Gareth L. Powell: A Trilogy Of Things I Learned Writing A Trilogy

Writing a trilogy is tricky business. I just finished writing my first official one (the Heartland series, with The Harvest being the final book coming out in July), and I’m still not sure how to codify it, yet. So when Gareth said he’d like to take the bullet, hey, who am I to stop him? So, here he is to talk about what it takes to write a trilogy:

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January 2015 saw the UK and US release of Macaque Attack from Solaris Books, the third novel in a trilogy that began with the BSFA Award-winning Ack-Ack Macaque in 2013, and continued with last year’s Hive Monkey. While I had previously written a couple of standalone space operas, these three ‘monkey books’ represented my first complete series, and I learned three main things while writing them.

1. CHARACTER ARCS

If you’re embarking on a multi-book epic, you need to make sure you’re writing about some compelling characters. Writing a trilogy is a huge commitment. Each of the books in the ‘Macaque’ trilogy took six months to write, which meant spending a year and a half of writing time immersed in the same fictional universe, in the company of the same fictional individuals.

And what I learned was this: if you’re going to be spending a lot of time – potentially years – in their heads, you have to give them the potential to develop and grow in interesting ways. Otherwise, you’re going to get bored of them, and if you do, you can be sure your readers will as well.

In the Macaque books, each of the characters has an arc that runs through the trilogy. For Ack-Ack Macaque, the titular simian at the centre of much of the action, that arc is a journey that takes him from loner to family man. He starts off as a traumatized escapee from a laboratory, angry and liable to lash out at the slightest provocation; and ends up (having gradually lowered his defences and allowed friends into his life) older, calmer and wiser. He goes from being indestructible and reckless to mortal and all-too-human, but gains so much along the way. He comes to understand the world, the true cost of his actions, and gathers around him a strange, barely functional ‘family’ of damaged individuals. In this sense, his story is the same one we all go through – of growing up, accumulating responsibilities and scars, and building meaningful relationships.

The other major character, Victoria Valois, is on the opposite journey. At the start of book one, she has lost her husband to a particularly brutal murderer. Through the course of the trilogy, she has to come to terms with this loss – a process made complicated by the presence of his electronic ‘ghost’, a self-aware download of his personality, taken shortly before his death. Her journey is one of shock, denial, grief and vengeance; but at the same time, it is one of empowerment. Through her pain and the situations in which she finds herself, she grows in confidence, ability and self-reliance.

These dual character arcs reflected and illustrated the main themes of the books, and allowed me to significantly change and develop the characters in each volume, creating an ongoing story over and above the main ‘plot’ of each novel. And the response I’ve had from readers has been fantastic, especially in Victoria’s case. A lot of people have been able to identify with her journey from lost and damaged accident victim to self-confident and resourceful badass.

2. CONTINUITY VS STANDALONE

With a series, it’s sometimes hard to know how much knowledge of previous installments you should assume on the part of the audience. Will everybody who picks up book three have read books one and two? How much should you recap and explain in order for them to enjoy reading it? And how much can you afford to explain before you start to bore those readers who’ve stuck with you from the beginning?

While the three books in the Macaque trilogy tell one continuous story, I also wanted to make each of them as accessible as possible to the casual reader. Therefore, each book opens with a short paragraph outlining the origin of the story’s world – a timeline where Great Britain and France merges in 1959. Beyond that, each book has its own self-contained adventure, with a beginning, middle and end, and it is the characters that provide the continuity and back story, via dialogue and moments of reflection.

I hope each book can be read and enjoyed on its own terms, but knowledge of the preceding books definitely adds to the understanding and enjoyment of the later volumes.

This is particularly true in Macaque Attack, in which characters from one of my earlier space operas [The Recollection, Solaris Books, 2011] make a surprise appearance. You don’t need to have read the space opera in order to enjoy the action, but you’ll get a lot more out of the story if you have.

3. EACH INSTALLMENT NEEDS TO CHANGE THE GAME

One of the things I was determined not to do was write the same book three times. If this was to be a trilogy, each book needed to add something significant. It had to justify its existence.

After book one introduced the world and brought the characters together, book two needed to turn everything on its head, introducing us to the darker side of our hairy protagonist, and the paths he might otherwise have taken. Then, with book three, I had to take everything up another notch, while simultaneously harking back to the beginning of book one, and the themes that had kicked everything off in the first place.

I had to provide a fitting conclusion while simultaneously tying up all the loose ends from books one and two, and bringing each character’s emotional and developmental journeys to a satisfying close.

TO RECAP:

1. Characters need to be strong enough to carry the weight of the story and hold the attention of the reader. They have to be characters we want to follow and find out more about.

2. Decide how accessible you want each volume to be for readers new to the series.

3. Each volume of the trilogy has to justify its position. It has to bring something new to the party – a new piece of the puzzle, more trouble for our protagonists, something we haven’t seen before. Think about the Empire Strikes Back and how it deepened and darkened the Star Wars universe after the bright optimism of A New Hope – every installment of your trilogy has to similarly turn the tables on the characters and the reader, taking the plot, the tension, the stakes, and the development of the characters themselves, up to a whole other level.

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Gareth L. Powell is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author from the UK. His third novel, Ack-Ack Macaque, co-won the 2013 BSFA Award for Best Novel (tying with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice). He has also had shorter work featured in Interzone and 2000 AD. You can find more of his writing advice at www.garethlpowell.com, or follow him on Twitter at @garethlpowell.