bodies of your favorite characters start getting stacked up like cordwood.

Tie Up the Loose Ends

This last point seems so obvious that it almost doesn’t seem worth highlighting: wrap everything up. When they come to the final installment of a series, readers—especially kids—want a sense of closure. Of course, you’ll be resolving the central conflict of the series—the foe is defeated, the threat neutralized, peace and order restored, etc.—but beyond that, you need to take care of all those subplots and other stray little bits that you’ve woven throughout the narrative. Return of the Jedi redeems Vader and takes down the Empire, but it also takes care of Han’s problems with Jabba the Hutt and brings he and Leia together. The Deathly Hallows? If I went through all the things that book resolves, this blog post would be at least twice as long as it already is. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve shut the door on the world you’ve created—J.K. Rowling obviously found enough shadowy corners of the Potterverse to crank out a stage play and a five-movie series thus far, and there will no doubt be new Star Wars movies for my great-grandchildren to watch via wireless neural-feed—but this particular overarching story needs to be clearly and definitively done.

There. I’m now done enabling this very poor personal choice of yours. I hope some of the above advice proves helpful, and I eagerly look forward to being taken on an adventure or three. Or more. Happy writing!

Jon Etter grew up in the cornfields of Illinois on a farm just outside of the town of Forrest (Population: 1300 and some dogs), where he spent most of his time devouring books in the local library. After high school, he earned a B.A. in English Education from Illinois State University and had the pleasure of taking a creative writing class with David Foster Wallace (he remembers Wallace complaining during one of their three-hour night classes about the tedium of reading through the galley proofs of the new book Wallace had coming out, which turned out to be Infinite Jest). Since then, Jon has earned an M.A. in English Literature from University of Wisconsin-Madison and Speech Certification from Carroll University. He is the author of the new MG trilogy, Those Dreadful Fairy Books (Amberjack Publishing).

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