Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. Visit him online at djangowexler.com.
Ahh, the curse of the middle book. Ever since Frodo spent all of The Two Towers walking … and walking … while his friends chatted with Ents and generally bored everyone to tears, it seems like the middle book of a trilogy is always the odd one out. But why? And more importantly, as an author, what can you do about it?
If you think of a trilogy as a single extended story, the problem seems inevitable, especially if the plot is the usual Hero’s Journey. The first book has excitement: the hero leaves home, enters the wider world, learns of the bad guys, starts coming into his power. The last book has the epic final confrontation, the big reveal, the payoff to everything that has come before. In this formulation, the second book is just kind of … there, occupying space between the beginning and the end, because the laws of drama tell us that there must be a certain amount of pain and suffering before the finale.
This is, obviously, kind of a simplistic way of looking at things, but it’s surprisingly common. One possible reason is that the drive to make a particular story a trilogy comes from outside rather than within. Trilogies are practically standard in fantasy. Readers and publishers know and love them, and in some sub-genres they’re almost the default. My own series, The Shadow Campaigns, is five books, and I’ve had to work really hard to make sure everyone knows it — even so, I’ve had people go into book three assuming it’s the end!
In that environment, it’s easy to say, “Well, I’ll make it a trilogy!” without asking whether that’s really what the story needs. In many cases, the problem with the middle book is that it has no particular reason to exist; if not for the market pressure towards trilogies, the series would have been perfectly happy as two books. This often manifests as the plot or climax for the second book feeling unconnected or irrelevant to the “main story”, because it was invented later on, to give the characters an additional obstacle to surmount without actually finishing things off.
As an author, then, how do you get around this problem? I would argue that the first step is to stop thinking of the series as one enormous novel split up into smaller chunks. A novel is a novel, whether it’s book one, two, or ten in a series, and that means it needs certain things if it’s going to satisfy the readers. Each one needs a beginning, middle, and end, rising and falling action, and a plot that stands on its own feet. It doesn’t literally need to stand alone — obviously, the whole point of a series is that things build on each other — but it should be complete enough that the reader, on finishing it, will be content to have to wait a year or more for the next one. (Since that is likely exactly what they will do!)
This is what separates a series of novels from a serial novel, or from other media like comic books or TV shows. The expectation of a quick continuation of the story — next week, next month — means that those forms thrive on not delivering a neat wrap-up, on keeping the readers hooked in order to bring them along to the next installment. Novels move too slowly for that, and trying it will usually leave you in middle-book land.
The most important thing to do as an author, then, is to take a look at your story and figure out how many books it actually needs to be. There are as many ways to go about this as there are ways to outline and plan a story (that is, a lot) but I’ll share mine. When I was pitching The Shadow Campaigns to editors, my agent wanted an outline of the rest of the series, which I had originally vaguely thought of as being three books long. To prepare the outline, I wrote down a list of events I knew would have to happen in a rough order, first at a very high level and moving steadily toward more detail. At some point, I stepped back, and counted how many book-level climaxes I thought there were. That is, how many of these events seemed like a place where the action would rise to a point that would feel satisfying as the conclusion to a novel?
The answer (not including the first book, which I’d already written) turned out to be four, so four books it was. Knowing the climaxes gave me a lot of information about where I needed to start, because it nailed down one end of the arc of each book. And that, in turn, makes sure each book has an arc, that it’s not just a means of getting characters from point A to B or gathering the Eight Crystals of Doom. I hope that readers will find the conclusion to each book just as exciting and satisfying as the rest, and still be eager for the next one. Because that’s the real promise of a novel series!