The “classic” trilogy

Hi gang! Craig with you again today. I’m in the middle of writing a trilogy, so take this info with a grain of salt. I’ve done my homework, and I want to share some of that here today. The topic is the “classic” trilogy.

You know as well as I do, that any three related books can be called a trilogy. Did you know there is such a thing as a classic trilogy and it has a pattern? Patterns are good for authors. We don’t always have to do the same thing others have done, but knowing about the pattern helps you elevate your game.

You might be thinking, “Yeah, yeah. Craig is the speculative fiction guy, so we’re going to talk about The Lord of the Rings.” Nice try, but we’re not. LOTR was actually one gigantic, whoppin’-big novel that got chunked up for publication purposes.

When I think of the classic trilogy, I think of…

APRIL 28 2019: Darth Vader Lego Mini Figure with Star Wars wallpaper on an iPhone screen for Star Wars Day concept May the 4th Be With You

The original trilogy illustrates this better than any example I can think of. Let’s break it down, and I’ll add some personal experiences along the way.

Book One: We need to introduce the characters and all that jazz, but the story itself has another job to perform. It has to introduce the real conflict of the overarching plot without getting too deep into it. Book one is almost a microcosm of the story you plan to tell. It ought to be complete without ever reading one of the subsequent tales.

We have Luke Skywalker living on a farm that apparently grows dirt. It’s boring, and he’s even willing to join the military to get away from this place. This is good, because the classic trilogy has to have that exposure to new things, and your main character is the best way to reveal that. He comes into possession of two droids and this becomes a “Save the Princess” story. Travel is involved, and that’s just what you want.

Saving princesses is a classic tale, and nobody is going to pinch their nose at that, however, the real underlying purpose is to reveal an even bigger problem. Much bigger than one princess that needs saving.

When I wrote Voyage of the Lanternfish, I took this to heart. My damsel in distress isn’t a princess, but I went with the classic. There is plenty of story to flesh this baby out, but along the way my characters learned of an even bigger and more global problem. Okay, maybe I don’t have a universe at risk, but a world at war is bad enough.

Book Two: Okay, princess saved – check. Dragon slayed, drug lord thwarted, what have you. Now is the time to dive into that much bigger problem you revealed in book one.

Something has to prevent the hero/ine from high-fiving everyone and declaring it Miller Time. There is a problem that’s going to land on the front porch if your main character doesn’t keep on heroing. The bigger evil isn’t going to stop.

The pattern of book two is one of loss. Whatever the hero tries, there is likely to be a shallow victory, but a bigger failure.

Luke and friends escape from Darth Vader, minus one perfectly good hand, but the rebellion is scattered in an attempt to avoid total destruction. The characters survived, but lost the war. Things are looking pretty grim. That’s where the book ends. (Or film. Play along with me here.)

If you think about it, it follows three-act structure, but not quite. Act-two is usually the longest part of a story, but book-two of a trilogy is usually the shortest volume. This is because your trilogy vaguely follows three-act structure, but not completely.  The individual volumes should. (My books. You may have a different format you like to follow.)

I’m in pretty good shape here. Lanternfish was 110K words, so coming in shorter ought to be easy enough. What I have to do is get to the point. We’ve met the characters, their motivations, and wounds already. I don’t have to dedicate a lot of pixels to that part of the tale.

I’m currently writing this one, and know how it’s going to turn out.

Book Three: This is what your readers have been waiting for. They hung in there through thick and thin, and they have faith you can bring this home. Your goal is to do nothing less than pull off a miracle. Well, your characters have to do that, but you might, too.

Things are grim. They’re likely to get worse. Then a sliver of data shows up that might give you one last chance. Of course your hero/ine has to take it.

Meanwhile, back in a galaxy far, far away… The good guys are all alive, but their ability to wage war is all but gone. They come up with one tidbit of intel that Vader is coming to the new Death Star to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And he’s fresh out of bubble gum. The heroes can bag him by taking out the new weapon. They don’t have much in the tank, but they’re going to assemble the troops and take one last shot at it. It’s a life or death battle they face.

Obviously, they squeak by and the universe is saved. Fireworks, dancing Ewoks, etc. There is one hell of a lot going on besides my interstellar flyover. Luke has daddy issues, and sister issues, and the Force is in play, light-sabers, etc. Obviously, your trilogy is going to need that kind of intrigue, too. This post isn’t about that stuff. It’s about the basic structure of the classic trilogy.

I have most of an outline (storyboard) for how I intend to follow this structure in my own trilogy. I’m knee deep into book two, and hope to have it out next year.

So how about it, gang? There are trilogies, then there are classic trilogies. Have you ever tried the classic version? Am I insane for taking this on? Would you ever try the classic version? Do you have any tricks to share, because I’m open to suggestions. I thrive on comments, so leave me some. And may the Force be with you.

38 thoughts on “The “classic” trilogy

  1. My series was initially going to be a trilogy. That’s how I had it planned out. But somewhere while writing book one, I realized that book two really had two different tales to tell. So, I created two books with the same time line, each from the perspective of opposing forces. While writing the second of those two books, I realized that I couldn’t just write a finale to tie it up quite yet. So, my trilogy ended up being a series of five books. Lol!

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  2. This is a fantastic post, Craig. It’s almost like a three-act play. Act one – introduce all the characters and give them some stuff to do. Act Two- dive deeper into a couple of the characters’ makeup and give them bigger stuff to do. Act Three – wrap it all up after you’ve given the characters the hardest stuff to do. I know it’s not that simple, but that’s what came to mind. Congrats on tackling the trilogy! I am so frustrated not to find more reading time because Serang is calling me!

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  3. LOVED this post, Craig! Although I’m familiar with the concept of the classic trilogy, your look at it was informative and highly entertaining. Loved the lines about Miller Time and Vader chewing bubble gum, LOL. I used to read a ton of classic trilogies. Epic fantasy (especially back in the “old” days) was great for following the pattern. There was a time (my younger self) when I read nothing but epic fantasies and classic trilogies. I’ve written 2.5 books of one (fantasy) that will likely never see the light of publication, remaining safely tucked away in a trunk.

    More recently I’ve written two series, each 3 books long. I tend to think of them more as a series since each book is a stand alone. My Point Pleasant series did have an overreaching story arc that spanned all three books, so I suppose it would be considered a trilogy.

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    • The classic version is certainly not the only way. I decided to tackle it, because I like to play with all the tools. It’s posing some interesting issues, mostly with timing and geography, but I’ll get there. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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  4. John Howell has expressed my concern about publicity, but in a different way. How, indeed, do you persuade readers to start with Book 1? In my experience, many pick up any book in a series – in one case, my Book 4 attracted more readers than Book 3. It didn’t matter because they are all written to standalone.
    Ideally, with a Classic Trilogy like the one Craig is tackling, all three books should be written before publication and issued as a boxed set. I base that conclusion on a friend who wrote a superb trilogy, but each book but the last was open-ended and sales disappointed her. The boxed set, published later, is doing very well.

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    • In a perfect world, that makes some sense. My world is imperfect. Book one stands alone in my case. Like I said earlier, I may have to tinker with promo that offers the first book at a discount, or even free, as part of my efforts. It may help to mention the sequence in the blurb. I’ve always written stand alone books, so series work is new to me. Lanternfish was intended to be a lone title, but I got a lot of requests for more.

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  5. I’ve done a trilogy with the same set of villains or a family of them if you like versus the heroes. They were the link that held the books together. Currently, I’m editing a trilogy where the main characters will change and again a set of villains or allies is who they’ll fight. I liked the idea of changing the baddies in the books. I think the classic trilogy is noble to aspire to. Good luck, Craig!

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  6. Enjoyed the discussion. The John Cannon Trilogy follows the classic format. In fact, the titles give the reader a clue. My GRL (very personal) His Revenge (The antagonist prevails) Our justice (The sun comes up on a brighter day) All three books have the same characters but the interaction between them makes for entirely different stories.

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  7. Reblogged this on Entertaining Stories and commented:

    Many of you know that I’m a member of Story Empire. This is a blog where we try to help our fellow authors with tips, tricks, tech, and writing advice. I’m up today, and my topic is the “classic” trilogy. Stop over and say hi. You might check out some of the other things Story Empire has to offer while you’re there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the reblog. I think a big part of it is that book one stands off to the side and your hero walks in with a more personal agenda. During that story, they get their eyes opened to something bigger. I’m only a couple of chapters into your SF book, so I don’t quite have the lay of the land.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Craig
    The Classic Trilogy is a fascinating concept, but how do you plan to market book two?
    I’m working on book three of a trilogy at present, but if i didn’t advertise it differently readers could be forgiven for thinking “that’s it”. There were issues in book two, but they were subtly planted before the “happy ending”.
    Best, Sarah

    Liked by 3 people

    • I have no idea. This will be a first for me. There is some possibility of a sale for book one and a promo tour to push book two. In other words, I could tour the series, with a carrot of getting book one at a temporary discount.

      Liked by 3 people

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