Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Murky Middles

 Middle volumes in a trilogy have got to be the most difficult volume to write. As an author, you have to keep upping the tension, while revealing secrets from the first book to satisfy your reader, while also establishing new secrets to keep your readers enthralled until the next book. All too often, the middle volumes fail to deliver and deserve the nickname, "Murky Middle".

When writing a middle volume, a debut author has a much more difficult job, in my opinion, than the established author. Once you've gotten through your first trilogy, we readers know you can deliver, so we're more likely to give you a break. Not so the first time. We've been burned before, you see. We are kind of expecting you to fail. Not that we want you to fail. But we're wondering if the first book was a fluke. So the first time you write a middle, you have a bigger job than once you are established. Consider it your Authorial Trial by Fire. And you thought getting published in the first place was your trial by fire. Hah!

When I consider reading a second volume, I first assess not only how much I liked the first volume, but also how much it stayed with me. Do I barely remember the plot after a year? If so, even if I liked the first volume, I probably won't move on to the second. Do I recall any points where the plot dragged, and where I struggled to get through it? If so, then I'm going to assume that these problems will be worse in the second volume. Am I still excited by the story? If so, I probably won't wait till the next novel comes out in paperback.

It's easy to get frustrated when reading a second volume. If I get the impression that as a reader, I'm just being strung along to fill the length of a book, I'm going to get frustrated. If the author keeps throwing complications in there, they had better make sense with the overarching plot, or I'm going to lose patience. A new character or two helps, because they add intrigue. However, too many new characters is overwhelming. I recently tried to read a middle where almost all the characters were new. I never finished the novel and probably won't ever finish the series.

I also get annoyed by series that goes on too long. I think three books is quite enough for one storyline, and four is pushing it. The only pentology (is that the right word?) I recall enjoying is Stephen Lawhead's Grail series. It worked because each book was about a different person in the Arthur cycle. However, even then, the final volume was difficult to get through. (Part of the problem was the subject matter. You know the Arthur cycle is not going to end well, so it's very difficult to paste a satisfying ending in there.)

What delights me about second volumes? I love it when the characters continue to grow. I love it when they meet new challenges, as long as I can see them fitting into the overall goal. I enjoys twists and turns in the plot, as long as it moves forward. I enjoy romantic complications. I enjoy it when the problem you thought you had in Book One becomes part of a much larger problem in Book Two.

And I kind of like cliffhangers. I know a lot of people hate them, but not me. Maybe I'm just into reader torture.

What are your thoughts on Murky Middles?


Kimber Li said...

They're like prologues, almost no one does them well. However, when they are done well they blow me away.

The best example I know of is The Empire Strikes Back and probably because George Lucus got a professional to do it. He's much too impatient of a writer himself. You've really got to work things out, balance it all perfectfully, reveal them at exactly the correct time. It's hard.

Anne said...

I don't know. I've seen quintets done well. However, they're often five short books in old-style juvenile or YA. Or else the writer treats them more like open-ended series, where each book has a mostly separate plot that happens to fit between the last book and the next time-wise. {Smile}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

Tia Nevitt said...

I suppose I should have been specific--I was writing about series that is one story, not a series of related novels, like you would find in an open-ended series.

And yes, there have been some wonderful series for children.

Terry Tibke said...

In many respects, I agree. I think it's very difficult to keep readers interested in a second in a series, especially if the first one was absolutely outstanding.

I think that if an author had a good idea of where he was going with the story though, that the middle book(s) will totally shine over the first. What's hinted at in the first book begins to reveal itself creating further depth of plot. Characters who were archtypically shown in the first book, begin to trully show what they're made of.

Eldest, Two Towers, The Rise of the Black Wolf, The Silver Door, and The Hunt for the Red Dragon, are all good examples of these.

In a way, their debut book 1's all showed a mere glimpse at what was to come. Alright fine, I'll put Prisoner of Azkhaban in there too, but mostly that was still a stand-alone w/ one ongoing plot thread. :)

Good post. Thanks, Tia.


Terry Tibke
Armageddon - The Battle of Darkening Skies

Chicory said...

I think middle books work best if they tie off a major sub-plot to prove that the story is going forward. That way the middle book feels important, instead of tacked on to keep the series from being a duo.
I would've commented earlier today, but I was having a fight with my computer again.

Raven said...

I know this is about series where the story continues from volume to volume, but I notice "murky middle" syndrome most often in series where the first one is more or less a standalone novel. The problem for me is that the story has been resolved, and when the writer tries to revitalize it for book 2, they either retread the same old ground and re-resolve things they resolved in book 1 or they strike out in a totally new (or, too frequently, totally cliche) direction that just doesn't interest me.

I guess I can't really call this murky middle syndrome, though, because if book 2 disappoints me, I will never check out book 3, and I may never trust this writer to deliver in future books either. I certainly would have to browse in depth before I committed to buying a future book.

Tia Nevitt said...

Raven, that almost never works out well. Sequels that are not part of a planned series can run into problems because as you said, the story is supposedly resolved.

Anne said...

Tia wrote: "I suppose I should have been specific--I was writing about series that is one story, not a series of related novels, like you would find in an open-ended series."

Oddly enough, I thought I was writing about the same thing. Specifically, I was thinking about some of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, and some of the sub-series of Tamora Pierce's Tortall books.

The Chronicles of Prydain cover a particular war in the world of Prydain. I haven't read the books recently enough to remember all five books, but I remember that book two, The Black Cauldron is about the heros' efforts to deal with a particularly nasty magical cauldron the enemy has. It ends when they finish dealing with the thing. You have the resolution of knowing that they no longer have to worry about that cauldron. However, you know that the war is not won yet. There will be more battles, but they won't involve that thing, at least. {smile}

Tamora Pierce handles things differently, but with similar results. The Protector of the Small quartet deals with adventures of Kel, the first openly female candidate for knighthood. The First Test deals with her first year, when she's "on probation." It ends when the year is over, and she's shown the folks in charge that she should be allowed to dcontinue in their program. Page, the second book, deals with the rest of her training as a page. Squire deals with her continued training as the squire of an established knight. Lady Knight deals with her first assignment as a newly minted knight. Each of the first three books ends with the satifaction of completing this stage. Yet you also know there are more, bigger struggles to come. {Smile}

It's a tricky balance that seems to be hard to pull off. However, when it's done right, I find the results very satisfying. {Smile}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

Robin Lemke said...

I've never thought of the 2nd book of a trilogy being a "middle" much like the middle of a novel, but it makes perfect sense.

I remember even reading The Two Towers thinking "will they ever stop marching!"

I will say that Harry Potter carried the plot over 7 books and I don't think I was bored during one word of those books. ;)

Tia Nevitt said...

Now I think of Harry Potter as seven standalone novels, with an overarching story. That, I think, is an entirely different beast.