A friend and I sat down for lunch a couple days ago, and all she wanted to do was complain about the book she’d just gotten done reading. So, like I often do, I started questioning her and picking apart what hadn’t worked. Since she’s also the one who was the unfortunate recipient of my previous “Middle Books” rant, and since the book she complained about was the latest (not last) book in a series by an author she normally loves, we ended up focusing on middle book issues.
We began with what worked:
- It was a well-written book, with a strong plot, strong characters, and it completed its major story arcs…
Which means it’s not any of the problems that I mentioned in the previous post. It’s not a “chapter” book, nor is it a “move the ship” book.
- … but it was still a deeply unsatisfying read.
After some discussion, we pinned it down.
Many authors write ongoing series that have very large over-arcing plots: save the world from armageddon, win the war, stop the world-war before it starts, etc.
- For the sake of this middle-book-problem, these series-types include both series that follow one character, and series that each book is a new set of characters on a common background.
So, the simplified picture for these types of series books would look like this:
It’s easy to see that each book significantly advances the overall arc of the series.
But what happened in the book my friend complained about –and several other books I’ve read– is:
- While the book is obviously part of the overall series, and refers many times to the overall arc, and vital side-characters are deeply involved in the overall arc, the individual book itself doesn’t do anything to move the overall arc of the series.
That picture looks like:
And it annoys the ever-loving hell out of me when authors do this!!
Once I’ve pinned down a problem, by mental-constitution, I’m now required to delve into solutions.
In this case there seem to be two solutions:
- Add an external plot that moves the overall arc forward. Just make sure to add enough of a step forward that it makes it worth the hours of my time that I spent reading the book.
- I can hear the author now, whining “but I moved the arc forward!” No. You barely put your toe in the water of the overall arc. Move the damn arc far enough to make it worth the time I spent reading the damn book!! Umm… sorry. Can you tell this is a pet-peeve of mine? 🙂
- Move the book OUT of the overall arc of the story. Which is accomplished fairly simply by:
- Take out all mention of the overall arc.
- Take out as many of the overall-arc’s characters as you possibly can.
In other words, limit the scope of the story so it’s just a story about its characters and their current situation. This way, the book is a satisfying read because the issues within the scope of the story are satisfactorily resolved, without all the brouhaha of the overall arc hanging over everything.
- This is going to be almost impossible to implement successfully in a series that follows one character, because that one character, by definition, is (or should be) intrinsic to the overall arc of the series.
- It’ll be somewhat easier to implement in a series that focuses on different characters in each book, but it’ll still be very hard to do without antagonizing your long-term readers.
I can hear authors asking me: “I sold my book, it’s on the shelves, what does this matter?” (In fact, I have had one author I once-upon-a-time LOVED ask me this question, to my face.)
It matters because you’ve created distrust in your readers and I quit buying your books… which is the topic of another post.
Anyway… thoughts? Does this theory work? Have you read books like this?