Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Write Book One, Not Book Two

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I seen that in movies and read it in books. It is so disappointing. One author that has a series out that has complete books that sprinkles in clues for later books is Jim Butcher. He does it well. I've tired to follow that route.

  2. Such a great post, Janice! A good reminder for me, since I'm on book one of a possible series. I'm trying to make my plot solid.
    I agree with H.R. Sinclair about Jim Butcher's series. His is done really well.

    1. One thing that worked for me was to keep track of the smaller characters and situations in each book, and when I needed to retroactively lay some groundwork for a future plot point, I checked there first.

      These days, I notice any character or situation that might have more to it than the one book. Just being aware of them helps keep them in mind so you can use them as needed and it feels more organic. (I hope all that made sense, lol)

  3. I agree with this 100%! The trilogy trend has created tons of these Act I = Book 1 novels and I always get bored with them 50 pages in because it's all set up and filler! And the Hobbit movie... sigh. Such a bad decision splitting that book into three. Anyway, thanks for another great post!

    1. Thanks! I know, I've set down far too many books for the same reason.

  4. I loved this post! All the time I'm seeing things about how trilogies are where it's at, but this is the first article I've seen about the problems inherent in that way of thinking. (I also completely agree about what they did to The Hobbit.)

    1. They're great when they work, not so great when author forget the point of a book.

  5. I hate reading a first in series book, just to find out that it is the set up for the real story. Just when things start to get good... it stops.

    Most of my books are stand alones, and those that are in serieses are stories capable of standing on their own as well (you can read book 2 or 3 by itself, and it still makes sense all on its own). So I haven't run into this problem. But I'll have to watch for it in the future.

    1. Same here.

      Nice! I like series like that as well.

  6. I write mystery novels in series. I try really hard to have a mystery contained within each book that's resolved or mostly resolved by the end of the book but also to leave a thread or two hanging for the next book (that might be backstory stuff or a secondary plot). So far, the readers seem satisfied.

    When I was a book blogger, I once read the first book in what was billed as a sci-fi trilogy by a debut author. We raced 100,000 words in the first book without letting off the gas and getting nowhere near a resolution what with all the world building and all. There was a major cliffhanger at the end. I enjoyed book one and looked forward to book two. Book two picked right up and we were off to the races again with a bunch of new stuff in the mix in our now established world but it ended 90,000 plus convoluted words later with the 'team' thwarted in their objective and a cliff hanger to book three.

    The author never wrote book 3. He moved on to a different series and I never looked back...until now. I don't even want him to write the 3rd book. It should have all ended with book two.

    1. That's a good plan. You leave yourself with things to play with, but still satisfy your readers.

      Ouch, how disappointing.

  7. Ugh, I hate this so much. It's gotten to the point where if I hear a book or movie is part of a trilogy, I wait until I can read spoilers to find out the whole plot. If there's an actual ending, I'll buy the book (or see the movie). I don't want to waste time on a book 1 (or movie 1) that's just going to stop after 400 pages (or 3 hours). That's basically the writer holding out their hand and saying "you want the really good stuff? Fork over more cash."

    1. I have a friend who does that with books. He didn't even ready *my* trilogy until it was all done! hehe

  8. I love writing series'. I always set out with the goal of making a new book good enough to be the start of a series, whether I want to do a trilogy or something open-ended. But it's so important to make sure each book tells a story of its own.

    I think part of the problem is the popularity, especially in SFF, of the likes of Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, and A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones. Without the name-recognition of being Tolkien, Jordan, or Martin, you're not going to be able to convince readers to settle in for a seemingly unending story across multiple books.

    Though the io9 article gets one thing wrong: George Lucas didn't start off wanting to tell Anakin's story. He knew he wanted a serial-like story, but an awful lot of the specifics only came about over time. It's a shame they made that mistake, because it's a perfect example of how you don't need to have the whole lot planned out in advance to create a series that people will love.

    1. I agree. I think it's part of the worldbuilder's disease problem. SFF thinks "BIG" all the time.

  9. I love this article. I'd completed an outline for a story, started draft 1, but then felt like it was a bit "thin", as you say, because I was trying to set up a series and telling myself that I'd reserve the big stuff for later. But I got bored with it.

    I stepped back and told myself, "Remember, write the best book you can." I would just be cheating myself if I followed the original outline, w/c was bland. There was a conflict, and a resolution, but it didn't feel like a solid story. I'm revising that outline now and focusing on that story first before I think about other might-be sequels.

    Thanks so much for this vital reminder!

    1. Good for you! A world with lots of inherent conflict and places for the story to go will serve you better as a series platform than holding back.