If the first book was a whirlwind of inspiration, then the difficult Second book is like a rock band’s “difficult second album.” Reaching a consistent standard over three books isn’t easy. Especially if it’s a trilogy.
With experience, you hope the second book will go better after all those lessons you learned writing the first one.
But the page count stretches in front of you like the Dead Marshes in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. Even dear J.R.R. struggled with that one. It seemed like Frodo and Sam were dragging us readers across those marshlands in real time.
When the idea generates an inspired beginning and an explosive ending, the middle is often overlooked.
The second volume runs the risk of sagging or dragging, or going around in circles to fill the pages. We get endless try-fail cycles without consequences or elevated the stakes. Or else, a pantomime of ever-increasing stakes in a desperate attempt to maintain engagement.
So often with trilogies, you get an energising beginning and explosive ending, but the middle is soggy, or thin, or missing altogether. That’s why it’s called ‘second book syndrome’. Also called ‘second book slump’, part two can lack the ‘magic’ of the first book. Worse than that, it seems to exist purely as a bridge between Book One and later volumes. Perhaps it lags a little in pacing, plot or character development? Perhaps it’s just marking time, or in essence, page count.
Trilogy by Default
There’s such a thing as the Rule of Three. Humans like things in threes; the three-act play; the three-course meal. Two of a thing feels too little. Four becomes hard work. People can easily remember and process three things.
Three Mustketeers, Three Blind Mice; three ‘acts’ over three books in a trilogy. Obvious, no?
We’re mainly concerned with three-part stories connected by a through-line of plot or characters. Three standalone books only loosely connected become a ‘set’ not a trilogy. So let’s retain the idea of that connecting through-line.
Planned or Unplanned
When it comes to books, there are two scenarios;
- the planned trilogy
- the unplanned trilogy
The issue here is ‘three-ness.’ The Trilogy is such a staple of genre fiction, not to mention a money-making opportunity. It’s hard to resist.
The unplanned trilogy begins with a duology that someone decides should go from two to three. Perhaps it’s money; perhaps it’s an unresolved plot line or character thread? Or just some cool idea the author had in the bath? Perhaps the fandom clamour for more?
It’s easy to say, “I’ll make it a trilogy!” It’s less easy to ask;
- is there enough story to fill three books?
- does the author have the time/stamina/energy/passion for three books?
‘Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,’ to mis-quote Jurassic Park. This is how stories get over-stretched or lack a satisfying middle.
Is there enough story?
Recall Sanderson’s three P’s; Promises, Progress and Payoff. Each book in a trilogy has to deliver on its own three P’s, or else it’s not a complete book. It’s padding. Progress and Payoff have to enable the character arcs expected at each stage of a trilogy.
However, the second book can’t make too much progress, or payoff the original series promise so soon. There has to be enough left for Book Three.
Coaches who advise on story structure frequently reference a familiar setup:
- Book One: introducing the world/character and what’s wrong with it.
- Book Two: what we’re going to do to fix the world; or, applied to character, how I’m going to change.
- Book Three: enacting the change, answering the key question, addressing the core wound. Finishing in a better place than we started.
In theory, Book Two can do a lot of heavy lifting. But not too much, or there’s nothing left for Book Three, where all the exciting stuff happens. The series climax has to contain the Life Lesson, the Big Reveal, the Final Showdown and the Positive Change. So what’s left for Book Two?
Three Pillars of Wisdom
Let’s go back to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring brings us Middle Earth, tons of lore, introduces all the characters and foreshadows a trunk-load of plot. The fellowship itself founded the entire Role Playing Games industry with the first Dungeons and Dragons quest and monster-bash.
The Two Towers has plenty of room to expand on setting and lore. It splits the party to follow three separate plot lines and we meet a stack of new characters. We have the big Western/Medieval siege in Rohan, the Grimm fairy tale take-down of the dark wizard in Isengard and an endurance travelogue on the walk to Mordor.
The Return of the King brings all the threads together for the Big Finish and no less than three endings.
Much as I love this genre-founding trilogy, The Two Towers drags. A lot happens, but despite three plot lines, the pacing seems way off. And that’s allowing for Tolkien’s more pedestrian prose style. Give it to an editor today, The Two Towers would be structured very differently and probably contain a third less pages.
I could have skipped on to what is Book Three, going to the heart of Empire for the Big Finish. But I didn’t.
How do I justify Book Two?
This is also a pursuit Western. By returning the ‘home front’ it broadens the world and the lore. We pick up some new characters and explore the Found Family trope. Introducing some new antagonists, it significantly raises the stakes for my protagonists. We get some new character flaws and dynamics.
Does it need to exist? Like a lot of fiction, of course it doesn’t need to exist. Does it maintain the connecting through-line across three books? Yes. Does it earn it’s place in terms of plot and character development? Or theme, or message? I like to think so. You decide.