Io9 ran an interesting article yesterday entitled, Some Movies Are So Worried About Setting Up a Sequel They Forget to be Good. (I’d summarize, but the title says it all). This is something I’ve also seen in books, though from a slightly different angle.
Some writers are so enamored with the idea of writing a trilogy or series, they stretch an otherwise good story so thin it falls apart.
Although anyone can make this mistake, you see it most often in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I suspect “epic fantasy” catapulted the entire genre into thinking every story had to be at least a trilogy.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with a great trilogy. I love a great trilogy. I wrote a great trilogy (admittedly biased here, but hey, it won an award). Plenty of one-book ideas grow into solid multi-book ideas. The problem comes when the writer takes a great stand-alone story and forces it to become a trilogy.
The Io9 article references The Hobbit here, and I have my own experience with it that shows this problem well. Toward the end of the movie, I was debating how much was left and if I had time to run out to the restroom before the climax (it’s a LONG movie).
And then the credits started rolling.
The movie just stopped. The way it told you it was over was by cutting to the credits. No climax. No wrap up. Just “look, we’re out the mines” and bam. Black screen with text. I did not bother with the next two movies.
This is what happens when you take a children’s book and turn it into a nine-hour mini-series.
How to Spot a Trilogy Wannabe
Luckily, it’s not hard to identify one of these books in the making in time to fix it. Stories stretched beyond their limits have these common elements (all or some):
They don’t have a complete story in book one
The first book has no core conflict of its own, and no problem to resolve in the climax. Stuff happens, sure, but the book just…stops. There’s no satisfaction for the reader because the story has no ending. It’s as if the last few chapters were torn out. Odds are, book two ends the same way, but with a cliffhanger. The only true climax is in book three, because that’s the only real climax in the entire story.
The first book is all about setting up why the rest of the series matters
Often, this focuses on the “one tragic event that changed the protagonist’s life” and that’s why they’re in the right place at the right time for the conflict of the story. If you’ve uttered the words “this event is what causes the entire thing to happen—without it the rest of the story doesn’t make sense,” there’s a decent chance you’re just dumping in unnecessary setup. Backstory that created the protagonist’s tragic flaw or emotional wound is not a book unto itself.
(Here’s more on the difference between good and bad setup)
You’re holding back plot elements to save them for later books
Unless you have a legitimate multi-book story, there’s no reason to hold back anything if it will make book one better (and even then it’s a toss up). If you’re keeping the good stuff in reserve so you have something cool to write about later, that’s a major red flag that the story is getting thin.
You’re throwing pointless obstacles in the way to fill the spaces between actual, relevant plot points
Too-thin stories have holes to fill, and adding pointless fluff seems like a good idea (especially if it fleshes out an exciting backstory). But it doesn’t do anything to serve the story and only delays events with little to no improvement on the book as a whole. It also tends to get repetitious as the characters perform essentially the same tasks over and over to kill time.
You’ve literally taken your three-act outline and turned each act into its own book
I speak from experience here. If you’ve ever looked at your outline and thought, “I can make the beginning part book one, the middle book two, and the climax can be stretched to fill book three” you are also guilty of over-stretching your poor story. Since the three act structure is also a solid structure for a trilogy, it feels as though the story would easily scale up. It doesn’t (at least, not without a lot of work).
(Here's more on plotting multi-book goals)
Multi-book stories can and do appear from stand-alone stories, but it usually happens when the writer sees a larger picture behind the events of book one. It’s not the same story stretched to fit, it’s taking the results of book one and showing the larger implications and consequences of those actions.
Series are sexy. Trilogies are fun. They have huge potential and that appeals to the dreamer in all of us. But do your story a favor and let it be who it is. Odds are you have a true series idea in your head and that story deserves its chance to shine.
Have you ever stretched a story too thin?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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