So I’m in the middle of a series right now, and I’ve lost reading momentum. I really enjoyed the first book in the series, and expected that I’d be pre-ordering round three even before the release date. But now I’m pretty sure I won’t be. What happened? I was a lock for this author/series, but then they lost me.
Part of the issue for me is that the protagonist of book one earned her freedom, her happy ending. She suffered for two hundred and forty pages, and she earned her Act III—but all she got was a brief moment of seeming freedom before being tumbled into an even worse hell than in book one. And I strongly suspect that I won’t get a third act here either—that this is all a loooong round of rising action, before the not-even-released-yet conclusion.
More and more the YA books I’m finding are planned trilogies, set up from the start to split the traditional three-act structure up across three books. From the outset, I know I am not getting a resolution out of book one—but I still want one. Am I conditioned from a lifetime of reading more traditional books which offer a conclusion by the final page? I like to think I’m a more flexible reader than that; after all, I really enjoy experimental fiction (I even teach a big unit on postmodern and experimental fiction each year in my AP Language class). I embrace neologisms, cracked-up timelines, and chapters written as Power Point Presentations. So why am I resisting the trilogy?
I suspect there’s some calculation happening behind the scenes on some of these, which could be part of what’s getting under my skin. It’s a new and I’m guessing fairly successful model. Although, on the flip side, the Twilight series was a giganticus success, and it was in four parts. And judging by the YA sections of the bookstores I’ve visited over the past five years, if there was any sort of modeling going on, quite a few people were trying to patent the Meyer way. And, there are quite a few (highly successful) mega series, with six, seven, ten, fifteen books all featuring the same characters.
So all this trilogizing is not the only way to market a YA book. But why so many three-parters, then? The three-act structure of a film or traditional story may, again, have something to do with this trend. But, for first book to work, it really can’t be just exposition, of course. Each book has to contain its own three-act structure. And I think that’s the other part that’s bothering me, beyond poor tired protagonists not getting the rest they deserve: some of the books I’ve read do not really end at all, but just set up the next round. In contrast, J.K. Rowling sustained the overarching story brilliantly over the course of seven books, but each one functions perfectly on its own. Harry goes on a heroic quest (with a conclusion) on each outing.
That’s the thing about these stories—most of them are the same story, as Joseph Campbell observed. Someone’s going on a quest. But the real reason for a quest, as anyone who’s read Thomas Foster’s amazing How to Read Literature Like a Professor knows, is self-knowledge. The conclusion, the getting and finding, is so important not because of the magic thingy or the escape from the bad people, it’s the journey, what you learn along the way. By breaking up that journey in a (sometimes) artificial way, some of that resonance and power is lost, I think.
I’ll still read trilogies, don’t get me wrong—I’m just not sure it’s always the best method to tell every story.