Sequels, Trilogies, and More

I am in the midst of revising and polishing a sequel. It has been a pleasure to write -- full of characters I love and love to hate. The cast, old and new, pushes off where the first book ended and sails the story toward completion. But why should it be finished after two books? 

Why do sequels turn into trilogies, tetralogies, and more? Below are some good and bad reasons.

The best reason for a story spanning multiple books is that it cannot fit into one or two bound volumes. Think of Lord of the Rings. It is one story with too many pages to combine conveniently into a single tome. Some readers like hefty tomes. I soldier through Atlas Shrugged because of its many good bits. War and Peace makes for an impressive doorstop. But these are exceptions. A reasonable rule of thumb for novels is the 70,000 to 120,000 range. If you have a story of, say, 200,000 words, maybe you split it into two volumes. This is what I am doing with the two Gloaming books.

Another fine reason for trilogies et seq. is reader demand. A series may be set up from the outset with a logical number of books, like the number needed for a kid named Harry Potter to work his way through Hogwarts. Or perhaps readers simply love a writer's work and want more of it. They love the worlds and characters and feelings an author creates. What writer would turn down these fans? But this is the beginning of a slippery slope, especially in an era when our attention spans are dwindling.   

If a writer has not finished writing a story before the first book in a series goes on the market, and if initial readers begin praising that story, the writer will have an incentive to stretch the story. Writers can do this easily. Add details and expand descriptions. Drop in a few more characters and plot twists. Next thing you know, you have another whole book on your hands, and the series may have lost its pace and originality and excitement. Consider these (rounded) numbers:

  • The Gloaming: 175,000 words

  • Hunger Games trilogy: 300,000 words

  • Lord of the Rings: 475,000 words

  • Harry Potter series: 1,080,000 words

  • A Song of Ice and Fire: 1,770,000 words and counting

  • The Wheel of Time: 4,410,000 words

ice and fire box.jpg

Okay, so maybe I just wanted to see my work on that list, but you get the point. These series can get rather long. I'm reluctant to point at an author I respect, but George R.R. Martin seemed to fall prey to unnecessary extension in A Dance with Dragons. There can be redemption, as there was for me with The Wheel of Time finale, but the price was high (such as other good, original stories to read). I doubt any series benefits from going much beyond one million words, if half that.

And so I vow: I will do my best to write tight stories that do not extend beyond the point of diminishing returns. A reader's time is too precious a thing to waste. 

Make your words count -- J.B.