Plotting Series writing Story Structure

How to write a book trilogy: 5 crucial steps

Want to learn how tow write a triad of books that keeps readers with you to the end? Here are 5 key steps for how to write a book trilogy:

Want to learn how tow write a triad of books that keeps readers with you to the end? Here are 5 key steps for how to write a book trilogy:

How to write a trilogy series:

  1. Study trilogies’ structure and learn what works
  2. Plan a thread that builds through all three books
  3. Treat the middle book as a bridge to the finale
  4. Leave real conclusion for the third book
  5. Choose three titles that resonate together strongly

Let’s examine each step closer:

1: Study trilogies’ structure and learn what works

The number three crops up everywhere in storytelling: Three wise men; three little pigs; three blind mice; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The ‘Rule of Three’ as this structural device is known serves multiple purposes. As Joe Bunting reminds, remembering the course of events is crucial to reading a story, and repetition in threes helps stories to stick in our minds. Bunting says:

‘The first two times build tension and the third releases the tension, either through resolution or a twist.’

Now examine some of the great trilogies and think about how they are structured. Take J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example.

The first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, establishes the central cast of the book, introducing the reader to the unlikely hero Frodo and his genial sidekick Samwise Gamgee, along with the wizard Gandalf and the primary villain of the story, Sauron. The book builds tension, as Frodo undertakes to destroy the dangerous ring of the title.

The fellowship encounters multiple challenges and the party decreases in size even as the perils of their quest grow more threatening. When writing the first book of your own trilogy, be it a fantasy novel or a thriller or other genre, think about how:

  • Characters’ emotional load can increase to create tension (Frodo has to cope with the disappearance of pivotal members of his party)
  • Characters’ obstacles can become more challenging (Frodo is more vulnerable at the end than at the start, having only one person to accompany him into dangerous territory)
  • The action of the story can move to a new location or territory that holds unknown surprises

In the second novel of Tolkien’s trilogy, The Two Towers, additional characters are introduced. Tolkien’s multiple conflicts create more questions for the reader.

A branching out of stories as Frodo’s party is scattered creates mounting tension: the action occurs across several locations simultaneously, rather than only on the hero’s path. This complication creates intrigue in the reader, who has not just one outcome (the ultimate goal of the quest) to wonder about but several.

The final novel of Tolkien’s trilogy, The Return of the King does exactly what the third book in a trilogy should do. It:

  • Resolves major plot lines and tensions, bringing the novel as well as the wider story arc to a satisfying conclusion
  • wraps up without being too predictable (Frodo returns to find his home village greatly altered)
  • Adds suspense before the final resolution: The protagonist’s abduction creates further uncertainty and suspense so that there are minor arcs of increasing tension and resolution within the wider resolution itself.

Examine other favourite trilogies. Read over plot summaries if you need to refresh your memory. Think about what is effective about the overarching trajectory from book to book. Ask:

  • How does each book end: What makes the reader desperately need another installment?
  • What is the main story arc?
  • How does the author use smaller story arcs within each novel to sustain interest over the trilogy? Tolkien, for example, changes the story between books one and two from a linear, group quest to multiple stories and predicaments. This creates increased interest because there are suddenly multiple tensions requiring resolution.

2: Plan a thread that builds through all three books

5 steps to writing a book trilogy

One of the most important tips for how to write a trilogy is to make sure each book is a point along a series-spanning continuum. If your books read as entirely unrelated stories, there’s not anything to make them a real trilogy.

In Tolkien’s much-loved trilogy, the quest to Mount Doom is the overarching thread that draws the three books together, making the first two build to a final, conflict-saturated climax.

Epic quest narratives aren’t the only great trilogy fodder. Leo Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical trilogy consisting of the books Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, takes the successive stages of growing up and becoming aware of one’s place in the world as a running theme.

There are many different threads that can run through your three novels, for example:

  • Multiple points along a quest to a climax in book three (as in Tolkien’s trilogy)
  • Successive stages of a central character’s life (as in Tolstoy’s trilogy)

Whatever unifying element you choose, intrigue the reader so that they commit early to getting to the end of book three. One way to create this investment is to make the middle book a rickety bridge to the third:

3: Treat the middle book as a bridge to the finale

YA Author Elana Johnson reminds us that writing the second book in a trilogy isn’t easy:

‘The author has the challenge of living up to Book One, and the characters aren’t new. The world isn’t new. The problems aren’t new.’

Think about how you can make your world and characters new in your second book, however:

  • The book shifts to a new location
  • New characters join the cast (or old characters depart or even die)
  • Things you made the reader believe were true in the first book become less certain (for example, the reader might think a character corrupt, or else dead, but will discover they are not)

Besides making your middle book offer the reader some element of surprise, think of how you can increase tension and uncertainty. Make the second book like a rickety bridge to the third. Tolkien does this in The Lord of the Rings by:

  • Multiplying the settings of the book and making each offer a subset of characters their own challenges
  • Having characters make surprise returns
  • Introducing new (and not entirely trustworthy) characters who will be pivotal to the remainder of the story

Draw on elements of surprise and uncertainty because they make readers curious to find out what happens next.

4: Leave real conclusion for the third book

Having built up suspense and intrigue over three novels, it’s important to create a satisfying ending that lives up to the build-up. At the same time, the ending shouldn’t be so predictable and obvious that readers are left thinking ‘I could have just read the first half of the book’. You can learn how to write a book trilogy ending from the greats:

Tolkien makes the ending of his trilogy surprising by adding dramatic events in Frodo’s hometown that come after the climax of the main story line. If the trilogy had simply ended with the party achieving their objective, there wouldn’t be this extra element of surprise. At the same time, Tolkien does deliver on the climax the trilogy promises the reader from the outset.

Things to avoid in writing the final book in your trilogy:

  • Too much backstory: Don’t assume the reader has forgotten absolutely everything from the previous two books
  • The deus ex machina – a plot development that comes in the nick of time to deliver the main character (and the author) from a complex situation
  • Fizzling out – In Tolkien’s trilogy, the hero Frodo doesn’t simply return home to find everything rosy: conflict has spread even to his own hometown

A strong climax resolves the loose ends of the story without being too obvious or predictable.

5: Choose three titles that resonate together strongly

Elana Johnson quote on how to write a book trilogy

You should leave off choosing titles for your trilogy until the end of completing all three manuscripts, if possible. This is because you’ll have more to draw on and will be able to see links between novels clearer. Publishing doesn’t always work this way, of course. Often authors may publish a single work, not expecting it to turn into a trilogy.

To write titles that link your series together, you could:

  • Use titles that link together the chronology of the series (for example Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth)
  • Try titles that hint at pivotal plot developments in each novel
  • Create titles that contain variations on an important character’s name (for example, in Mervyn Peake’s Gothic fantasy trilogy Gormenghast, the first in the series Titus Groan is named after the eponymous main character while the third (Titus Alone) refers to his solitary travels away from his castle.

In each of the trilogies mentioned above, the title is vague enough not to give away too much. Each title also gives the reader an idea of what the themes in the stories are. In the case of Tolstoy’s trilogy, the reader even has a sense of the chronology that will emerge over the series.

If you want to learn how to write a book trilogy, focus on the five steps outlined above. To begin, understand what works in classic trilogies. Then form an idea of the major narrative threads that will run throughout your trilogy. Work out how you’re going to make the middle book propel the action towards the climax of the third. Find a satisfying conclusion for the third book and tie it all together with memorable titles that suggest how the books relate to one another.

Ready to write a trilogy? Start honing your central story idea and get helpful writing feedback.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

21 replies on “How to write a book trilogy: 5 crucial steps”

Hi Stefanie – fair comment. I think in this instance we can separate classification and publishing purpose from reception and how it’s read. If you think of how often the three volumes have been reprinted in a single bound edition, there is still value to be found in reading the three volumes together and seeing how Tolkien deals with his characters and narrative arcs across the volumes read as a whole as well as individual books. Thanks for raising this point.

This article is useless as you don’t even know what a trilogy is. If you’d read The Lord of the Rings instead of just watching the movies you’d know that Tolkien clearly wrote it as a single novel. It was originally split into three volumes by the publisher because back in those days a novel of that length was considered unsalable. (My how things have changed. In the 1930’s the Hobbit was published as a single novel, but in the 21st century it was split into three movies to maximize profits.)

Hi, The Krotty Kid,

Thanks for weighing in. Since the publisher split the work into three books, that is the experience readers tend to have of the book (reading it in three installments) and because it is so well structured (as the best trilogies are) it does serve as a great example of how to structure a trilogy, from a readability perspective, Tolkien’s original intentions aside. Haven’t seen the movies.


hi, Bridget at now novel,
I am trying to write a trilogy about a teen assassin who falls in love with his asignment (daniella Arbieder), i know in the first book he won’t kill the girl and i leave the reader with them running away. i need help with the first book what other elements can i add

Hi Lane, without knowing more about your plans for the duo, you could show how the assassin guild or profession works in your fictional world – what are the stakes and consequences for going rogue on an assignment? Building some suspense and menace into his choosing the girl over his professional commitment would add good tension and stakes. Hope that helps, keep at it.

I’m currently writing a suspense/fantasy trilogy that’s basically a female Sherlock Holmes rewriting as Sherlock as a fairy. I’m not sure how to establish continuity with this. I can give more information if necessary.

Hi Ayomide. Thanks for sharing that. It’s difficult to advise anything with that amount of information, but it sounds like an interesting if unusual premise. How will the fairy-tale element be brought into the Sherlock Holmes universe?

Thanks for the speedy response and I’ll elaborate: my Sherlock Holmes as well as several other characters are exiled fairies who live among the human race. The main problem – where my version of John is needed – is that they are invisible until they’re needed and as a detective, it’s particularly difficult to talk to witnesses if they forget that you’re there. There are some magical elements – each fairy can choose to focus on one or many schools of magic – but this is mostly treated as a ‘psychic’. Do you understand it a bit more?

It is a little clearer. Is the Sherlock Holmes element essential to the story? Could they not be simply detectives without referencing the other work? Perhaps share what you have so far for feedback with the Now Novel community in the member area of the site? That way you can get diverse feedback, particularly from writers who create fanfiction themselves.

does anyone think this sounds good? As he pulled the girl closer, their bodies entwined with each other, he kissed her neck. Slowly he crept toward her soft supple lips, begging for his attention.

Hey there! I realize I’m a bit late to this discussion so if I don’t get a reply I understand, but I just have a question. I’m currently writing and plotting a series that will most likely shape into a trilogy, and I’ve known it would be a series from the start. The story is rather complex and I don’t think it would work out to try to tell it in just one book. However, through discussions with other authors I’ve also learned that when attempting to publish a series traditionally it’s essential for the book to be able to stand on its own. This is logical to me, but I think I’ve been confusing myself a lot about what it means to stand alone! The main conflict of my series is that the main character’s younger brother is kidnapped, and it leads the main character into this mystery that he ends up realizing is much more complex than it at first seems. In the first book he and his allies are supposed to discover who the culprit is, but they fail in apprehending him and returning the child home. I want getting his brother back to be the main conflict of the series, but is it possible to still have the first book stand on its own with this type of ending? I’m sorry for the long question, and once again I understand if I don’t get a response. This article was very informative and helped me a lot in looking at what I have written and planned for my series so far, and I really appreciate the time and effort you put into sharing this advice. Thank you very much!

As far as having each book in the trilogy be a standalone, that just means having a lesser plot begun and concluded within each book.

For example using a trilogy I’m working on. The overarching plot of the trilogy is my main character(MC) fighting as an officer in a war against a Sorcerous who is a self-proclaimed God of the world, who’s trying to conquer the world, claiming it’s her right to rule. Then I have subplots for each book in the trilogy. In the first book my MC has to fight to keep a dictatorship from rising in his own country while fighting the war against the sorcerous to keep it as a republic so they don’t slip down to the same conditions of lack of freedoms the same as if the sorcerous had won. In the second book my MC has to deal with a conscientious objection movement headed by his son, who’s trying to bring an end to the war with an offering of peace to the sorcerous with a false belief it would actually work. The main character needs to figure out a way to get them to fight because he desperately needs more soldiers for the war. And the third book is where they have the final showdown against the Sorcerous.

In my first two books there are complete beginning to end plots that are completed within a single book. You could have a cliffhanger to do with the overarching trilogy plot, but have a subplot completed within each single book but also contribute to further the overarching plot, and the plot for the third book could simply be to wrap up the overarching plot if you want it that way.

Well that was a long response. I hope my ramblings are helpful to you.

Why don’t you make it a twist, so they think they have rescued the kid but they get the wrong one, or are lied to. What they rescue instead has to have its own value, eg, information, and another set of clues, etc. That way you can still have an epic climax which every good story needs, but it’s not really the end….?

Hello! 3 years late… I have a question.

Would it work if I set up my 2 protagonists in the first book itself, at the end of which one of the protagonists begins to oppose the protagonist and becomes a villain. The second book would venture more about their individual journeys with maybe 1 or 2 confrontations. The third book will give a redemption arc to the villain.

Of course this is just a tiny description of my book, and the first book will have its overarching plot that will be concluded in the first book itself. I am just wondering if it’s fine to turn the protagonist into a villain in the end of the first book (not in a cliffhanger fashion but a character development sort)

Hi Avanish,

Thank you for asking. I’d say that’s a very interesting prospect and provided that the second protagonist’s arc from being less outwardly villainous to more of a villain makes sense in light of the events in their arc, it should work fine. Good luck with it!

[…] Joab Stieglitz is an established author who is best known for writing creative and compelling trilogies. His works the Utgarda Trilogy and the Thule Trilogy are both beautiful trilogies of adventure novels that provide their readers with a different kind of reading experience – an experience that stirs their imaginations and leave them on the edge of their seats. The Thule Trilogy by Stieglitz, particularly, is still a work in progress, but it is already making a good impression among the reading public. Joab Stieglitz is evidently one of the few authors in the literary world who can pull off a trilogy. In general, trilogies are not easy to work on. There are several things that you need to consider and remember in writing a trilogy. […]

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