Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Voldemort Dies at the End of the First Book

Everybody dreams of writing a series. It seems like every manuscript has a subtitle: Book One in the Flizzbozz Quartet. And why not? Series are a license to print cash. Look at J.K. Rowling. Look at Suzanne Collins. Hell, look at E. L. James, and she was just writing fan fiction.

But there’s another reason why people like to write the first book in a series: Because they think that it’s less work. You don’t have to explain the whole backstory yet. You don’t have pay off the love story. And you don’t have to defeat the bad guy.

Here’s what everybody forgets: Vodemort dies at the end of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” There’s one last remnant of him, fused onto the back of Quirrel’s head, and then they burn him away into nothingness. That’s it. Sure, Rowling allows for a tiny sliver of doubt afterwards, but we’ve had a satisfying killing to provide catharsis. Then Harry has good closing scenes with all his friends and Dumbledore and returns home happier. It’s a satisfying book.

I have a creeping dread reading any book identified as the first in a series, because all too often they don’t provide that satisfying ending. Sometimes the villain isn’t even confronted yet. Sometimes the villain’s plan or motivation is still unclear. Sometimes the hero and his or her friends are still separated in different storylines and don’t get a chance to deal with the events of the story. I often say, “This makes no sense,” only to be told, “It’ll make sense in the sequel.”

Yes, there are rare exceptions, but as a rule, if you don’t provide a satisfying experience with the first book, you’ll never get a chance to finish that quartet. Reveal the whole story. Defeat your villain. Provide an emotional resolution. (Defeating the villain can be ambiguous, like shooting Darth Vader off into space, or it can be symbolic: Snow is humiliated at the end of the Hunger Games, but not killed.)

And whatever you do, unless you intend to self-publish, don’t start the sequel before you sell the first one! Your agent will demand big changes to the first one. Your publisher will demand even bigger changes. Characters will be eliminated. Timelines will shift. You don’t know what your final story will be yet. That’s not entirely up to you. So you don’t even know what story you’re writing a sequel to. More likely than not, you’re going to have to throw all that work out, and it’ll just make you more reluctant to make the changes you need to make to the first one.


James Kennedy said...

Ahem -- it's the Flizzbozz tetralogy.

Mark said...

Indeed. I feel like we may have had this discussion on this blog before, but what you often find when you go back and look at beloved series (especially trilogies) is that book/movie one is a virtually self-contained unit and then books/movies 2-3 are the ones that more seamlessly fit together in terms of plot. The glaring example for me would be Back to the Future, which, despite the joke ending (and later added "to be continued" title card) was never actually intended to be the first in a series. Then when the first succeeded, they made the sequels as a single, long production, with a much more serious unsolved cliffhanger in the middle.

Matt's advice seems so glaringly obvious I would have a hard time believing that anyone would not take it, except that I too have read countless unsatisfying "book one"s. I also remember a few years ago (not sure if it's still happening) when it seemed like every young Children's and YA author was being given a contract for a trilogy, tetralogy, whatever - often first timers who hadn't even proven they could make the first book work.