A Better Way to Use Worldbuilding, Backstory, and Multiple POV to Write a Kick Ass Series
In the past few years trilogies have become all the rage. Whether you write sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or some other kind of speculative fiction, you’ve probably heard that everyone wants to read trilogies these days and everyone is writing trilogies these days.
This can create problems for writers who despair of having a story in them that’s long enough to span three novels, and who also doubt their ability to sustain interest in one project for that long of a time.
These are valid fears. Writing and revising a novel can take up to two years or longer. It can be daunting to contemplate sinking your creative life into a series of books that could conceivably take you six to ten years to complete.
However, I think one of the reasons writers are getting so caught up on this question — to trilogy or not to trilogy — is because we automatically assume our series will start from one point, move ahead through a specific adventure and then rinse and repeat for each book after that. So we picture our story as three stories in one, kind of like three dots on one straight line that moves forward in time.
That means we have to come up with three different adventures, three different hooks and three different build-ups, three different arcs, climaxes, and endings. Looking at it that way, you can see how most writers would find that repetitive and not very much fun. Sure, you get to go more in-depth with the characters, but that seems to be the only reward for slogging through the rest of the tedious business of crafting these three different stories, that are all basically part of the same story.
A lot of this trilogy plotting technique comes from the classic example of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. We start with Frodo at the beginning and we journey on with him through the War of the Rings, which makes up the middle and the end. Done and done. Now, I am a huge LOTR fan, so I do in fact appreciate the way ol’ J.R.R. decided to lay out his masterpiece, but it’s also helpful to know that his way is just one way of doing it.
Another way of working the trilogy can be seen in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series. (For those of you who haven’t read it, you need to read it. It is phenomenal and it will rock your world.) Instead of moving her story through one straight line, Atwood centers one big apocalyptic event in the middle of it and then shows us the different ripples that pulse outward from that event. So in Chapter One of Book One, we already know the world has ended. We get no build-up there. What we do get instead, and what I would say is arguably much better, is a slow peeling away of layers. A softly probing exploration of who was involved, how it all went down, and why.
Each book in Atwood’s MaddAddam series is backstory, essentially. A lot of writers might be puzzled by that because they’ve been taught to “never bog down the plot with backstory” and “don’t get too caught up in worldbuilding, always keep your eye on the plot moving forward.” That’s good advice, sometimes. But if you read Atwood’s MaddAddam books with a careful writer’s eye, you’ll see that she’s made the backstory, and the worldbuilding, into the plot. And she carries it off brilliantly.
Atwood is able to do this because she’s treating the story of her trilogy as a series of concentric circles, radiating out from one event that has already happened at the opening of the book. Each circle contains different characters, but all the circles touch each other at some point. Using this technique, she turns our assumptions about backstory and worldbuilding inside out, and she also has a larger cast of characters to pick and choose from when she needs to jump into a particular POV.
Atwood’s method also solves common problems with first-person POV and limited third-person POV that all writers run into sooner or later. Specifically, if a main character isn’t present on the scene, eavesdropping on people, or discovering secret diary entries, how in the world is the reader supposed to find out some crucial bit of knowledge that the character has no access to? When writers use Atwood’s circular method, we can look through the eyes of different characters at different times, all of who are viewing the same event. So, something that might not make sense in the first book will come clear in the second book, because we revisit the same central event from a different character’s POV.
Experimenting with writing your story in a series of circles will take a bit of courage on your part. You’re going to be constructing a lot of backstory and following the connections between characters, rather than moving from point A to point B on a clearly defined straight line that’s easy to plot and easy to describe. However, the more you’re able to trust yourself and let go into the experiment, the more your intuition will kick in and help you along the way.
If you’re interested in checking out other books that play around with timeline, backstory and multiple characters witnessing the same events from different points of view, these are a few good ones I highly recommend:
The Lime Twig by John Hawkes
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
(The Amazon note for this book is particularly interesting! I suggest you check out the description for that alone.)
Look at Me by Jennifer Egan
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
Follow Me Down by Shelby Foote