We all know the drill. We read the first book in a new trilogy. We fall in love. We gush, we hype, we yell about the best book in creation at the top of our internet-lungs. Then, oh the torture, we have to wait a year (maybe even two!) for the sequel! So we wait, and we dream, and we imagine all of the things the rest of the series is going to be. Let’s be honest, we probably over-hype the book. Then, the day finally comes! We get our beautiful pre-ordered copy in the mail, and we don’t wait to dive right it! But… it’s just… fine.
Okay, even if it doesn’t go quite to that extreme, we all know that the second book in a trilogy is usually the weakest. Why?
The conflict has no where to go.
This is, I think, the main sticking point. I notice that often book 2 seems to be chasing itself in circles. So, a lot of times, the first book leaves us having firmly established the main conflict of the series, and has left the main character with a clear idea of what they need to do. But in the second book you can’t start resolving anything yet. So, what do you do? How do you continue to build when the main climax of the series isn’t even coming during this book?
A lot of authors address this by putting some kind of climax in book two. In a fantasy/sci-fi/adventure, you expect to have some kind of boss battle at the end, for example. And while I’ve seen this work, a lot of times it falls flat, or it’s too easy to see coming.
The fact of the matter is, many authors really struggle to move the plot forward during the second book, and so they focus largely on sub-plots that may not even be that important. And while I often still really enjoy these books, they usually lack the wow-factor of the opening and closing novels.
Character development is hard in book two.
Similar to plot development, this is a logistical problem with a trilogy. By the end of book one your character must have already done some growth. If the author wasn’t careful enough, they didn’t leave them much room to continue to grow without becoming perfect and unrealistic. They have to develop the character, but not enough that there’s nothing left for the final installment.
One great way to address this is to have your main character move backwards. Think Frodo in The Two Towers. But tread lightly here, because if they regress too far the reader is going to get frustrated!
The novelty of a new world has worn off.
For me, half of the appeal of any new series is that it’s new. I love delving into a new world with new rules and new characters. The things I am mostly likely to love are things that are like nothing else I’ve ever read before. By nature, the continuation of a series can’t do that.
Many authors try to avoid this by including new elements to their world building. However, I feel like a lot of the time they end up trying to one-up themselves in order to raise the stakes, and the new elements in book two end up breaking rules established by book one. I hate that. New pieces of the world are a must, but if you don’t plan for them from the beginning of the series, they often won’t fit well. Marissa Meyer and J.K. Rowling are both masters at continuing world building in a way that is interesting, but still fits in the “laws” of the book.
New characters: the good and the evil.
It’s inevitable that book two is going to introduce new characters. On the one hand, this is a great opportunity to include amazing people in a story, and often characters introduced later in a series become our favorites (like Nikolai from the Grishaverse, or Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter). When done well, new characters can be the best thing about book two.
But, on the other hand, spending too much time with a new character can really take away from the main characters established in the first book. If they’re not even in the first book, by nature they’re probably a secondary character. Also, new characters almost inevitably mean love triangles. And we all know how hard that is to do well.
It all comes down to planning. When the author knows the character is going to be important from the beginning and lays down the groundwork for the character early on, this is great. When it isn’t planned and they just … SHOW UP sometime in the first few chapters, it can be lower quality.
Our expectations were probably too high.
One of the main things I’ve learned since I’ve started book blogging is that my expectations play a big role in how much I’m going to enjoy a book. Usually my favorite books come as a complete surprise, books I had moderate expectations for. It’s so easy to over-hype a book, and I almost never love a hyped book as much as I expect to.
And over-hyping is just so easy for a series. If I’m going to bother reading an entire series, it’s probably because I LOVED the first book. So my expectations are high. Then, if I have to wait, I build it up and build it up. Eventually it gets to a point where it almost has no option but to let me down. The sad thing about this is that we know we’re doing it, we acknowledge that we’re over-hyping, and then we just keep doing it. It’s like we can’t help ourselves.
I feel at this time that I should clarify that a second book slump is most common for me in a trilogy. Longer series are often more able to avoid this, possibly because they are more episodic. (Possibly because that kind of series requires so much planning.)
I also feel like I should say that this isn’t ALWAYS. There are some second books that come out even stronger than the first! So to wrap up this post on a positive note, here are some trilogies that I feel the second book is just as strong as the first. (Though I won’t promise the whole trilogy is 5-star. I’m looking at YOU, Mockingjay…)
- The Two Towers from The Lord of the Rings
- Catching Fire from The Hunger Games
- The Subtle Knife from His Dark Materials
- P.S. I Still Love You from To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before