By Sarah Dahl, @sarahdahl13
Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series
JH: Just because they’re short, doesn’t mean they can’t tell a long story. Today in our series “Focus on Short Fiction” Sarah Dahl returns to talk about writing trilogies – in the short form.
Technically, short stories have less time and space for everything: fewer characters, less world building, simpler arcs and subplots. Most times, there are no subplots, of course, and world building has to be spot-on: You need to create a sense of the people and place with just a few strokes of your pen. The drama is usually focused on one plotline and has one climax, very late in the story. Mastering this craft is mastering setup, timing and arcs, characters and resolution within as little space as possible. Writing short means writing without all the fluff and concluding absolutely on point.
But what if you have more to say about a character and his journey than fits into one short story? Can you write short stories that are connected, that carry on? Or let’s say: a mini-series, a trilogy that people can actually enjoy as such?
Giving more room – Do the story justice
To create a connected mini-trilogy or series you need to adhere to the rules of writing short for each individual story: be precise, on point, and conclude satisfactorily each time.
Do you feel a topic or characters you created for one short story only deserve to live on? Could you write a meaningful sequel – or ideally round it all up as a trilogy?
Here’s what happened to me: I only wrote my trilogy about Viking warriors Aldaith and Nyssa as a fun exercise without intention to even publish their first story. And I didn’t ever imagine that story to evolve into a trilogy.
I wrote their first encounter – “The Current – A Battle of Seduction” – after a brainstorming session with my writing buddy, to kill some block and boredom. No pressure of publication, just to keep writing something. I fancied the idea of a steamy game between two bloody, exhausted, adrenaline-pumped warriors: a bold shieldmaiden cornering and seducing a self-assured warrior. I wanted to rediscover the fun in writing sassy characters. And created an irresistible pair.
Two things happened: The exercise became a wonderfully sexy, fast-paced read with an outstanding female character. Nyssa is strong and fierce; she slays men on the battlefield and “in bed” (or in this case: a stream). Likewise, many readers fell for the confident yet vulnerable warrior Aldaith. They loved the dynamic between the pair. Without planning it, I had created an extraordinary couple whose story had only just begun.
Just like my eager readers, I felt there would be more depths to discover with these two, and that the roughly 8,000 words didn’t do them justice. So what I originally imagined to be a mere exercise and stand-alone suddenly needed at least a sequel.
More than just sequels – Planning a trilogy
The second thing that happened was: I edited and published the story I never planned to publish, and with publication the question of “form” became more important. To write just one sequel to “The Current” felt incomplete and random. A rounded-up trilogy with a starting story, middle development story, and ending story would be more enticing. Like throwing spotlights on the characters’ main turning points. Readers who fell for my couple would be able to follow their story further and to a satisfactory conclusion.
It took several inspirational walks in the forest to discover Nyssa and Aldaith’s complete story. In their second story (which I planned to be of a similar length, for balance and focus) I wanted to show proper development, on a much tighter scale. Their story in “The Current” started as a playful game of seduction to release post-battle tension. A hot game with an unexpected ending. Now what next?
Of course they wouldn’t be able to forget. They would fall for each other. They would yearn to be with the other in more ways than just for fun and fighting.
So I wondered: what would be a turning point for them, from fling to true lovers?
For story 2, I had to find the most emotional turning point, to zoom in on the point in their journey that propelled their relationship to something much more, life-changingly more.
What happened then was the story “Bonds”.
Zooming in on milestones and turning points
Nyssa and Aldaith are literally swept away by passion and adrenaline in “The Current”. Their sensual game is an outlet and attempt to reconnect with reality and feel more human again.
Then in “Bonds” I show how that passion changes its form, from loose fling to committed lovers. They discover the depth of their love and how that is a double-edged sword: They find their unbreakable bond – but also are now “bound” to each other in ways that could hinder their warrior lifestyle. For the first time, they know fear. The revelation hits them at the worst time possible: when relentlessly, and seductively, training for an upcoming battle.
Three parts of a trilogy – Make it three acts
So without planning it in advance (but you can do that of course, and I recommend it! ;-)) I laid out my first two stories like this: “The Current” introduces the protagonists, their world and views, and drops them in the middle of some steamy action. Similar to how you would start a novel, but more to the point and faster paced.
“Bonds” now forms what would be the middle section of a book, where the characters grow, make progress, but due to their fears reach a point of no return that complicates things and forces them to choose.
Naturally, story 3 would have to contain a major setback and the final push of my characters to a fulfilling climax and resolution of their journey. What went from fling to lovers needed to become “love of their life”.
Many inspirational walks later I connected dots from the previous two stories, and out came: “Battles”. In this concluding story the warriors face battles on many levels: They stand in the shield wall, but a devastating turning point lets them question everything they knew in life. They battle fear, pain, and unwelcome decisions. In the end, their lives are summarized with the help of modern voices: I inserted intersections of contemporary archaeologists discovering their graves, and with that the secret of what came after the last, life-changing decision the two made.
“The Current – A Battle of Seduction”:
Marked from the latest battle, Viking warrior Aldaith wants to recover by a stream. But instead of finding solitude, he stumbles on the fearless shield maiden Nyssa. The fierce beauty invites Aldaith into the water to engage in a very different kind of battle – one for which his training leaves him unprepared.
“Bonds – Under the Armour”:
Viking warrior Aldaith and his shield maiden Nyssa engage in a heated skirmish to prepare for an imminent battle. But the looming slaughter makes their sensual duel get out of hand in more ways than one …
“Battles – Sacrifices for Love”:
Shoulder to shoulder, in life, love, and the battlefield – that is what Viking warrior Aldaith and his shield maiden Nyssa promised each other. On their way to the battleground he dreams of their very own sensual rewards after the upcoming campaign. But what begins as just another shield wall turns out to be the ultimate test of their bond. This battle might be their last …
Telling more than fits one short story
So in the span of just three shortish stories unfolds what normally would take up a whole book, just without ANY fluff and subplots. Just introduction, middle part, ending. Of course this structure is much simpler and to the point. What normally happens over hundreds of pages has to be shown with the help of spotlights on the major turning points only. But it works, because I loosely applied three acts and an arc that spanned the three stories. Three stories instead of one gives some space for character development and depth that would not fit into one short story or even fit the FORM of shorter stories as such. And still, they can be read individually too, because there are satisfying endings to each.
To plot or to pants – use arcs
All this is a lot to pull off and get right, and to be honest, I didn’t plot it all. I took step by step and crafted the stories in line with the rough idea of having good character arcs: one in each story so that it could stand alone, and one for the trilogy of all three stories. End every short story with a revelation that furthers the entire plotline and leads to the next story. This may sound harder than it was for me, because I didn’t think so much about it (I’m a pantser anyway) but just followed my instinct about what would be most interesting to zoom in on with these two.
The themes for each story now read like this: opening up to someone (making yourself vulnerable) / Falling deep for each other (discovering the fear that comes with love) / Making major sacrifices for each other (overcoming that fear together). Or simply: from fling to lovers to love of their lives.
Over to you: do you write short works, or “shorts”? Would you like to develop one further, into more? Have you thought about writing a mini-series or trilogy with shorts? Would you like to read such a mini-trilogy?
Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing