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Books in a trilogy are significantly different lengths. What to do?
I’ve managed to write a fantasy book, Lord of the Rings-style. That is, a single story that would almost certainly be published as three separate books with multiple branching plotlines. Or at least, I’ve written the rough draft of one. Having more-or-less completed the rough draft, however, I’ve noticed a potential problem. My books are of dramatically different lengths. In particular, my first book is much longer than my second and almost twice the size of my third.
The way I see it, I have seven options:
1) Polish up the story as-is, and hope a publisher/agent will accept a large debut novel (strike one) that doesn’t stand on its own (strike two) from an unknown author (strike three). This still doesn’t address the issue of the different book sizes, which I imagine might be annoying for a reader.
2) Split the first book into two smaller books. This makes all the books about the same size, but I’m not sure I can have good “stopping points” for the plot threads between books 1 and 2 if I do this. Maybe with enough rewriting.
3) Split the story into two parallel stories. Of my three-and-a-half or so plots, my A and B plots are more closely aligned, as are my C and D plots. There isn’t much (direct) interaction between the two stories, though both are reacting to the same outside events, and the events of one story does have some indirect effects on the other story; without this knowledge, some events might seem to be happening “out of the blue”. Rewriting could probably fix this, though I’m not sure the overall…theme, for lack of a better word, could be maintained without all four endings.
4) Cut, cut, cut from Book 1. Maybe a subplot or two could be removed. Perhaps Plot D could be cut in its entirety (I’ve thought about cutting it anyway, since it isn’t vital and is rather darker than the rest of the story, but I’ve held off thus far because of thematic consequences to removing it). But trying to cut out half the book seems…ambitious.
5) Further flesh out Books 2 and 3. Adding a subplot to Plot B could be a relatively easy and effective way to fill out Book 2 (I’ve thought about doing this as well, as Plot B is somewhat anemic in Book 2); and perhaps some more details in Plot C would be good in Book 3, though perhaps that would simply be a distraction.
6) Merge Books 2 and 3 into one. I’m not sure I can do this easily, since there’s a bit of a time-skip between Books 2 and 3 and the climax of Plot B really wants to go at the end of a book. Still, perhaps fixable with serious rewriting. This still leaves Book 1 fairly long, and I suspect that from a publisher’s perspective a trilogy is a more attractive proposition (i.e., more potential sales) than a duology.
7) Shelve the story for now. Write another book, try to get it published and make a name for myself. This might help get Book 1 published as-is, though the dramatically different book sizes would still be an issue. Plus, my next book will probably be science fiction, not quite hard science fiction but close, and a rather different style as well.
I’d like advice on what to do, of course, but I’d also like advice on how to decide what to do. I’ve been stuck here for almost two months, unsure what to do. Each option requires a significant investment of time and effort, so there’s a huge incentive to get it right the first time.
Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Addendum: Thus far I’ve tried to keep the question fairly story-agnostic, in the hopes that a good answer will help in more than just my particular circumstances. Since the details of my work might affect the answer, however, I include a brief summary below, with approximate word counts.
Before giving the breakdown of my plotlines, let me note one important point. Where Lord of the Rings has the characters start out together in the first book and then break apart into separate storylines in the second and third books, I go the reverse direction: characters start out separately in the first book and come together as the story progresses.
Okay, so here’s the breakdown:
Book 1 (255k words):
Plot A – 65k words
Plot B – 64k words
Plot C – 87k words
Plot D – 38k words
In this book, all plot threads are effectively independent. Mostly the characters are reacting to common events over which they have no direct control (an assassination for Plots A and B and an invasion for Plots C and D). Plot A ends on a cliffhanger, Plot B reaches a significant milestone, Plot C is ongoing and Plot D attains its climax.
Book 2 (144k words):
Plot A – 77k words
Plot B – 7k words
Plot C – 53k words
Other – 7k words
In this book, Plots A and B get loosely merged into one combined plot, which is part of the reason that Plot B gets so few words, though B doesn’t get much play in this book anyway. Plot C is still separate, and “Other” is just a character bridging over from Plot C to Plot B. Plot A ends on a semi-cliffhanger, Plot B gets no real conclusion at all, and Plot C reaches its climax.
Book 3 (128k words):
Plot A – 66k words
Plot B – 24k words
Plot C – 39k words
Here Plots A and B reach their respective climaxes, while Plot C is mostly a long denouement with a bit of interplay with Plot A. Some rewriting could alter the amount of interaction that Plot C has with Plots A and B.
It seems to be a problem of packaging, and setting up expectations for readers. If I read the "high level" of your comments correctly, you have two sets of characters who come together in book 3. Book 1 is mainly about set 1, book 2 is mainly about set 2, and book is about set 1 plus set 2.
If this is more-or-less true, could books 1 and 2 be presented as independent books taking place in the same world? They tease some shared names, events, and unresolved plot lines, but each stands on its own. Book 3 comes along as the grand unifier, pulling the two groups of characters together, developing the unresolved story lines to a satisfying resolution.
I find trilogies to be profoundly disappointing. I read the first book, and it doesn't really finish -- so much goes unresolved. It is all tease. I enjoy synergies between books, where it is almost like I am a detective finding resonance and alignment between books, where that alignment piques my interest in whatever might come next. It creates the sense of a full world where more than one thing happens, and more than one story exists, until the payoff when they come together into a grander story.
So, just for me as a reader, I would like:
Book 1, major plot well resolved with some secondary plot questions left open. Book 2, new characters, same world, another major plot well resolved with echos of book 1 secondary plots. Book 3, unification, all characters coming together, discovery that sub-plots are actually big problems, resolution, and ...
By the time book 3 carries that load, it will probably be bigger.
First, I would always presume if you "put a book aside" to work on another book, your book is dead. In my experience (with only myself and a few authors I have spoken with), putting a book in the drawer is a kiss of death. Work on until you think it is ready to publish, then try to publish it. It is far easier to come back to a book you think only needs to be marketed, than to try and get back into the mindset of actually fixing the stories.
Fix it while your mind is still filled with it, not after you have built all new stuff on that mental real estate.
To FIX your problem: Your plots are way unbalanced. Figure out how to balance them.
Book 1: 3 Big plots, one smallish plot (38K).
Book 2: 2 Big Plots, one short story (7K).
Book 3: 1 Big Plot, 2 smallish plots (39K, 24K).
You really need to move a big plot from Book 1 (or eliminate it) and put it in Book 3, even if that requires a time-translation or a new MC for that plot, or come up with a Big plot (>50K) for Book 3.
You also need more than a short story (7K) in Book 2. You should try to invent something, or add complications and peril or difficulty to add 30K to the story.
I really think readers will be disappointed if every new book is significantly shorter than the previous book.
And as far as publishers are concerned, a shorter first book may be preferable, they risk less on production, it lets you prove yourself, it builds an audience to whom they can sell more ~200K books for the 2nd and 3rd books in your trilogy.
I'll give another option:
8) Split a major (sub)plot in half, and move the 2nd half into to a later book.
It will definitely take some re-writing, but your 1st book seems overloaded. The temptation is to drop the weakest subplot, but consider splitting one of your strongest storylines into a before and after, according to a main character's change arc.
You don't mention your characters' development, but consider which character has the most change within Book 1. This character's arc might be so big it's forcing more story to happen, to justify how much they change. For example, a character who rises from foot soldier to general to king, or a servant girl who marries a prince and later loses her sons to war – a main character who is stretching the story to accommodate their full arc.
I realize you have overlapping chronological events so you can't just cut-and-paste. The idea is to keep the same events, but bring that character's arc to a mid point, and save the rest for another book where they return harder/wiser/embittered/broken, and readers get the resolution to their story.
If the chronology can't be fixed, consider splitting that character into a thwarted heroic ancestor who dies in Book 1, and descendant who picks up the sword to complete their arc in a later book. Keep your timeline, but fulfill this character's destiny by someone who is available in a later story.