Last Monday, March 23, at around 1:20 AM, I finished the first draft of the second book in the Bring Down Heaven series: The Mortal Tally.
Currently, it’s with the editors at Orbit and Gollancz, being read through with great attentiveness.
Eventually, it will come back with notes. I will go back and forth on these notes with the editors, fixing what needs to be fixed, improving upon what needs to be improved upon, changing what needs to be changed, preserving as many fart jokes as I possibly can.
Finally, after all this is done, it will be printed, put out in stores and placed in your hot little hands so you can ferociously devour it with the same vigor you devoured The City Stained Red (and devour you did, as my editor tells me, to my immense gratitude).
But between “currently” and “finally,” there’s a lot of time to fill. Most of that will be filled writing the third book, tending to other writing projects like comic scripts and the Pathfinder novel, tweeting stupid things into the aether, getting mad at video games and occasionally leaning out my window to scream at passersby, just to keep them on their toes.
…but since I’m not doing any of those right now, we might as well talk about what makes a good middle book.
I actually don’t mean to sound that flippant. This is a discussion that has actually been weighing on me over the past few days, as I’m not sure anyone in my particular social circles has taken the time to talk about it.
Sure, ages ago, there was a brief musing on whether trilogies were necessary before we all largely decided that it was a tradition that was mostly awesome, but we never really we went much further than that. And these days, a lot of series are expanding from three books to five, six, ten, twenty, whatever.
I don’t think this discussion will be any less cogent to larger series, but for the purposes of this blog, we’ll be talking about trilogies. Specifically, my trilogies.
This will be my second middle novel in my second trilogy, the first being Black Halo from The Aeons’ Gate trilogy.
I’ve spoken before about lessons I’ve learned from my first trilogy–pacing, plotting, worldbuilding, traditional stuff I was pretty intent on spurning when I was younger and brasher–but few things rankled me quite like the way I handled Black Halo.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still quite pleased with it. It does what I wanted it to at the time: provide an exciting adventure, develop the characters further, make a couple of coarse remarks. But there were a number of things it failed to do that I wish I had concerned myself with because I think it’s the second novel that is oft-overlooked in discussions about a trilogy.
The first book opens up this massive new world for people to explore. The third book brings to a satisfying conclusion all that you know and love about the people you’ve met along the way. The second book…well, it does a few things.
Sometimes, it fleshes everything out that you didn’t have time for in the first book. Sometimes, it sets up the pins that need to be knocked down in the third book. Sometimes, it just kind of treads water between the books. Sometimes, it’s just…there.
You can read a few reviews of stories that will damn a second book for these, but a lot of times these reviews will just kind of be met with “meh” reactions. Readers seem content to hold their breaths until the big finale. Authors seem content to hold in their best stuff for the third book. Everyone seems kind of content to take a second book for what it is and then wait to pass judgment on a whole.
Which seems kind of insane to me. Readership in a new series tends to drop off around the second book. Part of that is just market trend, but I think part of it is also that second books are straight up hard to do. You need to keep track of a lot of plot threads, evolve them all adequately, set them all up for satisfying conclusions while also being sure that you’re paying heed to what you did in the first book; it’s less like spinning plates and more like keeping track of Pokemon.
Except your Pokemon have a lot of drinking problems and sexual hangups.
But that’s enough talking about what’s easy to go wrong with a middle book. What are some things a middle book must do right?
I put together a list.
1. Grow the Characters
I put this one first because I genuinely think this is the most important task a second book must accomplish.
If you fail at absolutely everything else, you absolutely must ensure that the characters possess individual motivations, display agency toward fulfilling those motivations, encounter conflict in their displaying of agency and adjusting their motivations accordingly.
That’s a bit of a mouthful, but really, that’s what we mean when we say characters must “grow.” In the fantasy genre, we sometimes associate that growth with material developments: acquiring a new sword, learning a new spell, leveling up to Super Saiyajin 3, whatever.
Those are fine. Hell, that’s part of the whole allure of fantasy as a genre. Coming to terms with one’s troubled past is great and all, but if you can do that while also learning how to shoot lightning out of your dick, then so much the better. That’s a trope in fantasy I adore and encourage the use of, wholeheartedly.
But you’ll notice in a lot of stories (particularly anime), the gain in material power is almost a bonus gained in addition to the true reward of learning something new about yourself. That’s what needs to happen to characters, in general, but it’s especially true for middle books.
The middle act is where the character has had time in the first act to figure out what they want out of the story and now gets to go pursue it. They encounter something that prevents them from getting it and have to figure out how to defeat it. And when they do–or if they don’t–they have to figure out what’s changed at the end and if they still feel the same way about it.
Some people give The Empire Strikes Back shit, calling it their least favorite part of the Star Wars trilogy, but I adore it specifically because it’s all character building. Luke, Han and Leia all have their established goals, then they encounter trouble realizing those goals. And by the end of the movie, their goals have changed because their relationships with each other and themselves have changed. Han realizes he likes being a good guy more than he thought he would. Leia realizes she likes Han more than she thought she would. Luke realizes that he can’t defeat Darth Vader the way he thought he could.
And he gets a pretty stylin’ lightsaber, too, so hey, purpose fulfilled, right?
2. Raise the Stakes
Weirdly enough, while this might seem obvious, there are a whole lot of fantasy novels that fail at this.
I mentioned before that middle books sometimes fall into the problem where they “tread water.” You’ve probably read a few books like this, in fact. The good guys continue on their way to get the Goal, but don’t quite get there. The bad guys are sort of chilling, either as much as a threat as they were or readying their big bad for a suitably dramatic final fight. Things are definitely going to happen, you’re sure, but they aren’t happening just yet and the prose seems to conjure an image of the author standing in front of you, holding his hands up, hopping up and down and going: “Okay, so, I know this one went a little slow, but seriously guys, shit is about to get real.”
One thing a middle book needs to do is make sure that shit gets real.
The first book was all about setting expectations. The second book needs to kick those expectations squarely in the anus. The heroes have to realize that the quest is harder than they expected. The bad guys have to make their move against the heroes and start treating them like threats. People don’t necessarily have to die (but it’s nice if they do), but at the end of the day, someone should have some scars.
This is pretty much doing the same thing as point number one, except for the plot instead of the characters. A satisfying conflict has a growth arc, just as a character does. A conflict that stays as a perfectly even line (“the good guys set out, defeat a bad guy, defeat a slightly bigger bad guy, defeat the biggest bad guy, go home”) isn’t very interesting. A conflict that is varied, that has the good guys on the back foot now and again, that has the bad guys stepping up their game, is interesting for a few reasons.
For one, it keeps things tense. We’re reading ahead with the desperate hope that everyone will make it out okay. For two, it makes us invest more in the characters if they’re actively changing to better deal with their circumstances (which lets them grow as characters, as well). And finally, it lets us know how dire things are for the third book.
In The Two Towers, some shit goes right–Rohan gets its king back, the Uruk-Hai are repelled at Helm’s Deep–but the stakes are raised, considerably. Sauron realizes he has to rip out the heart of man, Smeagol begins to fall sway under the Ring’s power, Frodo starts to doubt himself. The characters grow and the stakes are high for the third act.
3. Tell A Complete Story
This one’s a little trickier.
Because on the one hand, it should be fairly obvious, right? So obvious that you might think I could be forgiven for leaving it to the end. But that implies that telling a complete story is not a totally important thing, when it totally is. And yet, personally, I’m inclined to give a little leeway to the idea of not leaving everything cut and dry.
Let me start addressing those by working backwards.
I feel like a lot of authors are compelled to try to recap the story of the first act right off the bat. This works well, when done succinctly, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending a significant amount of time rehashing what the audience already knows. You don’t want readers to come in and be confused, and yet it feels somewhat reasonable to assume that readers will have come from the first book (the vast majority of readers I’ve met greatly prefer, if not outright demand, to start with the first book). So I feel you can get away with hitting the ground running, so to speak.
Likewise, I feel like it’s okay to leave some plot threads dangling. But it’s important to note the difference between a dangling plot thread and a cliffhanger. They are not necessarily the same thing! Whereas a cliffhanger ends in the middle of a conflict, a dangling plot thread is more of a conflict that has been fomented and has yet to be picked up. Mind you, I’m not entirely against cliffhangers (I’ve used a few of them), but I prefer doing things the other way.
A middle act should present a new conflict that is still pertinent to the conflict originating in the first act. A growth, if you will: something new and distinct, but evolved from the original format. It should have its own story that is created and resolved within the time frame of the act. New characters and conflicts should be introduced, explored and resolved (or evolved) in the time it takes to finish the act.
By the end of the story, the main conflict of the middle act should be resolved, while the main conflict of the trilogy persists. It is good if the middle act’s conflict created new conflicts that haven’t yet been or just barely been activated (it’s folly to start six different conflicts and settle none of them). And like I said, cliffhangers can be used to immense effect. But I’m quickly coming to appreciate the satisfaction of finishing one plot before moving on to the next.
I used Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest up there for reasons not readily apparent. I actually really liked this movie (though a lot of people loathed it), and while I liked a lot of what it did, I can’t really deny that it goes against a lot of what we just talked about. It had the advantage of beginning a new conflict, but by the end of that movie, the conflict was unresolved. And while the creation of that conflict brought about new conflicts that could exploited for the last movie, it still felt somewhat unfulfilling to see things end on something that wasn’t quite a cliffhanger and wasn’t quite a resolution. It’s still well worth watching, just to see what it did wrong, but it’s also one hell of a movie.
These are all concepts I’ve had in mind as I wrote The Mortal Tally. By the end of it, I was exceedingly happy with it. Stakes are raised. Characters grow. Scars are earned. People die.
But even with these, it was more important that I write it as I want it. It’s still got wild humor, banter during sword fights, tensions among weird races, tulwar riding giant baboons into battle, a sentient, ambulatory plant that serves as a giant transport, hallucinations, shicts with schemes, humans with problems and a lot of awkward, angry romance.
You’re going to love it.