So if you’ve been here before, you might have seen me sharing the drafts of the first chapter in my WIP. I may have never mentioned it, but I am plotting the Tales of Drynic as a trilogy. As of now, I am in the early stages of Beta Reading and Critiques. There are many edits between me and publishing book one, but that isn’t stopping me from planning ahead.
In case you didn’t know, it is industry standard to write and market the first book in a series as a Stand-Alone story “with series potential.” As far as I understand, this primarily applies to traditionally published works, however, because I intend to traditionally publish, that’s what I know the most about.
That said, I found myself in a pickle these past weeks. I knew I was unhappy with the ending of my first book but couldn’t pinpoint how to solve it. Needing outside help, I sought out Beta Readers to help stir up new ideas. The first to finish agreed that the ending was underwhelming and felt unfinished. I explained my situation further, and we opened a conversation on the matter. While this wasn’t a bad idea, I still struggled to pin down where I wanted to end up.
So it was time for more research, and here I am to share that with you. Let’s talk about how other series treat their individual books.
An easy, accessible place to start is Harry Potter. Not only is it mainstream enough for most people to have at least a vague understanding, but it’s got a lot of examples of individual stories woven together. So let’s run through the resolutions:
- Harry destroys the stone, Voldemort is defeated, and Gryffindor wins the house cup.
- Harry saves Ginny, kills the Basilisk, destroys Voldemort again, and Gryffindor wins the house cup.
- Harry discovers Sirius is innocent, finds the actual culprit, Sirius and Buckbeak get away, Gryffindor wins the house cup.
- Harry wins the Triwizard Tournament, Cedric dies, Voldemort is back, we find the actual Moody. *Tonal Shift.
- Harry destroys the Prophesy, Sirius dies, and Voldemort is exposed.
- Harry finds the fake locket, and Dumbledore dies.
- Harry destroys the Horcruxes, Harry masters death, Harry stops the war, Harry defeats Voldemort, and Harry starts a family.
Early on — in the first three books, especially — the stories are only kept in their specific order because it follows Harry’s chronological school experience. For all intents and purposes, book one could have introduced the Basilisk, book two could’ve talked about Azkaban, and book three could have sent us to find the Philosopher’s Stone. Adjust the ages, and the books work the same each time: they are closed cases, opening with the summer before school and wrapping up with the train ride home.
But then book four happens.
On the surface, it’s the same: summer, school, new problems, problems solved, Voldemort returns, end of the year feast. Super similar right? Except it isn’t. Voldemort’s full return in this book is immediately followed by the first notable ‘good guy’ death since James and Lily Potter. And it’s a child. Books one, two, and three have satisfying, closed-circuit endings. But book four? Book four tells you that things are just getting started. Book four sees that you’ve made it through the opening trilogy and takes a chance. After Harry leaves the graveyard, there is no ending until book seven when Voldemort is defeated. Don’t get me wrong; plenty of people made it to or past book four and didn’t care to finish the series. But Rowling’s target audience needed to know that Voldemort had been conquered. After that point, the books were still episodic, but they were no longer stand-alones.
Well, that’s great and all, but not everyone is writing a septology. Today’s hot trend is the trilogy — and by ‘today’ I mean trilogies have been growing in popularity at the same rate as the advancement of story-telling techniques. A trilogy sets up an overarching ‘beginning, middle, end’ with tiny ‘beginnings, middles, ends’ scattered through. But I’m not here to talk about the ‘Rule of Threes’ trope. Not today at least. I’m here to figure out how in the world to bridge my stories. So let’s keep following pop culture right to one of the most mainstream trilogies of the past decade-or-so: the Hunger Games. How does each end?
- Katniss saves Peeta, they kill the last tribute, then defy the ever-changing-rules to win the Hunger Games.
- Katniss is saved from the Hunger Games, Peeta is captured by the Capitol, and a revolution has started.
- Katniss kills President Coin, and she and Peeta leave the rebuilding country to start a family and recover from their trauma.
Looking again at book one, we get another example of a great standalone. The protagonist wins, the Capitol looks stupid, she gets to bring fake boyfriend home to see real-fake boyfriend. All is well in the world. But the success of book one — along with Suzanne Collins’s pre-established reputation with The Underland Chronicles quintet — prompted a second and third book. Similar to Harry’s fourth book, book two, Catching Fire, ends on a cliffhanger that no longer works as a standalone. Peeta is in the Capitol which is bad. Haymitch lied to Katniss about prioritizing Peeta which is bad. The Districts are rebelling which is mostly bad. Katniss has to learn how to be inspirational without using Peeta’s general likableness as a crutch… which is bad. And now they have to go hide underground and handle double the PTSD which, say it together now, is bad.
In terms of pacing, the two series play out the same. If you condensed Harry Potter into a trilogy, I would argue books one, two, and three are part one; they’re tonally similar and end in a satisfying way. Books four and five are part two. They start on the foundation of the first part, cover a tone shift, and end with the ‘lowest point’ after the death of Sirius. This is an unsatisfying ending that begs for a conclusion. Books six and seven give that conclusion.
*Note: there could be an argument made for book six to be included in part two, ending with the death of Dumbledore, but Sirius’s death was more of a shock. He was 36 when he died. He had plenty of life left. Dumbledore was approximately 150 and filled the ‘mentor’ role, which has an entire trope dedicated to the concept that mentors have to die before the finale. It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise.
Now, there’s a common structure between these examples: the breaks are pre-established by set timelines. Each Harry Potter book tells of the events that happen in each school year. Each Hunger Games book tells of the events that happen in and around the Games. Now, that said, the finale book for each does not have to follow this trend (Mockingjay definitely doesn’t) because it is the ending. It doesn’t have to bridge a transition; its role is to finish the story regardless of when that finish is. Well, that isn’t always applicable. My manuscript included. So these examples only got me so far. That led me to another observation about these stories: both (in my opinion) are significantly plot-driven.
While I enjoy reading plot-driven stories, my heart lies with character-driven stories. Let me explain where I see the difference. Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen are fairly static characters. Harry is written as a paragon — selfless, innocent, loving — despite his increasingly difficult role in society. By the end, Harry’s growth was more in his skill than his actual personality. He aged into a little more confidence and wisdom, but I can’t point to a particular internal struggle Harry overcame throughout the series. Katniss might be even more static. She enters the series hardened and cynical and despising the Capitol, she leaves the series hardened and cynical having overthrown the Capitol. Except now she picked a boyfriend and has more trauma than I can shake a stick at. The Hunger Games is dystopian and focuses more adamantly on the corruption of the government rather than the flaws of its jaded protagonist.
In my search for character driven stories, I landed on the Incredibles. So let’s talk about what happens between movies.
- Bob learns that his glory days as a solo-act are behind him, and his family is important. Helen learns that the world still needs saving sometimes, and sometimes supers are the ones best suited for the job. Violet learns that being different is okay, especially when you use your gifts to help others. Dash learns that there is a balance in being special, and that you are the one who chooses how you are going to use your power.
- Bob learns that he is not the best suited for every job, and sometimes he needs to learn and adapt or just stay out of the way. Helen learns that sometimes you have to be the change you want to see in the world. Violet… spends the movie liking a guy… and Dash spends the movie pushing buttons.
While the second movie, in my opinion, dropped the ball on the kids’ further development, I think it did well continuing the arcs of Mr. and Mrs. Incredible. For this discussion, the relative success or failure of the second movie matters less to me than the bridge between the two. At the end of the original, each member of the main cast has gone through a significant development, and one often related fairly closely to their individual specialty. ‘Stronger together; be flexible; be seen; think before you dash.’ We are left with an open-ended scene that leaves the audience satisfied, and able to continue the story indefinitely in their own imagination. The second movie does a fairly good job of taking those arcs and continuing them along their logical paths.
A pitfall of many character-driven series is continuing character arcs. Most authors and readers agree that they keep wanting to see growth from their characters if that’s what was set up by book one. But there are so many traps that an author must fight to avoid. A character might come across as too different, having lost something that made them likable in the first book. A character might look too similar, having randomly reset to the factory settings we found them at in book one. A character might settle too easily into a brand new mindset.
So how did the Incredibles handle this? Bob was a do-it-myself kind of guy. He started to open up to the idea of accepting help by the end of the first movie, but that will require time to adapt to. When Helen is picked as the face of the Deavors’ legalization movement, it stuns and destroys Bob. He isn’t used to being sidelined. He isn’t used to raising kids. He isn’t the stay-at-home type. And he is upset by it. The whole movie we watch him struggle to keep up with everything happening around him, and eventually, he is able to start asking for help. It takes a while, but Bob has to come to terms with the fact that he is not suited to do this job alone. You can’t bench press every problem away. Helen’s arc continues as well. She was adapting to the idea that embracing your powers isn’t necessarily bad. She saw multiple instances where her family would have been killed without the use of their different skillsets. And from there, she is encouraged to reconnect with her full potential. Once in this situation, she reacts like Bob did in the first movie, falling easily back into the role that she played for so long twenty years ago. She missed the rush and the opportunity to help people. Helen had to relearn her place in society, embracing who she loved to be while also adapting to who she is now.
I hope this analysis was as helpful to you as it was to me. I feel more confident in the direction my manuscript needs to go, and where it’s most appropriate to stop between novels.