There are many different forms of book series, but trilogies have undoubtedly been one of the most popular for a long time. And there is a reason for that. In a traditional story arc, there are three main stages: exposition/rising action, climax, and then falling action/conclusion. A trilogy allows authors to follow this structure, just on a larger scale. While each book also has it’s own story arc (or should, in my opinion), there is a much larger, overarching plot that ties the books together.
*Warning: in referencing books for my discussion, I did have to include a few spoilers, but I tried to keep it to classics and/or stories most people are generally familiar with. Continue at your own risk.*
Longer series follow this structure more loosely, depending on the author and the length of the series. If you look closely, you’ll see that the climax is rarely in the middle. In trilogies, it often (but not always) comes at the end of the second book. In longer series, there may or may not be a single book that serves as the series climax (i.e. Goblet of Fire). The longest part of a story is usually the rising action, the plot that leads to the conflict, to the climax, because that’s what’s exciting. Think about Pride and Prejudice – the action of the story culminates in Lizzie’s confrontation with Lady Catherine and her admission of her feelings for Mr. Darcy, which happens very near the end of the novel.
Lately, there has been a trend toward duologies, and I am a fan. I like that the entire series is contained in two books – longer than one, but shorter than three. Sometimes, I really just don’t feel like picking up a new series, and two books is a lot less intimidating. However, this format is a departure from the traditional story format. Something I personally support, but it presents some unique challenges.
To be fair, I have only read about four or five duologies in their entirety. (To clarify, if a book has a related novel – like American Gods and Anansi Boys – that is not a direct continuation, I don’t view them as duologies, but rather, companion novels.) In my experience, the first book of a duology has a complete story arc with an ending, often a somewhat open-ended ending. The second book expands on the first story. It often it is an escalation of the first story.
Duologies are complicated, because it’s difficult to successfully split a story arc in half without having a frustrating first novel. You cannot have a plot that leads to nothing. (Well, you can, but you will also have a lot of angry readers.) Something I’ve seen done well is the intertwining of two story arcs. The first exists primarily in the first book, but the second ties them together. The conflict in book one also serves as the exposition for book two (or the series as a whole). It’s a jumping off point for what happens next, but still has it’s own separate resolution in a way. For example, the main character might have run away and distanced themselves from the problem, finding some sort of safety at the end of book one, but they still have to come back and address the problem in book two. This is not always the case. I’ve also read a series in which the second book covers the falling action that is a result of the climax at the end of book one, and also face a new challenge.
This makes for a very interesting overall story, technically speaking. You might not realize it, but most readers are very invested in the traditional story arc. It is what we’re used to, what we’ve seen in everything from Beowulf to Jane Eyre to The Night Circus. If you’ve ever read a story that does not follow this arc in some form or another, you will know how disappointing those stories can be. How would you feel about The Lord of the Rings if Frodo never made it to Mordor and was left wandering around Middle Earth? The story would feel incomplete, right? We would be left speculating forever, which is frustrating just to think about. (Which is not to say that ambiguous endings are inherently bad. I like open-endings more than the average person, because I like imagining the possibilities. But there needs to be a clear end to a story.) Conflict, or a climax, is necessary, too. Imagine Fantastic Beasts if the story did not involve any malevolent wizards or escaped creatures. Newt would just have a fun visit to New York with a relatively harmless case. BORING. We notice, consciously or not, when stories deviate from the conventions we are used to.
Which is why I’m a fan of duologies. I’m used to trilogies and longer series, so I like that the structure of duologies is different. I like that it presents a writing challenge, and can result in a more unexpected story pattern. It’s nothing new – Lewis Carroll did it with Alice – but it is uncommon. But it takes what we’re used to and changes it just enough that it’s something different.
I know I think about the technical aspects of books more than most normal people (between book blogging, reading a ton of books, and a master’s in English and creative writing, I can’t help it). But I’m curious to see what all of you think about this: Have you noticed a difference in structure between trilogies and duologies (besides the obvious three books vs two)? Do you prefer one over the other? Or do you not care either way?
P.S. I seriously thought about making some graphics illustrating the story arcs, but it’s been a long week at work (which is where I wrote this entire post), and I’m tired. However, if you think visuals would be really helpful, let me know and I will try to add them this weekend. OR, I can write another post discussing story arcs. Hold on, I think I might have just come up with an idea for a blog series. Would any of you be interested in some discussions/posts about the more technical aspects of writing/books? (I might as well use my grad degree for something, right?)