Trilogies are great! Once you’ve finished reading the first book, you don’t have to give up the characters with whom you’ve spent the last 30 hours, or the world which you’ve grown to call a second home. None of that. Book one down, book two next and then book three. Except that’s not always how it goes.
“But what is the Trilogy Trap?”
Great question! It’s a term my writing friends and I use (although I highly doubt it is exclusive to us), for the trap writers fall into when making a series where one or more parts of the series suffers simply so they can build a stronger beginning or finale. Simply put, it’s a narrative structure where part 1 builds the world and characters, part 2 builds the world and story more in a less meaningful way, and part 3 is a high-paced epic finale.
And let’s be honest, we’ve all seen it. I’m about to sound like a cheesy advert…
Has this ever happened to you?
“Wow, I love *insert first book’s title here*! So gripping and exciting, beautiful characters and world. Great story. Just great. I can’t wait to read more!”
A release date comes and goes…
“Hooray! *Insert second book’s title here* is out now, I’ll stay up all night reading it because I just loved the first book so damn much!”
A few sleepless nights later…
“Well, I’ve finished *insert second book’s title here*. It’s good, but *insert first book’s title here* was way better. I hated what happened to *name character who inevitably got screwed over*.”
An undisclosed amount of time has passed…
“*Insert third book’s title* is out now? Well, I guess I should give it a read. I’ve read the rest, and it is the last one, so…”
A few weeks later…
“Wow. Holy… That ending was incredible! I need to reread this series again…”
If so then you, my friend, have encountered the Trilogy Trap! It kind of sucks, doesn’t it? That second book just feels so… lame, whatsmore you can usually highlight the issues which made you dislike the second part.
Sometimes it doesn’t detract from the series on the whole. Take, for example, one of my favourite series from my childhood, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It starts out well with a host of interesting characters in an awesome world that has witches, armoured bears and dæmons. The ending is just as strong: interesting worlds, an epic battle, cool creatures and concepts explored well (the mulefa, come on), and a bittersweet parting of ways. Every plot point is tied up, every character has a resolution, and the series feels complete.
But… What about the second book, The Subtle Knife? Well, it’s there, just… it feels weak in comparison. Sure, there are some interesting concepts, but they’re not explored with as much love as they are in either Northern Lights or Amber Spyglass, leaving the book largely forgettable. Actually, a friend of mine is reading the series for the first time, and he’s noted that the beginning of Subtle Knife is massively underwhelming, and continues to mark the rest of the book as such, although one man’s opinion doesn’t mean much in such a rich fandom.
But this isn’t a dig at Pullman, after all he helped craft my childhood reading list and opened my mind to new ideas, concepts, and genres. I love his work, but this series is a great and easy example to give for the Trilogy Trap, what with the television adaptation bringing in new fans to the books. Side note: I really do not like the television adaptation, but that’s a topic for another day, I think.
So, how does the Trilogy Trap come about, and how can we as authors avoid it?
I think the first thing to note is that we like the number three. It feels good. Trilogy sounds better than duology or quadrilogy, it just has a nice ring to it. Things like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is perhaps the most well known trilogy (I know it wasn’t released as that, but it is largely how it is known today), and a heck of a lot of fantasy authors follow this trend. There is something to be said in fantasy for where the genre came from; things like fairy tales, mythologies, and the original epics (think Gilgamesh, Arabian Nights) having an influence, but many of those don’t fall into being a trilogy.
Another thing, which I am definitely guilty of, is having a clear concept in your head with a soft and lovely start where you can expertly build the world and characters, and an epic final battle pictured vividly in your mind. I like to compare this to being in a tremendous castle, and in the distance you can see another beautiful castle standing on top of a snowy hill. To get there safely you want to build a bridge, something strong and sturdy which carries you safely over the canyon. The Trilogy Trap comes in when you choose to make that bridge, not out of stone and wood as you know you should, but out of duct tape. The result is an unstable, tacked-on bridge between two great castles which wobbles and shakes, throwing half of your readers into the void.
There is a third route to this trap, and that’s to continually make sequels as more ideas come to your head after the first part is sealed, usually through publishing. Generally speaking, a story is better if you leave some things open. I’m not talking about plot points, they should really be wrapped up nicely by the end of your story, but things like areas of your world map unexplored, world building type information left for the reader to imagine, and concepts left ambiguous.
What is in that forest with the dark pine and silver ivy blocking the sunlight? Why is there a desert between realms? Where do giants and trolls go to the toilet? These kinds of questions are fine to be left to the reader’s imagination. They help to build a sense of wonder and immersion, and if they’re the things you try to answer in a sequel then you’re doomed from the start.
There are often three acts to a story, and usually they correspond with the structure of introduction, conflict, resolution with the conflict being the hardest part to write. Not only is it the meat of the story, but it’s also where we really learn to love the characters, where we build upon the relationship we made in the first part. Where the Trilogy Trap is concerned, the second book often has either too little conflict to make a coherent story, or the conflict is too irrational for us to care or understand.
So, how can you avoid the Trilogy Trap?
Simple! Write your story to its natural end. If it feels more whole to tie everything up after two books, do it. If you need an extra book or two to answer some questions and explore concepts in more detail, do it. What you don’t want it to have three parts because it feels good, or to answer questions you don’t need to answer.
It’s sometimes nice to hit huge word counts, or to stay with the characters we’ve created and love for another 50,000 words, but there is something to be said for keeping text concise. I may be paraphrasing here, but when talking about short stories, Stephen King, the beloved master of horror, said a writer must have a novel’s worth of content to write a short story. That may feel abstract here, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Not every story needs to be 100,000 words, some benefit from being considerably smaller!
But, like I say, your story is yours, and if you want to do a trilogy because you like the thought of having three books, that’s fine. Just be aware that my friends and I will probably write a Trilogy Trap post about it in the future. At the very least that’s free publicity!
If you have any thoughts about this or any of my other posts, get in touch either through my contact page, social media, or in the comments below. For information on my own projects and to judge me for writing a trilogy of my own, head on over to my projects page. As always, any feedback is welcome, so don’t hesitate to get in touch — I’d love to hear from you!
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