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The Curse of the Middle Book

Why is the second book in a fantasy trilogy so hard to get right? The first book introduces the [1] world, the protagonist, the goal – it grabs the reader’s imagination and holds it with everything bright and new. In the third book the reader gets the answers to the perplexing story questions, and sees the goal achieved and the protagonist becoming wiser and stronger after facing the various tests and challenges along the way (or possibly not, if it’s one of the current crop of dark and gritty fantasies by writers like Joe Abercrombie [2]and Jesse Bullington [3].) The middle book? It can be a bit of a let-down, not much more than a bridge between A and C.

If book 2 is weak, readers may drop out partway through. Lower sales for book 3 may cause the publisher to lose confidence in the writer. The result: future submissions won’t be considered. We stand and fall on the sales figures for our last novel. In the current climate, with the major publishing houses so cautious about what projects they take on, that scenario is extremely possible.

How do you keep book 2 as interesting and readable as books 1 and 3? I’m asking myself that question right now as I embark on a set of revisions suggested by my editors for Raven Flight, the second book in my Shadowfell series. This is the book I started writing during NaNoWriMo in 2011, and had to submit rather underdone. It’s no surprise that the editors asked for substantial changes.  I can see for myself that it’s middle-bookish. So, what to do about making the in-between book into a great story in its own right?

Firstly, examine STRUCTURE. With a trilogy we need an over-arching structure that spans the entire series, a grand epic adventure, war or quest that takes from page 1 of book 1 to page 500 of book 3 to work itself out. Whether the action of the trilogy takes six months, a year, ten years or several lifetimes, the overall structure stands or falls on the strength of that ‘big’ story, in which the reader needs to be so invested that he or she is happy to read the 1500 words as fast as we can write them. In fantasy, that over-arching structure is pretty likely to be the good old ‘hero’s journey’ model on which so many classic fantasies are built. Think Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

As well as the over-arching, three book framework, each book needs its own satisfying internal structure. A trilogy shouldn’t read as a huge story cut arbitrarily into three parts, but as three complete stories, each with a beginning, middle and end. Ideally, each will be strong enough to stand alone, but the ‘big’ story should also be compelling enough to make the reader desperate to read the next instalment.

Raven Flight needs an inciting incident that sends our protagonist off on the next stage of her personal quest, a series of challenges that builds in intensity, pitfalls and setbacks along the way, and a satisfying resolution. Some of those elements are already present in the ms; some need more work. The fact that my trilogy has one first person narrator throughout makes it more challenging to create a complete and satisfying story arc for the middle book. The protagonist’s personal journey is intimately tied up with the epic, three book story. Balancing the need to leave that epic story in a perilous place of non-resolution while also providing a great ending for book 2 will be quite a challenge.

Secondly, look at CHARACTERS. You might put someone different in the centre of your middle book, and allow that character her own journey. Shift the focus a little. Your major protagonist is still working to save the kingdom, defeat the dark lord or find the magic elixir, but now the loyal sidekick/sister/friend gets her turn in the spotlight; she is the hero of her own story while continuing to play a significant part in that of the protagonist.  Complete her story in book 2; make the reader care about her. Or turn the story on its head; why can’t the antagonist of book 1  be the protagonist of book 2?

Thirdly, increase TENSION. Book 1 contains the impetus that drives the characters on their quest or journey and introduces the major obstacles that stand in their way. In book 3 we get the final, near-impossible challenge as the story works its way to a grand climax. Book 2 needs its own elements that create tension (and surprise.) Add urgency to the story by making plot elements time-dependent: the protagonist must find the key before midsummer OR … The prisoner must get free before the moon rises OR …  Put your characters in jeopardy. Set them impossible tasks. Raise the bar higher for them with each success.

PS: my novel Shadowfell, first in the series mentioned above, has just been published in Australia by Pan Macmillan. Knopf’s US edition comes out in September. Look for a WU feature on the book closer to that date.

Are you wrestling with a middle book? Any insights to share?

Photo credit:
© Catia70 [4] | Dreamstime.com [5]

About Juliet Marillier [6]

Juliet Marillier [7] has written twenty-four novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world and have won numerous awards. Juliet is currently working on a historical fantasy trilogy, Warrior Bards, of which the third book, A Song of Flight, will be published in August/September 2021. Her collection of reimagined fairy tales, Mother Thorn, will have a trade release in April 2021. Mother Thorn is illustrated by Kathleen Jennings and published by Serenity Press. When not writing, Juliet looks after Reggie, her elderly rescue dog.