Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

This post is the sixteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before you began writing, I suggested you develop your characters. This not only saves you in rewriting but the characters will be more realistic and their behavior consistent if you know them well. One of the ways to do this is to develop your characters’ back story. The back story is your character’s history – the event and circumstances that made them into the person they are today.

Reasons you should know your character’s backstory

  • You will know which major events in their past may affect their motivation during the main story arc
  • You are able to inject subtle clues about your character’s past into your narrative which can create mystery and interest for your reader
  • Your character’s past may be a major driving force of the main plot
  • By understanding your character’s history, you may discover the perfect opening scene for your story

Now you don’t have to know all this for every character. But you should know it for your main characters. Everything in their past as well as their innate personality traits will dictate their action, which in turn drives the plot of your story.

Creating character back story can be a time-consuming task. But doing so will build strong, solid characters that come to life for your readers.

Now you may be wondering why I am discussing building their back story when this is something that should have been done before you began writing. I am bringing this up now because as you write your story, you may want to incorporate some of this back story into your novel.

But how do you do this? And does your reader really need to know this?

The basic rule of thumb is to tell the reader only what he or she needs to know to understand what is happening in the story at that moment.

Basically, you want to add the back story in little bits – a couple of sentences here and there. You don’t want large blocks of text. This stops the momentum of the story. Writing about back story stagnates your story. It is telling the reader information rather than showing them. It doesn’t engage any of the reader’s senses. They are no longer actively participating in the story. They are busy reading background that might or might not be relevant to the action that is about to start.

I read on another website a good way to think about this. Consider adding back story in terms of taking bites. You can’t eat a whole cake in one bite. However, you can eat it by taking lots of little bites. Trying to eat a cake in one bite could cause you to choke. It is the same with back story; include it in small bits so the reader doesn’t choke.

Because back story slows down the reader, one place you want to make sure you DO NOT include a lot of back story is in the beginning of your story. You only have a few pages to hook the reader so use those pages to give them action. Yes, your character might be motivated by their past, but the opening pages isn’t the place to go into depth about that past.

Back story is important in character development but just because you spent the time developing that information doesn’t mean you need to incorporate all of it into your story. Remember that the best fiction is all about action. Your job is to portray the action and let the reader draw his or her own conclusion. And it is easier to do this with well-developed characters whose actions are consistent with the back stories.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

This post is the fifteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Today is the third installment on the topic of dialogue in your novel. The first week, I wrote about the importance of dialogue and gave some tips on writing dialogue. Last week, I talked about the special type of dialogue that goes on in your character’s head – internal dialogue.

Today, I wanted to give you some examples of dialogue and talk a little bit more about dialogue tags (the he said/she said that allows the reader to know who is speaking).

Dialogue with a Purpose

Dialogue can be great at bringing the reader into the story and sharing information about a character. We can learn a lot about a character in how they speak and what they say. It can help set the mood for the story. But most of all you need to make sure that the dialogue advances the story.

You do not want to fill your pages with meaningless drivel. Such as two characters greeting each other.

“Hi, Bob. How are you doing?”

“OK. I guess.”

“Nice weather, huh?”

This exchange could easily be deleted from the scene and replaced with Sally greeted Bob. Now if you want this scene to share something about the characters, you would need to make some changes.

“Hi, Bobby. How are you doing?”

Bob continued to stare at his shoes. When he spoke it was more to them than her. “Ok. I guess.”

“Nice weather, huh?”

All she got in response was a nod. Sally shot a glance at the doctor. She didn’t know what to do. All she knew is she wanted her brother back and the boy who stood before her wasn’t him.

In this case, the dialogue is being used to show the strained relationship between Bob and Sally, which is better than just telling the reader. (Sally worried about her strained relationship with Bob. He rarely said more than a word or two to her when they saw each other.) Actually both ways (a summary or a short dialogue) would work in the story depending on how you want to portray it.

Natural Dialogue

Though people talk with a lot of fillers (ums and pauses), most often you will want your dialogue to be crisp and filled with tension. You want to compress your dialogue, cutting fluffy words or whole lines from the exchange.

Here is an example from another website.

Original:

“Mary, are you angry with me?” John asked.

“You’re damn straight I’m mad at you,” Mary said.

“But why? You’ve got absolutely no reason to be!”

“Oh but I do, I do. And you can see it in my face, can’t you?”

Alternative:

“You angry with me?” John asked.

“Damn straight,” Mary said.

“You got no reason to be!”

Mary felt her hands curling into fists.

As you can see the second rendition is much tighter and increases the conflict. So go through your dialogue and compress it as much as you can. Take out the adverbs. Use sentence fragments. Cut words out ruthlessly. The dialogue will improve as will your story.

Dialogue Tags

For readers to know who is speaking, you need dialogue tags such as he said and she replied. And while they are necessary, you don’t need them every time someone speaks.

I am sure we all have encountered books full of too many or too few dialogue tags. Even from professionally published authors I sometimes have had to stop and count lines backwards to figure out who is saying what.

Dialogue tags should be like punctuation marks – they should be invisible, guiding the reader, but not getting in the way of the story.

Here are four tips to help you use dialogue tags like a pro.

1.)  While your high school English teacher may have encouraged you to stray from the boring “said” or “asked,” there is nothing wrong with sticking with these words. But many new authors don’t want to stick with “said” and “asked.” They search out posts like this one that show you 100 different ways to say “said.” And while there is nothing wrong with interjecting a few of these into your text, you should do so sparingly. The concern with these more frivolous choices is that the words draw the reader’s attention away from the dialogue.

Bad Example: “You can’t go out into the dark,” Mary cried.

“What now?” Edward groaned.

“No, no, no,” she muttered. “Too dangerous.”

“What is your problem?” Edward wondered.

Here is a writer trying to use too many fancy tags. It should be rewritten to something more like this.

“You can’t go out into the dark,” Mary said, blocking the door.

Edward groaned. “What?”

“No, no, no.” Mary shook her head with each word. “Too dangerous.”

“What is your problem, Mary?”

The second scenario allows you to focus more on the dialogue.

Now there may be times when your dialogue may not communicate the tone or emotion clearly. And there is nothing wrong with using a descriptive tag such as whispered, shrieked, muttered, grunted or boasted to help your reader understand the scene.

Example: “Leave me alone,” he muttered.

But don’t worry about using other words than “said” or “asked.” If you only use them when necessary, and the dialogue is interesting, no one will even notice them. And that is what you want.

2.)  The placement of dialogue tags and how often you use them are important – even more so if you have a lot of characters in a scene. Well-positioned tags insure your scene make sense and eliminate any reader confusion. If a reader has to backtrack a few paragraphs or pages to get the conversation straight, a writer risks the book being abandoned.

Example:  “You always do this to me, Mary,” Edward said. “You get all worked up, forbid me to do something and it turns out to be nothing.”

Bob held up his hand. “Stop it right there, Ed. You don’t need to pick on poor Mary.”

“Thanks, Bob,” Mary said flashing him a smile. “I knew I could count on you.”

“Anything for you.”

Edward rolled his eyes. “If you two are done…”

3.)  You don’t have to always use said or any other dialogue tag to indicate who is speaking. You can use action to indicate this as well as to provide information essential to understanding the character and/or some element of the scene. In the above example, Bob holding up his hand and Edward rolling his eyes are examples of this way to identify the speaker without a dialogue tag.

Or you can have the characters use each other’s names as they speak – but again, this is done sparingly.

Bad Example: “What are you doing, Bob?” Mary asked.

“I am helping you out, Mary.”

“You know she doesn’t need your help, Bob,” Edward said.

So in the above example, characters are calling each other by name but a little too often. In real life people use other people’s names sparingly (typically at the beginning or end of a conversation) and so should your characters. Here is the above example revised.

Mary glared at Bob. “What are you doing?”

“I am helping you out, Mary.”

Edward stepped in front of Mary, shielding her. “She doesn’t need your help, Bob.”

4.)  Use adverbs (such as loudly, softly and angrily) with your dialogue tags sparingly – as in almost never. Nothing points out a novice quicker than a writer who uses adverbs to tell your reader how someone spoke or even worse uses an adverb with one of the fancy alternatives to said.

Examples: she said excitedly

He exclaimed loudly (redundant)

Using an adverb is telling your reader how the dialogue was spoken instead of showing them.

Example: “I never want to see you again,” she said angrily.

But instead of telling us she is angry, show us.

“I never want to see you again,” she said, storming out the door and slamming it behind her.

Of course, as with any “rule” there are exceptions. Sometimes adding an adverb can be a quick way to indicate a mannerism or emotion (she said quickly; he said coldly) without writing longer, descriptive sentences. But keep this to a minimum.

To summarize….

  • Unless you have a good reason, stick to the standard “he said, she said.”
  • Other simple verbs – she asked, she whispered, – are fine.
  • Fancy verbs – he bellowed, she interjected – should be avoided.
  • Use only as many dialogue tags as needed for clarity. If two people are speaking, one every three or four lines is about right. You will need more dialogue tags if you have more characters speaking in the same scene.
  • You can also use character action or calling a character by name to indicate who is speaking.
  • Never use adverbs (or at least very rarely). Instead of telling, show the reader the action.

Even though “said” is the preferred verb, if you use it every time, your dialogue will become tedious. So aim for variety. With some practice, you will learn when a dialogue tag sounds correct and appropriate. In fact, if you don’t even think about or notice the dialogue tag…you got it right!

Writing dialogue well is hard even for seasoned authors. Hopefully, these three posts help you master this difficult, but important, task and allow you to write well-written, realistic dialogue in your novel.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

This post is the thirteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Most likely at some point in your novel, your characters are going to speak to each other. This is called dialogue and it can be one of the trickiest things to write well.

Dialogue can provide several benefits to your storytelling. It can provide:

1.) Immediacy – Dialogue allows the reader to be involved in a scene. They experience what happened rather than have the author or a character tell them about it later. Wouldn’t you rather witness an argument between two people than hear about it later?

2.) Characterization – Dialogue is an excellent method of revealing character. When you hear a person speak, you get an understanding of what kind of person he or she is. It can reveal if they are educated, funny, happy, bored and so much more with not only what they say but how they say it.

3.) Information – Dialogue is a way to deliver information to the reader. It can reveal people’s passions, motivations and more. This can be a way to get back story or other important information into the story without dumping a lot of information in a long story-stopping description.

Writing realistic dialogue can be challenging, and how much dialogue you include in your novel can depend on your own preferences, circumstances in the novel or even the type of genre. But don’t avoid dialogue because you feel challenged by writing it. As with all aspects of novel writing, it takes practice to write dialogue well.

Now, dialogue needs to serve a specific purpose in the story. Rarely are you going to add dialogue to just pass the time. It needs to be used to advance the plot, reveal something about a character, establish the mood of a scene – or perhaps all three. When editing your novel, always consider if the dialogue advances the story.

Here are a few tips to help you with dialogue.

1.) Remember that people don’t speak in proper English. They use slang and contractions. They speak in fragments. They also rarely call each other by name. Spend some time listening to people speaking – at the mall, at restaurants, or even in your own home. This will help you develop natural sounding dialogue.

2.) One of the best ways to ensure your dialogue sounds natural and realistic is to read it aloud.

3.) Keep your dialogue tags (said, asked) simple. The more complex the tag line, the more it detracts from the actual dialogue. (More on this in two weeks.)

4.) Avoid using adverbs with the dialogue tags. (Example – he said angrily) Often the adverb is repetitious; the dialogue should tell us he is angry. There is no need to repeat it.

5.) Consider whether you even need a tagline. If two people are conversing you don’t need a lot of “he said, she said” to have people follow the flow of the conversation. Avoid using “said” too often. However, be wary of using words like “shouted,” “muttered” or “whispered. While they are perfectly fine, they should be used sparingly. It is better to have the dialogue convey that it was intended to be shouted or whispered.

Since dialogue can be important to your story, I have broken this topic into three parts. Next week, I will talk about internal dialogue and the following week I will go more in-depth about the use of dialogue tags.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

This post is the twelfth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Last week I wrote about one of the most crucial scenes in your novel – the very first scene. But there are still many more scenes to write. And each scene of course has a beginning, middle and end. Here are some tips and ideas on how to begin and end a scene in your novel.

Beginning a Scene

So how do you begin a scene? Well, begin is kind of a misleading term as some scenes pick up in the middle of the action or continue where another scene left off. Often a new scene starts at the beginning of a chapter or is separate by a break of four lines or maybe a series of *** to let the reader know a new scene is to begin.

How you handle each scene probably won’t be the same way each time, but here are some ideas on how to start a scene.

Begin in the Middle

Instead of building up to the action, sometimes it is best to begin in the middle of the scene with the action in full swing.

The horse’s hooves thundered across the ground. Tosh dug his claws into the saddle as his back legs threatened to slip off. A firm hand pressed against his side, pulling him closer toward the young man behind him. Feeling safer, Tosh leaned out to see the terrain up ahead. He blinked his eyes in disbelief at what he saw. – the opening scene of The Search.

Here the action is already taking place. The reader must continue reading to find out what danger lies ahead and why Tosh is riding on the horse in such a hurry. This type of beginning to a scene is more dynamic than one describing the scenery. It can hook the reader quickly.

Beginning with Dialogue

This really is a variation of the above scenario but instead of being in the middle of the action, you begin in the middle of a conversation. The conversation can be the momentum that sweeps the reader along. There is an element of suspense as the reader tries to figure out the context of the conversation.

Starting at the actual beginning
Sometimes the best place to begin is at the beginning. For many people that might be the beginning of the day. It is a natural place to start but this has been done so many times that beginnings, such as “I woke up to the screaming alarm clock” have become cliché.

Start with Setting

Of course, some authors begin their scenes with a description of the setting. But when you do this, you are announcing to the reader that the setting is important and will have an active influence on the characters and action in the scene. If your character is on a deserted island, the lay of the land may be helpful in letting the reader know what is available.

Dream sequence

If you want to disappoint or perhaps even anger your readers – start with a dream. Your reader is engrossed in the action of the scene and the death-defying situation with no way out. Then the reader turns the page only to discover the character wakes up, and it was all a dream. After that, the character arises from the bed, and the real story begins.

Now this isn’t to say you can’t start a scene with a dream, but you should only do so if the dream is an integral part of the story. I started my first book, Summoned, with a dream sequence, but I made sure the reader knew it was a dream BEFORE I began the dream.

The young woman tossed in her bed, muttering softly. She rolled over, her long honey-colored hair covering her pale face. Her fingers dug into the mattress. She shook her head as she sank deeper into the dream.

The yellow light cut through the dark. Her eyes stayed focused on it as it flickered before her like a hundred candles dancing in a soft summer breeze, growing brighter as she neared. As she walked, her hands reached out, touching the smooth, cold stone wall. That alone should have warned Lina something was not right. Even as her mind called out that this was all wrong, she continued down the hall toward the light and toward whatever was calling her.

There is no right or wrong way to begin a scene. These are only a few suggestions. You may need to try several of them to find what works best for your scene. Just remember that the secret to a good opening – whether it is for your book or merely one of its many scenes – is that it compels the reader to keep reading.

Ending a scene

The ending moments complete the scene and should leave the reader wanting more. It should make them eager to begin the next scene.

It is always best to end a scene as early as possible. You want your last statement to be strong and not full of unnecessary details. Depending on the situation, you can end the scene with a sense of finality or with something that propels the reader forward.

Remember that each scene is part of a larger story. The ending of a scene should make the reader think, “That was good. I want more.” And then plunge ahead into the next scene.

Cliffhanger Ending.

This type of ending is characterized by stopping the scene just as a major action is about to take place or in the middle of the action at a crucial point. The easiest way to think about this is to watch a TV drama. Something important is revealed and then…cut to commercial break. That leaves the viewer hanging around waiting for the show to return rather than channel surfing. You want the same type of reaction from your reader.

Cliffhanger endings typically happen at the end of chapters forcing the reader to start the next chapter to see what happens.

However, some authors do not continue the scene in the next chapter. In order to heighten the reader’s curiosity, they insert a scene or chapter that takes place somewhere else, perhaps with different characters.

Even though the cliffhanger ending is a powerful tool, you can’t use it to end ALL your scenes..

You might also end a scene by revealing insight into one of the characters. This might happen through an internal monologue that the character is having about the events that occurred in the scene, or it could happen through dialogue with another character. Ending in the middle of dialogue can be confusing to the reader, but it also can heighten a passionate or revealing exchange. The exact place the dialogue ends could reveal a lot about the character: their fears, hopes, how they are changing.

Sometimes a scene ends with a note about the setting or the character doing something mundane. But the fact we are focused on it elevates that item to greater importance.

No matter what ending you decide to use, remember to make sure they do their job: hook the reader into wanting to read more.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

Writing a novel recap

Blame it on summer…I am falling back on an old favorite that I pull out when I am temporarily at a loss about what to write about or when I simply don’t have the time to pen something new. So today I am doing a recap of some of my posts about writing a novel.

Starting a novel…

So you have decided to write a novel. Before you sits a blank screen. For some that brings excitement at the unlimited possibilities but for others it can be intimidating. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task at hand. (read more)

story ideas9 ways to brainstorm story ideas  

Many authors are teeming with story ideas, so they just need to pluck one and develop it into a novel. But newbies and even a few veteran authors sometimes falter when finding a story to write.

Here are nine ways to help you think of an idea for your next story. (read more)

Can your story idea be original? 

There are so many plots that have already been done that it sometimes is hard to come up with something new and unique. While yes, your story may be original with its characters, but many times the story itself has been told before. (read more)

Making sure your story idea is sound

You have a brilliant idea for a story. You can imagine the main character and even the opening scene…but when you sit down to write, you realize that is all you have. You don’t have a complete story with a structured plot and a satisfying ending. All you have is this great story idea. (read more)

Choosing the setting for your novel

irish wolfhound grey dayWhen many new authors begin writing, they focus on plot and character. While these are important, it is vital to consider the setting of your novel.

The setting is the location where the events of a scene take place. This could be in a room, a park, a car, a pool hall, the White House, in space, on another world or any of a thousand different places. (read more)

Deciding how to begin a scene in your novel 

The goal of the beginning of a scene is to draw the reader in. It must make the reader want to read more. A few months ago, I wrote about writing the opening scene of your novel. That crucial scene is often where readers decide if they like your book or not. (read more)

Finding the perfect ending to your scene 

Last week, I discussed ways in which to begin a scene in your novel. Alas, every scene also must end, and that is what we are going to focus on today.

Every scene has a beginning, middle and end. The ending moments complete the scene and should leave the reader wanting more. It should make them eager to begin the next scene. (read more)

Tips for writing a prologue (if you even need one) 

Where to begin your novel is always a daunting decision. You want to begin with an interesting scene to draw in your reader and set the stage for your story. But sometimes your reader might benefit from more information before they are introduced into the world you have created or so that they may understand the importance of what is happening. This is where a prologue can come into play. (read more)

Do you need an epilogue?

An epilogue is a section at the end of the book that wraps up the story. This is not to say you can’t just end your book with the final chapter.

However, sometimes, and I often see this in romance novels, the epilogue shows a snippet of what happened to the characters at a later point in their lives, whether it is several months, a year or perhaps even a number of years later. (read more)

Beginnings of a novel: Establishing Routine and the Inciting Incident

A good way to start your novel is to begin with a gripping scene that grabs the readers’ attention. But most of the time this gripping scene is probably not what is drawing your character to leave their “normal” life to partake in the adventure of your story. (read more)

Following a Story Arc

arcWhen you write a novel or even a short story, your storyline will follow an arc. Knowing and understating the nature of this arc can help you ensure that your story stays on course or let you know if the story is getting away from you. (read more)

Writing a Trilogy – Dos and Don’ts

I recently read a book that was supposed to be the first book in a trilogy. But I don’t think the author knows what a trilogy should be. It turned out to be more of a short story that suddenly stopped. To find out what happened, you needed to buy the next book. No thanks.

A trilogy is a series of three movies or books that are closely related and involve the same characters or themes. (read more)

Short Story, Novella, Novel – what’s the difference?

Many new authors ask, “How long should my story be?” The simple answer is as long as it takes to tell the story. (read more)

Character motivation – keeping it real and true to the character

I once wrote about my husband always asking me why a character does this or that. He can be annoying about it, but it does improve my novel. You can’t have characters do things just because you, the author, want them to. They need to be motivated by their own desires.

“Every character should want something,

even if it only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Why does Johnny get off the couch and go to work even though he would rather be a couch-potato? Johnny is the sole provider for his family.

Why did Jenny rob the store? She needed the money to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments.

Why did Bobby let his little sister tag along with him on his sky-diving adventure? Bobby had no one to watch his sister, so he had no choice but to take her. (Or perhaps he knew she would love the adventure.)

There must be a reason why your character does what he does. Strong character motivation allows readers to understand why characters make the choices they do. This does not mean that you need to explain out right to your reader why something is happening. It does not mean that you need pages of back story to justify every decision.

A few well-chosen details from the past will speak volumes. And you don’t have to give the hints before the action. It can be revealed slowly through action and dialogue. If you carefully choose those elements, then readers will understand why a character can’t enter a hospital room or accept a compliment.

To help strengthen your writing, examine your characters’ traits and then decide what motivated them to develop those behaviors. If you understand your character’s beliefs and behavior, you will be able to find ways to “show” the events that led to these things without “telling” the reader anything.

And be careful that the motivations you give your characters are based on their NEEDS and not yours as an author.

Example: Why does the character go New York City?

Author Answers:

Because she needs to do something exciting. (In other words, the author needs her there.)

Because she needs to run into Emily. (Again, the author needs her there.)

Because she needs to find the key. (Again, the author needs her there.)

Character Answers:

Because her grandmother is in the hospital.

Because she is escaping the sheriff, and New York is out of his jurisdiction.

Because she is curious about the hero’s past, and he mentioned his family was there.

So as you write, examine your character’s actions and reactions. Why do they do the things they do? Make sure it is consistent with their behaviors and beliefs. And make sure it is really THEIR motivation and not your own as an author.

For even more on giving characters strong, real motivation, check out my post on character motivation from last year.

Writing a Trilogy – Dos and Don’ts

I recently read a book that was supposed to be the first book in a trilogy. But I don’t think the author knows what a trilogy should be. It turned out to be more of a short story that suddenly stopped. To find out what happened, you needed to buy the next book. No thanks.

box setA trilogy is a series of three movies or books that are closely related and involve the same characters or themes.

Writing a trilogy can be a lot of work but can also be very rewarding in that you get to stick with characters you know and hopefully build up a readership for your second and third books.

Here are some Dos and Don’ts of writing a trilogy.

DON’T – Write a full-length novel and divide it into three parts (as the author in the first paragraph seems to have done.)

DO – Write a story that can be sustained through three full-length novels. This can be one long story broken down into three acts, or it can be three separate stand-alone stories using the same characters. In romance novels, this is often done with three sisters/friends finding love with each sister/friend being the focus of one book. The other characters are prevalent in each book, and their stories are either building or being rounded out as the current love story takes place.

DON’T – Just write a trilogy because you think it will help you sell your novel or get people to buy subsequent books. (See the message above about having a story that can support being a trilogy.) Yes, a trilogy brings with it a set of eager readers who want to read books two and three but that only works if book 1 is good. Many fantasy authors may choose to write a fantasy novel because it is popular for this genre, but sometimes they need to stick with either a long stand-alone book or pare down the story rather than drag it out over three books.

DO – Make sure the first book can be a stand-alone novel, if needed. Take Star Wars: A New Hope, the first of the original Star Wars trilogy, as an example. It ended with a medal ceremony and could have easily been the end of the story.

DO – Plan ahead for when you write a trilogy. It makes things easier, and you can plant clues to the ending throughout the books. I wrote my trilogy without planning it until after the first book was written, which actually happens quite a bit. While it worked out in my case (and others), it would have been better to have been planned from the beginning. (less rewriting if nothing else.)

DO – Keep detailed notes and a timeline to make sure that your characters stay true to form throughout the trilogy. If someone is pregnant at the end of book 2, you need to be sure that the age of the baby works out in book 3. Or if your character received a wound that scarred in Book 1, you need to make sure the scar is there in book 3 (and in the same place). You can probably catch errors such as these in many books and movies and some observant reader will probably catch your mistakes too.

I am not trying to discourage anyone from writing a trilogy. I love reading them (and writing them). But you do need to plan ahead and as always, make sure you have overall story arc that can go the distance.

For additional tips, read my original post on writing a trilogy from three years ago.