Guest Blogger: Janalyn Voigt
Movie sequels are famous for being less toothsome than the original fare. So it goes with books, also. I won’t name names, but we’ve all heard of literary belly flops that disappointed eager readers. Since the sagging middle is a noted phenomenon in writing today, it should be no surprise that the middles of book series could use a little toning.
I’m just completing DawnKing, book three of my epic fantasy series that began with DawnSinger. Wayfarer, book two in the series, releases today. I’d never written a trilogy before, and it presented its share of challenges the writer of a stand-alone novel doesn’t have to face. With writing and editing the second book in a trilogy fresh in my mind, this is a good point to take stock of the experience and outline the special problems I encountered and their solutions.
1. Working in information from the previous book so readers are not in the dark without overwhelming them can be difficult. This is a tall order, and one my critique group called me on right away. They were right. What was current news in the previous book was now backstory. If, like me, you’ve been taught to avoid backstory like the plague for the first 50 pages of a book, you’ll see why this becomes a problem.
The solution was to get on with the present story while ignoring backstory as much as possible. It did present itself as needed. As the author I can be too familiar with the story and possibly omit necessary information, leaving new readers in the dark. Most of my critique partners had not read book one, and their perspective was just what I needed. I had to assume a reader would not have read book one either and that previous readers would want refreshers.
2. Introducing characters from a previous book needs to be handled well. Have you ever gone to a party where you didn’t know anyone and had your host introduce you to the entire room at once? Same principle.
Unless there’s no other way, resist the urge to open the book with the cast of characters that just took a bow at the end of book one. Yes, the reader will need to know these people, but not all at once. Based on responses from my critique group, the fewer characters you introduce at a time, the better. This was especially difficult for me as the author of an epic with a large cast.
3. Sustaining character arcs can create difficulties. Unless you write longer books than most publishers want to contract, the more characters you introduce the less territory in terms of word count becomes available for each of them. Bear this in mind as you plot. This proved tough for me because each book in Tales of Faeraven focuses on a different main character even as previous story threads continue as subplots. I wouldn’t suggest replicating this structure unless like me you think in a lot of detail. I am a former insurance agent who has read and understood complex policies. If that type of thing would cause you to run screaming, you’d probably be better off sticking with a single story told across several books.
4. It’s not easy to sustain the story arc across multiple books but end each book with a resolution that leaves readers satisfied. The advantage of my ensemble-cast structure is that it’s not as hard to conclude each book with at least part of the story it featured resolved. This is trickier with a single story broken across several titles, but it can be done. The reader is aware that in a series some threads can’t entirely be resolved. This can actually be what drives them back to read the next book, if handled well. There’s a delicate balance between frustrating and teasing your reader.
There are several ways to handle this. It works to resolve the main conflict in each book but have an ongoing story thread that is left hanging for the reader to puzzle over until next time. The way The Desolation of Smaug, the second Hobbit movie, ends is a case in point. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but if you do, think back to this post. In this scenario, the anticipation of waiting for the next release can be part of the fun for readers. Another method is to seemingly wrap everything up at the end of book one, killing off the villain and resolving the romance. Then, at the opening of book two, we discover the villain restored or a new villain throwing his or her weight around, and the romance is now in jeopardy. Of the two methods, this one is the most likely to make the reader feel cheated. It can be pulled off by embedding skillful clues in the first book, and then reminding the reader of them in the second.
In either case, it’s vital to have a story arc for the series that is greater than the story arcs of each individual book.
5. The tone of each book should reflect the series but not serve as a rerun. I’m not of the mindset that each book must be a replica of the previous one. As a reader, that idea makes me yawn. I want each book in a series to surprise me. Having said that, though, I’m looking to reenter the same world I left at the end of the first book. If it seems to different, I may feel betrayed and stop reading.
The solution for me was to model each book in my trilogy after a three-movement symphony. I studied music in college, so this is a comparison I make naturally. If you’re not aware, each movement in a symphony has a different tempo (or pace) and feel from the others. For a three-movement symphony, it’s not uncommon for the opening movement to clip along, the next to linger, and the last to pick up toward the final crescendo. These movements are different from one another but connected by repeated motifs and modalities that make them sound similar. Another way of putting this is that they are different children in the same family.
I’ve discovered that each story has a distinct voice that reveals my voice as a writer in a new way. Envision, if you will, daylight refracting through this prism in the morning, at noon, and again in the late afternoon. The prism would shine in a unique way at each of these times, but it is the same prism.
I hope you’ve gleaned from my experience in writing the second book in a series. If you are interested in learning how I personally have applied what I’ve taught here, I suggest starting with DawnSinger.
Links for Wayfarer:
About Janalyn Voigt
As children, my older brother and I would beg my father for bedtime stories, and he would give them. His deep voice rumbled against my ear at his chest as he unfolded stories of exotic places like Oz and Neverland. My imagination carried on with the tales even after he closed the book for the night. When eventually he stopped reading stories, I began creating my own.
Within a few years I’d become storyteller of my neighborhood. The other children would gather in a circle on our lawn while I invented stories to entertain them. No one, including myself, thought of this as anything unusual. It wasn’t until my sixth-grade teacher pointed out my ability to spin a tale that I and my parents took note. This is how at the age of twelve I decided to become a novelist. At it turns out, the fulfillment of that dream took a few more years than planned.
Find out more about Janalyn, her closet writing office, and her books at her website: Janalyn Voigt.