Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Three Types of Trilogy

Last night I finished reading Wither by Lauren DeStefano (a review to come at some point in the near future), and it got me thinking about trilogies. Now, I like a good trilogy, there's nothing better than reading an excellent book and then finding out that there are two more that are just as good. Unfortunately, not all trilogies are like that. Here we'll explore the three types, and by "we'll explore," I mean "I'll complain."

Type One - The Standalone Book that Becomes a Trilogy
You love a book. You really, really love it. It's brilliant. But the second one isn't as good. And the third one's downright rubbish. Yes, Hunger Games, I'm talking about you. This happens all the time, and it's easy to see why. The first book is excellent and popular and makes lots of money, so the publishers want more. They want to capitalise on this and make as much money as possible. And who can blame them? Publishers are a business just like any other, and the customer doesn't know the second book's no good until after they've paid for it. Right now, I'm working as an intern for a literary agency, and you wouldn't believe how many queries mention that the book they want us to represent is part of a series or has series potential. But this is what publishers want. Why put money behind a single book when you can put that money behind a trilogy? Even if only half of the people who buy the first book go on to buy the second, you've increased your revenue substantially, without having to spend as much money on promotion, because the second book already has a fan base. It has people waiting to buy it.

Unfortunately, because this is so desirable, and as the saying says you have a lifetime to write your first album but just six months to write your second (I know this is about music not books, but the point still stands), the second book is often disappointing. Let's look at Hunger Games, for example. Fair warning, there will almost definitely be some mild spoilers here, but I'll try to avoid anything too drastic. So, Suzanne Collins has written this great book and the publishers want another. Great, celebrations for Suzanne Collins. But then, "shit, now I need another plot. I know, I'll put them BACK in the arena." Oh, yes, this is actually what happens. But it's excusable, she comes up with a reasonable explanation for why they're going back into the arena. Fine. But then, the publishers, demanding beasts that they are, want a third book. "Shit, now I need yet another plot. I can't put them back in the arena again, my readers will never buy that, they're not stupid. I know, I'll make the Capitol just LIKE the arena." Yeah, that's what she does, and it's one of the dumbest things I've ever read. And I'm a Creative Writing student. I deal with dumb story ideas on a daily basis. I come up with a lot of them myself. I can't help thinking that if Suzanne had been given more time to write the sequels, or maybe had intended to write them to begin with, the second and third books could have been a whole lot better.


Type Two - The Planned Trilogy with an Introductory Book
If you're anything like me, you hate these. You really, really hate them. How many times have you read a book, knowing it was the first in a series or not, and got all the way to the end only to find that absolutely nothing has happened in the book? It's just a really, really long and boring first chapter. As I said at the start, I just finished reading Wither by Lauren DeStefano, which is a prime example of an Introductory book. It's the first instalment in what she is calling the Chemical Garden Trilogy, and the main character Rhine is kidnapped and sold as a bride in the first chapter. Over the next twenty-six chapters, not a damn thing happens. Sure, she toys with the idea of staying with the man she's been forced to marry. Sure, on of the other brides has a baby and the third bride dies. Sure, she goes to some fancy parties. But none of these things have any bearing on the plot. They're subplots at best. They might build Rhine's character and tell us some things about her, but in three-hundred-and-fifty-eight sodding pages, nothing of any consequence happens after page 4. If you think I'm kidding, get yourself a copy and have a flick through it. Better yet, take my copy. I have no use for it.

I've noticed this happening a lot with books that are billed as a series from the start. Years ago, the first three books in the Spiderwick Chronicles appeared on my bookshelves (I genuinely don't know where they came from). I read the first one, in which nothing happened though lots of ideas and characters and creatures were introduced. I didn't bother reading the second one. You've invested time in a book, you've bothered to read it when you could have read something else entirely. You've, if you're anything like me, gotten all the way to the end because you can't bear to give up on a book. It's insulting to make that effort and then have the writer turn around tell you that if you want the actual story, you have to buy the next book. It's frankly unacceptable. And I won't buy the second book. Just because your book is the first in the series, does not mean it doesn't need a beginning, a middle and an ending. It's just not fair on your readers, and it doesn't have to be this way. Which brings us to...


Type Three - The Planned Trilogy with a Standalone First Instalment
I'm assuming most of you are familiar with the Harry Potter series, yes? (And yes, I am aware that it's not a trilogy, but it proves my point and most people will be familiar enough with the story to understand what I'm about to use it to say). Think back to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first book in the series. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. It works as a standalone book - if J.K. Rowling had never managed to get the rest of the books published, it didn't end on a cliffhanger and it wasn't just the unsatisfying start to a story. It was a standalone novel that also set-up for rest of the series. In terms of setting up for a trilogy/series, it was pretty much perfect. And it's not the only one. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld was a book in its own right, though the last line clearly set up for the next in the series.

I'm sure there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, more. I don't have a whole lot to say about these books, though, because they're exactly what a trilogy should be, and you know how hard it is for me to say nice things. Criticising is so much easier. I just don't see how writers and publishers and whoever makes these decisions think they can get away with releasing Type One or Type Two trilogies. Is it too much to ask for the same amount of care and planning to go into all of the books in a series? I understand that once the first book is released, people will be clamouring for the next (if it's good enough) and you don't want your readers to forget about it in the time it takes for the second instalment to be released. So don't release the first one until you have at least a decent plan for the second and third books. You owe your readers that much at least.

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