Is there a typical structure for a fantasy trilogy?

To be more specific, would they usually follow the three-act structure, with an act per book? And would each book need a self-contained story arc with a proper beginning and ending? Or could you get away without a proper resolution until the end of the third book?

I know this could be subjective, but what are the norms when approaching this?


There are two main ways to structure a series: each book is essentially a stand-alone with a continuing story as part of the plot (Harry Potter), or each book is a critical part of the whole and they are difficult to read out of sequence or without the other books (Lord of the Rings). Either is fine; they just accomplish different things.

Stand-alone books have the benefit of being easy to draw in new readers out of sequence, as Shan observes. They don't have an overall story to tell as much as they are a journey being taken with the same characters. Harry's story does have a "proper resolution" in the long view, but each book resolves its individual crises, particularly the first three.

A series of books is one story being told in many parts. Each book does need some kind of "beginning, middle, and end," but by no means does each book require closure. Fellowship of the Ring ends with the Fellowship broken: one of the Nine Walkers dead and one presumed dead, two kidnapped, and two vanished off to Mordor. But the story has progressed from "One Ring's discovery" to "Frodo accepts the quest" to "Frodo and Sam leave for Mordor." The "proper resolution" doesn't occur until the multiple ends ;) of Return of the King.

I agree with Shan that if I'm in a bookstore and I see "Book 1 of 3" I may not pick it up unless Books 2 and 3 are next to it on the shelf. However, don't let that stop you from telling your story in the way that your story needs to be told. Write the best story you can, structure it however makes it the most appealing, and let the marketing folks at the publisher worry about selling it in pieces.

David Eddings originally planned his Belgariad series as a trilogy, and the publisher broke it into five books. George R.R. Martin planned the Song of Ice and Fire story for four novels, which grew into six and then split into seven. Yep, pain in the butt for us readers now, but when it's all over, they will all be together on one shelf for future generations.

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    +1. You absolutely need to distinguish between "three books in one trilogy" and "one book in three volumes", as they have very different internal structures. Aug 25 '11 at 13:52
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    I never thought of the two different structures before - which way to go is definitely something I'll have to consider when planning.
    – Lexi
    Aug 25 '11 at 23:14
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    Reading between the lines (sorry, Lauren ;-)) with a heavy dose of my own opinion: write your (epic) story. Then split it up in a trilogy (if you absolutely want to write one... why?). And then probably rewrite bits to make it fit better to this structure. And then get the publisher split it in 5 and rewrite again :D Aug 26 '11 at 23:56

Every part of your work needs to have its own logical arc and structure. In a novel, this can be a chapter or a scene and in a trilogy or series this a book. Each piece should have a beginning, middle, and end. The parts don't live in isolation, though, and each one should leave give the reader enough to enjoy what they are reading but hold back enough to leave them wanting more.

Think about the Empire Strikes Back. By the end of the movie, all the immediate threads have been wrapped up (everyone is rescued, the Empire's motivation is made more clear, and Luke's got a new daddy). The nerds were satiated to the point where they didn't start ripping chairs out of the floor and start tearing down screens. But practically all the big picture stuff was left unresolved and the nerds were going to have to wait three long years to get the full resolution.


Since it has been mentioned in several responses I think there is one more thing to address: Just because the sequels had not been written at the time Star Wars produced doesn't mean that Lucas didn't already have the ideas marinating in his bearded head. And that's an important point for two reasons:

  1. A writer should have the universe, the background, and the character histories completely fleshed out for themselves. Even if never explicitly spelled out to the reader, it will result be a much more thorough work.
    • Easy example: Lucas knew going into production of Star Wars that Vader was Luke's father. This not only changes their dynamic, but also their interactions with Obi-Wan, who is the only person in the film who is aware of this fact. This is never revealed during the first movie (in fact, practically the opposite is stated (that Ben Kenobi is a tricky guy)), but it definitely informed the characters and dialogue.
  2. Also, let's not forget the fact that a pre-destined trilogy only works if the entire thing is unleashed on the public. This is probably less common in publishing (since the whole thing is often written before even being submitted for consideration), but in Hollywood, making one film is no guarantee that your others will be made.
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    and then be disappointed with Ewoks and a happy Vader. Ugh.
    – LarsTech
    Aug 25 '11 at 19:02
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    +1 Love the example. Thinking further, it seems like A New Hope doesn't really fall into this pattern as it feels more stand-alone (Death Star destroyed, Vader presumably so, rebels are happy).
    – Lexi
    Aug 25 '11 at 23:30
  • A New Hope was meant to be a standalone film! George Lucas occasionally claims the opposite, but not very convincingly or consistently. When ESB was written, though, there was a definite plan for a third film (or more). Hence the difference.
    – RoundTower
    Aug 26 '11 at 2:20
  • The original Star Wars trilogy is a Hero's Journey. By definition that journey wasn't completed at the end of Star Wars. The story had to be continued in one or two more films; Luke's journey wasn't finished. If it had tanked, it would have been an unfinished story, not a standalone film. Aug 27 '11 at 11:28

I personally don't like books that force me to buy another 2 books to get the whole story (and maybe wait months or years if the books haven't been published yet).

More and more, whenever I see something like "Part 1 of the Foo Boy trilogy" I just put the book back on the shelf, unless the author is someone I know and enjoy really well(which is very rare).

I think expecting your readers to buy more books to get the whole story is a bit condescending. I prefer something like the "Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" series, where each book is independent, can be read separately.

So my advice is to carry elements of your first book into the second, like some of the characters, the Universe etc, but keep each book independent, so that readers can read any part and still understand the story.

You can have a common underlying theme or plot that runs through all the books, but each book must contain enough information to be read by itself. Like many people, I read the Harry Potter series out of order (at least the first few ones), but had no trouble understanding the whole plot. That, I think, is one of the reasons the series was so successful- I went back and read the other books because I enjoyed them, and not because the author left the story incomplete.

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    You don't feel that sometimes, a story needs to be longer so it's not too rushed? And therefore, it might then make sense to break it up to avoid a 1000+ page novel?
    – Lexi
    Aug 25 '11 at 23:16
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    I love 1000+ page novels. Add some maps and a character reference sheet and I am on Cloud 9 for a week or more. Aug 26 '11 at 0:24
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    I take it you like Patrick Rothfuss' stuff? :D
    – Lexi
    Aug 26 '11 at 0:47
  • On my wishlist; haven't read him yet. I was thinking of George R.R. Martin and Papa Tolkien. And a few of Stephen King's longer ones. Aug 26 '11 at 2:08
  • HP is a bad example. Presumably you can read them out of order, but you get to spoiler yourself too. I personally don't see the books as standalone novels, but as part of a whole. Aug 27 '11 at 0:01

A very typical structure, not already mentioned, is to write a popular standalone book and realise afterwards that instead of starting afresh for your second book, you can write two more books in the same setting or with the same characters.

Perhaps this is more common in the world of film. Even Star Wars, an example given in another answer, wasn't conceived as part of a series until after it (wikipedia). It didn't become Episode IV: A New Hope until after The Empire Strikes Back was released.

I don't think there's anything wrong with this approach. It's hard to write even one good book. If you do happen to write one, and it turns out some of your characters are still alive at the end, then it's time to consider whether you can add another book or two, and what structure the series will have. If you start out trying to write a trilogy, you may find you've bitten off a lot more than you can chew.

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    Maybe it's the OCD-ness in me, but I find there's a certain elegance to having the entire thing planned out from the beginning - mainly so that readers, having reached the end of the third book, can then go back to the first and go, "Oh, that's what so-and-so was talking about! It all makes sense now!"
    – Lexi
    Aug 26 '11 at 3:16
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    RoundTower, that was what I basically described as the first of my two examples. Harry Potter probably isn't a good example of that -- maybe Sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries. Aug 27 '11 at 11:30

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