How to Plot a Trilogy Part I: The Trouble With Trilogies

guest blogger(cross-posted from Karen Sandler’s blog)

In two guest posts, Karen Sandler, author of Tankborn and the sequel, Awakening, shares her wisdom about how to plot a trilogy.

Part I: The Trouble With Trilogies

Back in my romance writing days, I didn’t write trilogies.  The love stories I wrote were one-offs. Although half of my Harlequin books were all set in the same small town of Hart Valley and had some overlapping characters, there weren’t any connections between the stories. There were two books I did for Harlequin that were part of the Fostering Family mini-series, where the second book picked up where the first left off. Characters from the first book were mentioned in the second, but the main story revolved around a new hero and heroine.

TankbornThen along came Tankborn. When I first wrote Tankborn, I had a hazy idea of possibly writing a trilogy. Then when I signed with my agents and we were getting the manuscript ready for submission, they suggested I write up short blurbs for a second and third book. When we sold to Lee and Low/Tu Books, the original contract was only for the one book, but we later sold them two other books to complete the trilogy.

So my foray into writing my first real trilogy actually commenced with the second Tankborn book. With book one, I was blissfully ignorant of how anything I wrote might have a ripple effect into books two and three. Although I’d still had that hazy idea of writing two more books, I completed Tankborn and saw it into print before I ever wrote word one of the second book, Awakening.

And that was when the hand-shackles went on. From the moment I started Awakening, I had to constantly keep in mind the Tankborn universe. The book was already printed, many, many people had already read it, and while most readers probably wouldn’t notice if some little detail wasn’t consistent, someone somewhere would.Tankborn: Awakening

So I certainly couldn’t change the planet my characters were on from Loka to somewhere else. I could not make the sky blue instead of green. There had to be two suns in the sky, not one. And seycats and droms had to have six legs, not four or eight. In other words, I couldn’t fudge or goof. The first book was already in print, there for anyone to refer to and point out my mistakes.

Still, as I wrote Awakening, I thought it was pretty cool having the Tankborn universe already defined. I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel. If I couldn’t remember whether seycats had stripes or spots, or just how tall a genetically engineered drom was, I had the best reference in the world–the first book.

So I finished Awakening feeling pretty good about things. My editor and I had a great round of developmental edits that strengthened all my characters and added some complexity to the plot. Then it was time for the copy editor.

That’s when the oopsies started. For instance, Risa, a very minor character in Tankborn, is a prominent secondary character throughout Awakening. As I fleshed out her character in the second book, I gave her red hair mixed with gray. I didn’t bother to check in Tankborn to see if I’d mentioned what color hair Risa had. But the copy editor did check. And pointed out that in Tankborn, Risa is described as having dark hair. For continuity’s sake, Risa’s hair couldn’t be red.

This may seem very minor (and it was for the most part). But I was a little sad at the necessity because Risa has a pet seycat (a wild feline indigenous to the planet Loka) and seycat coats are red (with black/grayish markings). I’d really liked the idea that Risa’s hair matched the seycat’s. That had to go away with the change of hair color, which required a bit more tweaking than a simple change from red to dark.

seycat, Tankborn
Sketch of a seycat

The second blooper was an incorrect character name. There’s an important character who plays a very minor role in Tankborn, a slightly more important role in Awakening, and will play a major role in the third book of the trilogy, Revolution. I used the wrong name for her throughout Awakening. I hadn’t remembered that one of the last changes we made in Tankborn before it went to print was to change that character’s name. Again, it was a good catch on the part of the copy editor that saved us from using the wrong name and really confusing readers.

Alas, there is an error/inconsistency that was my fault that sneaked its way into Tankborn. I only noticed it as I was working on Revolution. There’s a shrub on the planet Loka called a sticker bush. At least that’s what I was calling it all through Awakening, what I thought I’d called it in Tankborn. But it turns out that at some point, I decided to call the sticker bush a prickle bush instead. And I wasn’t even consistent at that, because while I call it a prickle bush twice in Tankborn, I call it a sticker bush once.

Sticker bush
Sticker bush, aka a prickle bush

So what to do? Prickle or sticker? I realized I liked sticker bush better and made an executive decision to call it that, inconsistency be damned.

Live and learn. Continuity in trilogies has proved to be a tricky business. I’ll have another chance to play around with this in my upcoming mystery series from Angry Robot/Exhibit A, which begins with Clean Burn. Since it’s not science fiction, it should be a piece of cake, right?


Thanks, Karen! Stay tuned next Tuesday for part II: Five Tips for Writing Trilogies.

2 thoughts on “How to Plot a Trilogy Part I: The Trouble With Trilogies”

  1. Thanks for this. I’m writing a trilogy right now, and I’ll keep your trials in mind as I work on books two and three.
    I have written a short story from the POV of all four characters in the story, each relaying their impression of the scene as it unfolds, and that was tricky at less than 2000 words! I’m excited for the challenge of getting it (mostly) right with a full YA trilogy.

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