This past week was a series of impromptu viewings of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, specifically the first three. It was my girlfriend who wanted to watch the movies, so I did not entirely sit through each one. I’m familiar with the series already, but having them on throughout the week got me thinking about trilogies, and the many things the series did right that made it compelling.
I’m sure there are many who believe the Pirates films are not all that good, and to some level I agree. Many points in the plot, especially in the third film, are illogical and flawed, the fight scenes are dragged out, and it tries to have its cake and eat it too by depicting pirates both realistically and romantically. However, I do very much enjoy these movies for what they are.
One thing I love in particular is how well they demonstrate the trilogy structure. I have encountered other young writers who are eager to produce a trilogy. It’s what a lot big story series do — especially in movies — and they want the same for their own stories. While I would not discourage that level of ambition — especially if the story you have in mind could follow the trilogy structure well — if you are not careful it could be executed improperly.
What the Pirates films did right from the beginning was simple: the first movie was a standalone story. While many aspects of Curse of the Black Pearl continue on to an influence Dead Man’s Chest, it is not a story that requires a sequel. It merely leaves itself open to the possibility of a sequel. This is a mistake I have seen peers make before. Since they want what they are writing to be a trilogy they write it like the story isn’t over after the first installment is done. While I’m sure there are some examples where this is done well, it is also better to avoid.
One of the biggest reasons I would encourage this practice is firstly to temper expectations. What if your first installment is a lukewarm success and you have difficulty continuing to have it published? Suddenly you’ve got something incomplete, which diminishes the quality of your work as a whole. If you want to make a trilogy, or even a series, write it like the whole thing might be done after the first story. If it doesn’t go anywhere, you’ve hopefully got a well-formed, complete piece of fiction that stands well enough on its own. If successful enough, you continue from there with ideas you couldn’t quite flesh out the first time.
If you are using the first installment as a vehicle to transport your audience to the later installment in can make it difficult for them to become invested in your story, thus creating the problem above. Take your time, tell a complete story and how your audience that what your telling is a universe worth investing their time in. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a great example of this. Had the movie not been a roaring success, it would have still been a good standalone film.
Once it found its success, it followed the steps that other trilogies had before: the dark middle point. The stakes feel a lot higher in Dead Man’s Chest. The villain is more threatening and powerful, the story takes a darker turn for the characters, and the ending leaves things on a low note in anticipation of the third installment. The third installment then acts as the climax to everything that has been building from the first two parts, specifically dealing with all the events the audience has been left in suspense over from the second part.
This way of continuing a trilogy works so well because it follows closely to the three-act structure of a story. The first part establishes the world and characters, the second part is the low point or falling action of the plot, and the final part is the climax. Stories of course do not need to follow this kind of structure to the letter, but we can see it in action very effectively in film series like Pirates films. Another more famous example is the original Star Wars trilogy, which can arguably be used as a near perfect example of how to formulate a trilogy.
Take these ideas and think on them as you experience or revisit other trilogies yourself. Like I said, a trilogy does not need to follow it exactly, but it is a good way of constructing a strong series of stories. How do others follow along this pattern, or how do they do it differently? If you’re planning on writing a number of stories yourself, thinking more about this just might help you out.