Saturday, March 7, 2009

Where Trilogies Go Wrong

Let me begin by admitting that I am biased against trilogies. I don’t trust them. The idea of a trilogy is pretty cool – what could be better than three whole books about characters, worlds, and adventures we love? Sometimes a sequel just isn’t enough.

And yet.

Have you ever read an amazing book, and then rushed out to find it was not stand-alone, but part of a trilogy? Have you then bought book two and found it…disappointing? And book three. Don’t get me started about book three. I can’t count the times I have clung to the hope that somehow, miraculously, the author will pull themselves together long enough to end their trilogy with a bang. Rarely, this happens. Sometimes book three will soar above the faults of book two, and make me a believer in that trilogy forever and ever.

But usually? Usually book three is a flop. It’s a slaughterhouse of the story I had once loved. It spirals down into chaos, leaving me cheated, saddened, and wearily glad that it’s all over. Then there come rumors. Hints of book four. By that point, I have given up, and I refuse to be sucked in again.

Let me list some common foibles of trilogies:

Killing main characters. Especially if the death lacked meaning, a compelling motive, or could have easily been avoided.

Resurrecting characters. Especially antagonist and those annoying sub-characters.

Different main characters from book to book. This works okay with sagas or epics, but many people find it frustrating when falling in love with one character, and then being forced to read about someone new.  

Subsequent books where heroes and villains become undistinguishable. It’s fine to stretch your characters, making the villain struggle to be good, making the hero struggle to not be bad. However, too much flip-flopping can make the story unreliable. Once that happens there’s no reason to keep reading.

Second or third books that have no story of their own. This can come in many forms: when book 2 acts as a transition to book 3, with no concrete storyline or ending, of it’s own; when book 2 follows the basic plot of book 1; when book 2 spends most of it’s wordcount switching out old characters for new ones, etc. Sometimes books 1 and 2 are great, but book 3 simply rehashes the plot of the first two.

Lack of trilogy-arc. Like an individual novel, a trilogy needs it’s own story arc, especially when it comes to the trilogy’s villains. The trilogy should gain purpose as it goes along, and one particular villain should grow more powerful, staying undefeated until the end of book three. This is what keeps a trilogy interesting.

Trilogies that are left unfinished, or trilogies that turn into a quartet. This is always upsetting. It messes with the natural arc of a trilogy, leaving readers unsettled or unsatisfied.

Books that depart from the vibe or style of previous books. People read a trilogy for more of what they know, just better. Changing the tone of a trilogy midway wreaks havoc on the story.

Many things can make a trilogy go south. Usually it’s some combination of craft, publisher demands, and the author themselves. Let’s talk about some of these contributing factors:


Sealed Deal Laziness. This is what happens to authors who feel themselves protected by a book deal or contract. They loosen up. Relax. The books are already bought and paid for, so the author doesn’t have to try as hard as they used to. The pressure is off. 

But another kind of pressure is on -

Publisher Pressure. It’s an undeniable fact that publishers are in a hurry to get their books, one-a-year being the optimum turnout per author.  This gives an added incentive for authors to remain lazy about their work. Or maybe they aren’t even lazy at all; maybe they simply don’t have the time. This can really cramp the creative process.

Deadlines have another affect as well –

The Sophomore Slump. This is a term for the newbie author that is used to spending years on a single book, and once published, is suddenly faced with the demand of deadlines. This is a very real struggle. It can result in strained work, storylines and plots that haven’t been fleshed out, flat writing, etc. 

Miscellaneous. There are other factors, such as characters that can’t carry a trilogy arc; or peer pressure from publishers to keep writing more books on a used-up storyline, to capitalize on previous efforts; or an author fumbling in mid-career, who’s books get dropped before the trilogy ends. All this can affect the quality of a trilogy.


I will add a caveat. The quality of a book or trilogy is subjective. It depends on the reader’s taste, the amount they can suspend their disbelief, their tolerance for mistakes, and their desire for excellence. Trilogies I found fault with – Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; Corneila Funke’s Inkeart Trilogy – others have enjoyed.

People read sequels, trilogies, and series because the first novel captivated them. They are hungry for more of what made the first book so special. And the sad thing is, so many of those things I mentioned are easily avoidable. A good book is a good book. Any one novel should stand on it’s own merit, regardless of whether it’s part of a trilogy or not.



-Creative A 


Martha Flynn said...

Let's not forget the other trilogy writing sin - unnecessarily holding back information in your first novel just so you can pull out reveals in later books, even though the information probably should have come out earlier.

Anonymous said...

I think the biggest problem is lack of planning/foresight. The author never expected to write more than one book and so like a bad sitcom/soap writer he keeps churning out more stuff.

I am a big believer in stories having clear beginnings and endings. They anchor your story. As yourself, if this really a trilogy? Could it be done in two books or maybe in a short story compilation? Maybe there are new stories within the world/universe you created that don't involve the main characters in the first book so shift focus (making it clear to the audience that you are doing so).

Annie King said...

I enjoyed your assessment. I wrote evaluations of the first three volumes of Juliet Marillier's THE BRIDEI CHRONICLES, on my blog, during the month of November 2008. I loved the first book, THE DARK MIRROR, and found numerous faults in the second and third book, for many of the reasons you cite. I expected the story to conclude with Book 3, but after finishing, realized there's at least one more to come, and yes, I was a frustrated reader.

I have to disagree with you on Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS. I enjoyed all three books, precisely because I never knew what to expect, and I just enjoyed the "ride." Pullman wrote the books for adults, and they were originally published in England for adults. Because the characters were young, in America, they were published as YA, and they've since been published here as mainstream Fantasy for adults, so you can find them in both adult and YA sections of the book stores and libraries.

I'm glad you're still around!

Creative A said...

Hey Martha. Welcome! That's a good one, and I hadn't thought of it. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for the insight Ralf. I really like what you said, and I agree. I think a lot of people don't plan on subsequent books but get nudged into it, and then struggle to find more material in what was a finished item. I'm also a believer in clear endings and beginnings, so you have my support there :)

Hey Anne. I remember being blown away by Pullman's writing, but frustrated at his plotting. His concepts were awesome, but I felt they fell apart toward the end, and I just never found the whole angel/dust thing plausible. *shrugs* But yeah. Opinions do differ.

I'm curious - did a majority of you think I was going to quit BY march? I'll have to announce something else, clarify it maybe.

Anonymous said...

I though you were quitting imitatively or at least shortly after your announcement. It sounded like that, at least to me.

Annie King said...

Hi Creative A, I enjoyed book 1 and 2 of HIS DARK MATERIALS the best. I enjoyed 3, but I couldn't always follow what Pullman was doing with it, so I know exactly what you mean about the plotting. He apparently paralleled Milton's Paradise Lost, somewhat.

Creative A said...

Mmm. Same here. Although I've never read Paradise Lost, so I couldn't say if there were any parallels or not. The one thing I did notice was that each book seemed to have it's own agenda. That was kind of nice, and kind of not nice. So maybe that's part of why book 3 was so frustrating for me? I hadn't been expecting the whole angels/death/harpy thing.

Aaanyway :)

Google Analytics