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I set out to write a trilogy, and feel my characters, world, and story are complex enough to warrant it. However, the more I dig into it, I’m sensing three books isn’t enough. But it will be a huge and complex undertaking to add a forth book since I’ll have to dive so deep into the intricacies of the universe I am developing.

I started teasing the idea of reducing it to a duology by stripping some of the complexity out. I can see how it would go, but feel like it’s a waste of the world I created (as in readers might be disappointed that I didn’t milk certain things). It would be way more manageable,though.

How do you decide whether to let a story be big by milking all it’s potential or to simplify it? Are there any methods to determine which is most effective to telling the story?

Also just a note, the complexities in my story aren’t just there for fun. They are necessary for the story to make sense. They just have a potential to be expounded on or left more “at a distance.”

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    What I observe is that the number of sequels correlates strongly to the number of copies sold ;-). Sep 6, 2022 at 9:00
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    Important question: how did you decide it would/should be a trilogy? does your whole story can be separated in 3 different, independent stories with a greater, common "conflict"? did you just say "trilogies are cool!"?
    – Josh Part
    Sep 6, 2022 at 17:12
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    @JoshPart Hi, I plotted it out, giving each book a separate 3AS that serves as an act in the overall story. I just felt the conclusion in book 3 wrapped up too soon, and there was untouched potential that would drive the themes home in a forth book. It definitely wasn’t a for-fun choice—it was a necessary one based on the depth of the story I have in my heart to tell.
    – a.m.d.
    Sep 6, 2022 at 17:32
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    Your agent will tell you, largely by ducking your calls
    – Valorum
    Sep 6, 2022 at 18:33

1 Answer 1

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I would first point out that beginning writers with no commercial success will approximately never sell a multi-book series.

The rule for a multiple-book story is relatively simple: The first book must absolutely stand alone. And every book must absolutely come to a conclusion that is satisfying even if it turns out to be the final book in the series.

That is not necessary true for commercially successful authors; Stephen King could likely publish a trilogy that doesn't meet these rules, because his reputation and following of paying customers ensures all costs will be recouped almost no matter what.

But if you look at the most successful series of all time, Harry Potter, JK Rowling was an unknown author, and the first book and following books very much stand alone. She does introduce more world elements as she goes along, that's fine.

That leads us to your epic, of 2 or 3 or 4 books.

How many independent novel length stories can you craft out of that?

What can you do in 100,000 words that can be an independent novel, with all the story arcs, following the Three Act Structure (3AS), and not leave the reader disappointed and wondering how the story ends?

The 3AS is recursive; the trilogy as a whole basically follows it (or a quadology?), The first book details a major problem, the 2nd (and maybe 3rd) develop complications, the final act resolves everything.

But each book must also follow that structure; Problem, Complications, Resolution.

At the end of the first book, the initial problem is solved, the world is introduced, but the bigger problem is just understood, not resolved.

At the end of the first star wars movie, the Death Star is destroyed but Darth Vader is not dead. In the second movie, Vader returns and the rebels are on the run. In the third, the rebels prevail.

You must do the same, each book must serve two purposes simultaneously: It must serve as an Act of the overall 3AS story, while simultaneously being a self-contained 3AS within its own 100,000 words.

That's how the business works.

Once you are successful, you may have more leeway. But even JK Rowling, the most financially successful author ever, wrote a series with each book having its own 3AS. Readers could be confident that buying the next book in the series, while developing their favorite characters further, would introduce a new problem, then complications, then have a satisfying resolution of the problem introduced.

So this is how your "how many books" question is resolved. It is not really about how much information and education you need to do. It is about how many independent, 100K word 3AS stories you can develop. If you have 400K words to write, you need 4 or 5 consecutive but independent 3AS books.

I'd suggest for the first one, you steal the approach used in Star Wars: The first film (we the audience see) acts as the "First Super Act" by introducing our hero, Luke Skywalker, and moving him from novice farmboy to Jedi Knight, an accomplished warrior. Also while introducing the world to the audience for the first time. (Edit: Also, Luke has firmly left behind the "farmboy normal world" where he began; as we'd expect from a First Act. He's a rebel soldier now.)

At the end of the first Super Act Luke is not a master, he's not ready to fight the big evil (Darth) directly, but Luke delivers on a key battle in a bigger war; he destroys the Death Star and puts Darth on his heels; spinning off into empty space. The Death Star is basically "the inciting incident" for the trilogy.

I imagine you need a similar transformation of your hero.

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    Indeed, the Death Star wasn't originally supposed to be destroyed in the first Star Wars movie; that was exactly what you say - tying things up somewhat in case the other movies don't get made. Just like, say, The Lord of the Rings was always meant to be a single book (with Tolkien pressured by his publisher to split it into three).
    – Luaan
    Sep 6, 2022 at 7:02
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    @Luaan: nitpick, LotR was always meant to be six books, and still is - you have Book One through Book Six, each with about a dozen chapters. Now indeed he was pressured to publish in three volumes - two books per volume - and title the volumes individually, but that's for practical reasons (as opposed to a single humongous volume, or six tiny volumes) and did not affect the writing. In fact each of the six books is 3AS, to some degree. LotR is often a poor example to use when discussing series since it is not, in fact, a series (and hence not a trilogy), but rather a single continuous story.
    – Boris
    Sep 6, 2022 at 15:55
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    @amadeus thank you for your detailed answer! That is very helpful and gives me a lot to consider.
    – a.m.d.
    Sep 6, 2022 at 17:10
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    As a note, I have read a good web series which seems to follow 3AS (seems, because it's the middle of book 2 right now) not only in book structure, but even in individual chapters. This is more necessary for web series, because the chapters are posted periodically (usually one to three a week). If too many of them don't stand on their own, the readers will just stop reading.
    – jaskij
    Sep 6, 2022 at 17:34
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    She does introduce more world elements as she goes along, that's fine as long as there is continuity, respect for the previous elements, and as little retcons as possible. I agree with the point, I just wanted to expand it because it's quite easy to get "too excited" introducing new elements and forgot or not note that those new elements somehow "clash" with how the universe has been build up to that point, and that can make people really, really angry
    – Josh Part
    Sep 6, 2022 at 20:50

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