‘Even if you evolve the story, you can leave the character imperfect.’ – Nicholas J. Johnson.
Nicholas J. Johnson chatted with Aime Kaufman and David Henley about their love of trilogies, and what they think makes for a captivating trilogy, as part of the National Writers’ Conference at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Here are a few highlights.
How do you plan a trilogy?
Aime and Meagan Spooner co-authored The Starbound Trilogy. All three books have different stories, but none could happen without the other. Thorough world-building helped with planning the series. Aime lists the Legend series by Marie Lu as her favourite trilogy, as ‘it answers all the questions it poses’.
Nicholas wrote Chasing The Ace as a stand-alone novel. He signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster, with an option for a third. The second book will be stand-alone, with a character from Chasing The Ace appearing in both books.
David said the secret to creating a successful subsequent book is to save events that happen to the world after the story ends. He described his Pierre Jnr trilogy as ‘a celtic knot’.
How do you avoid middle-book syndrome?
Nicholas listed The Matrix and The Hunger Games as examples of titles that suffered middle-book syndrome, as he said no one cared what happened by the time The Matrix Reloaded ended, and Catching Fire was not distinguishable from The Hunger Games.
Aime believes all writers should ask themselves what the absolute climax of the series is, and to relentlessly question themselves. Aime created a whole new set of characters and conflicts in her second book.
David said writers should raise the stakes with each book.
What do you do if your publisher is only interested in one book, and not the whole trilogy?
Aime recommends telling your agent at the outset if you are planning a trilogy, so that you have the right to publish sequels elsewhere if the publisher is only interested in one book. You can consider self-publishing, but must be mindful about how difficult self-publishing in. Importantly, set up a website and keep in contact with your readership.
David suggested authors need to carefully consider their story arch.
Nicholas recommended asking yourself if your work is really suitable for a trilogy, or whether it is better off as a standalone novel.
How do you prevent subsequent books from sounding too similar?
While Nicholas’ trilogy have the same characters, each book is narrated by a different character and set in a different city.
David avoids the general hero structure and keeps the plot unravelling.
Nicholas suggested if your character ends up back at the same place at the end, then you will end up repeating yourself in the subsequent book.
How do you make sure your character keeps developing in subsequent books?
Aime noted that each time you develop the characters and plot, the scale of the story should evolve.
Nicholas advised against putting a bow on the character at the end of the first book. ‘Even if you evolve the story, you can leave the character imperfect’.