Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Trouble with Trilogies

Out of the 37 38 YA books I’ve read this year, 25 have been a part of series*. Of those 25, 24 are trilogies and the last one is a trilogy with a prequel (the Maze Runner stories).

Let me throw out some more of my reading stats:
-          16 books were first in the series
-          5 were second
-          3 were third
-          1 was a prequel

Notice anything there?**

Trilogies (and series) are popular in YA. The biggest YA books—Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Harry Potter—are all series, and unlike middle grade series, which tend to tell similar, unconnected stories, these YA series typically tell one large story over several books.

But there’s a sense that readers and editors are growing tired of trilogies (you could make a writers conference drinking game every time someone says “trilogy fatigue”), and, the more of these things that I read, the more I start seeing similar problems and pitfalls.

I actually enjoy trilogies, at least the way they’re meant to be, with three individual stories that push forward some bigger narrative. But that is incredibly tricky to pull off. Too contained a story and there’s not a huge impetus to pick up the next one; too many loose ends and the story is incomplete and unsatisfying.

Trilogies also need to be well planned and thought out. Although it’s natural that characters and storylines might deviate from the original idea, big swings in characters from one book to the next are frustrating to the reader. These changes imply that the author didn’t fully understand the character and had to abruptly alter them to fit their purposes in the next book (which also implies they didn’t know what the next book would bring). Even if these big changes were supposedly planned, readers can feel tricked or cheated, and this threatens reader trust.

Then you get to the Lost problem of trilogies: tantalizing clues with no resolution. Not to get in a huge Lost debate, but I call bullshit on the series creators’ claim that they planned the whole thing out. A loose plan? Sure. But the problem with Lost is that by saying that, and promising to answer all the questions, they established a huge trust with their audience. But ultimately, they left a lot of loose ends and a lot of the cool, mysterious junk that seemed to have a purpose turned out to be just a distraction. They broke that trust, and people are (still) pissed. There’s a lesson there, which is to know where you’re going and where you’re taking the reader. If you ask the reader to invest a lot of thought into something, they will, but there has to be payoff or the next time you need the reader to care, they will wonder why they should bother (I’m looking at you, damn perspicacious loris).

As a relatively new writer, I’ve decided that I’m not ready to write a trilogy yet. Trilogies seem easy—you can leave unanswered questions! you have three books to figure out your story!—but they require so much planning and forethought to get right. Trilogies need to be mapped out from the beginning, at least loosely, but for new writers, that much detail can be daunting.

There are practical considerations as well. New writers who spend years laboring over their first book must then turn around a similar second book in a much shorter amount of time—and the writing and story can suffer. A trilogy is a big time investment as well, several years at least, and should reader interest not be strong (or your own interest wane), you’re essentially stuck.

And for new writers, still getting a sense of what and how they write, the consistency necessary within a trilogy can be limiting. Beginning writers should be trying as many different styles and genres as possible, pushing themselves to find what they write best, but a trilogy forces them inside a single genre. Even eliminating the genre problem, new writers will see their prose and style develop the more they write, and it can be difficult and hobbling to stylistically match earlier work.

Finally, the reader in me celebrates standalone novels. After so many “To be continued”s, there is something incredibly satisfying in reading a full, complete story. And while some of the most commercially popular books are series, some of the most critically popular are standalones: I’m talking The Fault in Our Stars, Where Things Come Back, Inside out and Back Again, Between Shades of Gray. Standalones have their own issues, of course, and they’re poorly suited to the kinds of stories that have filled bookshelves lately (dystopian epics). But I’m happy to see more readers and editors asking for the kinds of stories—contemporary issues, historical fiction, realistic fiction—that demands a more contained story.

What do you think? As a reader, are you also getting frustrated with trilogies? If you're a writer, do you write series or standalones?

*I didn’t include companion novels, like Lola and the Boy Next Door and Bitterblue
**Arguably, the stats don’t completely represent my interest in series, because a lot of the first-series books I read haven’t published their second or third books, or I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. But I can say with absolute certainty that I won’t continue on with at least 6 of the 16, just due to interest, and only 3 of them have me really excited.


  1. Are you not counting Monstrous Beauty because you read it in ARC form, or because you secretly didn't finish it? :D

    1. OBVIOUSLY I read every word. I'm not sure why I didn't put it in my list o' books I've read. I guess because it wasn't out yet? #fixedit

    2. And so 37 should become 38. #statslover

    3. I knew that math would end up screwing me over

  2. Big confession: I'm currently writing a trilogy. And yet, as a reader I totally agree with you. I really get tired of having to wait for the next in a series, and I find that I forget what happened in the interim. My WiP is sci-fi, and there was just no way that I could tell the story in one novel. Ah well. I'm also writing a standalone romance, so there's that. :)

    1. I think that's definitely understandable. And sci-fi is a more trilogy-friendly genre than others. Certainly if you plan it out well there's no reason why it shouldn't be successful. When I tried writing trilogies I found that I could really only think one book at a time and I had a lot of difficulties imagining the complete story. I think it's a lot more daunting than people think, which is why a well-told trilogy is really impressive!