I just got done reading a book from one of my favorite authors and found myself seriously annoyed at it. So, like I usually do, I pondered why I was so upset with the book. Because writing-wise, it was fine. So what annoyed me?
As I pondered, I realized that it had the same problem that I’ve run across in many other middle books. So I broadened my pondering, and pondered why middle books are often so bad in comparison to other books in the trilogy or series.
As I pondered, I drew myself pictures to define concepts better for myself.
There seem to be a two kinds of series:
- A series of books — no overall arcs:
- A series with arcs carried over multi books:
Since I read for character, my reading repertoire contains, almost exclusively, the second type of series. So that’s what I focused on in my further ponderings.
As I pondered, I came to the conclusion that there seem to be two kinds of problems with middle books, which can appear in either type of series, but as I said, I’ll focus on the second type of series.
First Middle-book Problem
The first problem with many middle books is that they are really the first part of the end book, or the next book.
In other words, the last two books in the trilogy are not two books, but really one book that has been split into two parts.
Since I’m an author, it seemed obvious to ask:
When you are writing a book, how do you tell the difference between two separate books, or one book in two parts?
And the answer appears to be: Look at the way the story arcs are carried between the two books.
Sure, the first book of the two may have a plot (it often doesn’t), but the story arcs that are introduced in the story are left hanging, to be finished in the next book.
Basically, the first book asks more questions than it answers.
In other words, too many questions are carried over to the next book for this book to be a satisfying reading experience.
Which led me to an extension of this issue… and a personal pet-peeve… long-standing book series, where the individual books are really “chapters” of the story, rather than whole stories in and of themselves.
Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry books are an excellent example of books that are more “chapters” of the story than they are whole books that are satisfying reading experiences in and of themselves. Her first seven Merry books, when combined together, make up one excellent book, with arcs complete enough to tell a satisfying story. And the eighth Merry book is clearly the first “chapter” in the next “book” in the series, as it does have a minor plot, but it raises so many new story arcs that, in an of itself, it’s not a satisfying read.
How do you tell if you’re writing “chapter” books or “whole” books?
Look at the story arcs you raise and complete. Yes, it’s nice to have arcs that cross books; they add to continuity. But look at the book’s proportions.
In other words, look at the relative balance of the weight (importance) of the arcs raised and carried forward, to the weight (importance) of the arcs raised and completed in the book.
As should be obvious from this illustration, this type of series isn’t one that you can satisfyingly start in the middle. The reader will have to start at the beginning of the series to have any hope of figuring out what’s going on. Which is a problem if the author is twenty books into the series.
Second Middle-book Problem
The second problem I have with middle books is when the middle book is only set-up for the next book.
It may have a plot, but the plot is self-contained and doesn’t advance any part of the overall arc of the series except to move to characters to the point that the next book can begin.
I call these “move the ship” books. 🙂 Because, typically this kind of book can be summed up in a sentence or two, such as: “they solved a mystery while the ship drove to planet X”, and sure the mystery was nice, but the whole purpose of the book is to move the characters to “planet X”, where the next part of the story takes place.
An author can have a “move the ship” book in the middle of a long-term series, too.
Where the plot of the third book isn’t critical to the understanding of the rest of the series, or the plot is a side-issue that could have been easily skipped or summed up in a bit of narrative backstory. And where the plot doesn’t move the overall arc of the story-series forward… it just sets up the circumstances to move the arc forward.
I find “move the ship” books emotionally unsatisfying because if I’m reading a book in a series, I’m looking to read a book that moves the overall arc forward, not a book that spends 400+ pages accomplishing nothing.
Then, I pondered how to tell if I’m writing a middle book that holds its own weight.
Definition of Excellent Middle Book
— It is a self-contained element of the overall story, with the weight (importance) of the individual book’s story arcs being heavy enough to compensate for ongoing story arcs.
— It provides satisfying ending for arcs raised in the book, with an obvious step forward in each (or many) overall arcs.
— It may leave overall arc(s) unsolved, and establish new ongoing arcs, but it moves them forward significant and satisfying amounts and the overall arcs are minor in relative weight (importance) when compared to the self-contained arcs.
If you’re writing a middle book, it might be worth your while to go ahead and draw out the arcs, to see what kind of book your writing.