On writing a trilogy, by Gordon Bickerstaff
An article on writing a trilogy by Gordon Bickerstaff, thriller writer. This article was originally published on the Pinnacle Editorial blog in February 2015.
Today I’d like to welcome author Gordon Bickerstaff to the Pinnacle Blog. Gordon is a writer of thrillers, and it’s been my pleasure to work with him on several occasions. In this guest article Gordon shares his knowledge of writing a trilogy, and explains how the trilogy writer must be a master not only of detail but the bigger picture too.
Writing a trilogy
When I was young, I read Ian Fleming and more recently, I’ve read a lot of Lee Child. I knew I wanted to write a series when I started writing fiction, but I didn’t initially plan the first three books to be a trilogy. To me the prospect of planning for three seemed too overwhelming.
I’ve read that JK Rowling planned her Harry Potter series for five years before she started to write – so planning is a key. The first draft of my first book ran to 130,000 words and I hadn’t finished the story. I realised it would be too large, so I accepted that it would spill into a sequel. Then, as every writer knows, the characters and the story grow organically, and by the time I’d finished the first book, Deadly Secrets, I knew it would become a trilogy.
A big planning decision at the start is whether each book will be self-contained or must be read in sequence to make sense. It is equally possible to have three books in one, or one book in three volumes. The approach for each one is different and it is important to decide early on which it will be. I decided that the Gavin Shawlens thriller series would be standalone books, but that anyone reading the trilogy would gain the added enjoyment of discovering the trilogy story arcs that bind them together.
Every writer has his or her own style, but for me, I have to have the beginning and the end solidly sketched out so I know where I’m coming from and where I am going. So, the ending in the third book, The Black Fox, was known to me when I was writing the first book. I think that it is essential to have that basic structure, so that you can plan for the end of the third book to bring closure to the trilogy. I think it would be difficult for me to write a good ending to the third book that had not been planned in the first two.
Good planning will establish and distinguish book story arcs and trilogy story arcs. The former will be complete in one book and the latter will complete in the third book. Working these out allows you to interweave them so the trilogy arcs become natural background in the book story arcs. I enjoyed the challenge of finding opportunities to fit a trilogy story arc into a book story arc.
For example, I wanted a trilogy romantic arc for Gavin Shawlens that had history (starting when he was sixteen), but not a simple one. One that has been painful and had a dramatic impact on his life.
The next most important aspect for a trilogy, and one I also find enjoyable, is foreshadowing: building in to the first two books the signposts that allude to events that will occur in the third. This is fun because you can lead the reader in one direction and they will guess what is going to happen then twist the story so it goes elsewhere. I love doing that. You can, of course, do that within each book. For a trilogy, it is extra important.
“The trick is to make the foreshadowing an invisible part of the book story arc – not an add-on.”
There is brilliant foreshadowing in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series; the horcrux is a brilliant example. In the first Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan knew that Vader was Luke’s father, so Obi-Wan’s dialogue reflects that knowledge. That writing was so good that, when it was finally revealed, it felt like confirmation of what was already suspected – that Vader was his father. In the Gavin Shawlens series, the foreshadowing starts in Bk1 in several story arcs, and the trick is to make the foreshadowing an invisible part of the book story arc – not an add-on.
I think Bk2 in a trilogy is pivotal for the foreshadowing to get serious. I decided the book story arc in my second book Everything To Lose was not simply a waiting platform for Bk3. So it has its own start, beginning and end. But if you know where you are going to end up in Bk3 then Bk2 is the place to rack up the tension, deepen the mystery. So, Everything To Lose foreshadows the nightmare that is set to run through The Black Fox. After the book story arcs have been completed, the last couple of chapters in Bk2 develop the trilogy arc, started earlier in the book, and let the reader know exactly what is at stake and what the main protagonists are prepared to pay to get what they want. This racks up the tension – and pitches the wit of a single woman against the mighty US military and the CIA.
Writing a trilogy is a large job so it’s essential to keep detailed notes of characters, places, events, injuries, and all the things that describe, interact with or impact on the characters and the story. You are working on three 100,000-piece puzzles at once as opposed to a single 100,000-piece puzzle. The parts have got to fit together perfectly and many of the pieces must fit in all three puzzles. This can be done with a notebook. I started off with a ring-binder folder so I could keep all manner of things in one place.
Now, I use Microsoft OneNote. I have a separate OneNote book for each novel that I write. There are many ways to keep everything together but it is important to keep notes – and keep them up to date –otherwise John A in Bk1 might be rather different to John A in Bk3. You don’t want to have to read through the first two books to find that detail that you need to keep consistent in the third one. Is Zoe’s injury on her left arm or right arm? – can’t remember!
“Have a pad and pencil nearby at all times.”
It is also useful for keeping the timeline so you know what time of the year it is for the characters and you don’t get the weather mixed up, but that’s probably not so much of a problem for books set in UK where snow in the summer is not impossible. In my trilogy, there is a pregnancy that is a trilogy story arc so it was easy to keep track and make sure it didn’t last twelve months.
It’s important to remember that your brain will be working on your trilogy 24/7 so have a pad and pencil nearby at all times. Suddenly your brain will resolve an issue or add a new idea. I always try to have a small notepad and pencil nearby because my brain throws up good ideas, but at odd times. If I don’t jot them down, ten minutes later they are gone forever.
The last occasion I was caught out was when we went to see Barry Humphries’s Farewell Dame Edna Experience at the Kings Theatre in Glasgow. I can’t remember what Barry was talking about but all of a sudden bump-bump-bump I had worked out the sequence of events to conclude a scene. I didn’t have a pencil or paper so I had to detach my listening for the last twenty minutes of the performance and keep refreshing my mind with the new scene. On the way home, my wife thought I’d fallen out with her but I needed to keep refreshing the scene in my head. Pencil and paper – always.
Gavin Shawlens will continue in new stories working for the Lambeth Group but the story arcs in the trilogy are done. Just like in the Superman and Spiderman movies, after a couple of episodes the character has to wrestle with his dark side. Gavin’s dark side needs airing; spring is coming.
About the author
Gordon Bickerstaff was born and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland. He grew up reading Ian Fleming and John le Carré and his first piece of fiction was about James Bond in an answer to a question in a school English examination.
He studied biochemistry at university where he did research on enzyme technology and taught biochemistry. After thirty years of teaching and research and several academic books, he put down the academic pen and took up a fiction pen.
He continues to live in Central Scotland with his wife and enjoys reading, travelling, walking in the hills, and writing stories.