Recently in the world of young adult literature, a couple highly hyped trilogies came to an end. Their concluding installments had been eagerly anticipated online, as fans hypothesized about and debated what might happen. How would the books’ respective authors bring these sweeping tales to a proper close?
Then the books came out, and reviews began pouring in. Some readers were delighted, others horrified, and still others found themselves somewhere in the middle. But what I found interesting was the often-repeated sentiment that trilogies have rules, and both authors had broken the rules—and thus betrayed the readers.
This group of readers pointed out that the first book of a trilogy traditionally introduces the main characters and establishes the stakes that will have to be addressed in the rest of the trilogy, including just what’s being fought for. The second book dives further into the problem and the challenges the characters face (as well as the growth that results), often heightening those stakes. The third volume showcases the climax and ends with a satisfying resolution, tying up most, if not all, plot threads.
Because both the books I’m referring to are new releases, and I don’t want to spoil anyone, I’m not going to refer to titles. Instead, I’ll paraphrase what happens and how this deviates from the expectations listed above. Let’s call the books A and B, shall we?
In Book A’s trilogy, the author had told the story through a first-person point of view and of course had the narrator endure some big trials and challenges. The stakes for her grew ever higher—to the point that in Book A, she chooses to sacrifice her life. In other words, the author killed off the main character, leaving behind her love interest (and telling the rest of the book from his point of view).
Some readers thought this was a very brave decision and felt true to the story and the protagonist’s arc, and they thought the cost of the protagonist’s self-sacrifice gave the trilogy its emotional resonance. Many others were infuriated, claiming the author had broken the rules of a trilogy. The main character, the one we’re rooting for, they said, is supposed to survive to the end. If you’ve killed off the main character, you’ve killed off any purpose to the three books leading up to her death, and by extension, you’ve cheated the reader, who invested time and money in those books.
In Book B’s trilogy, the existence of magic is revealed here on Earth, and then through a twist of storytelling, we’re shown that there is another world, too, from which the magic comes. The main character is actually part of a great war between races in that other world. In book two, we’re introduced to the war’s participants and shown the stakes—made greater especially because some of those participants want to bring their war to Earth. Also, a new character is shown to be pursuing one of our main characters. But in Book B, those two subplots and others are quickly and easily resolved in order to make way for new characters and an even greater revelation about the scope and nature of the universe. The battles yet to come must necessarily be left up the readers’ imagination; there’s just no room for them in this volume.
Again, some readers thought the inclusion of new characters and an even bigger scope (though it would never be addressed in that particular trilogy) was fantastic. They couldn’t praise the author’s sense of worldbuilding and imagination enough. Others felt the book had deviated wildly from the course promised in the first volume, and they often didn’t care about the new characters and felt their presence took screen time away from the characters they did care about. They also mentioned being unsatisfied by the introduction of new plot elements that will never be resolved and the dropping of high-stakes plot threads.
But at the end of the day, readers don’t determine a trilogy’s course. The author does. So who’s right, if anyone?
Let us know what you think: Do trilogies have rules? Do authors have implicit agreements with their readers? When you pick up book one of a trilogy, do you expect the author to follow a familiar trajectory, if not a formula? Has the author failed if not? Can you think of any trilogies where going against the expectations made the book better?