Guest Post: “The Challenge of the Middle Books” by D.B. Jackson

JacksonDB-AuthorPicMy newest book, Time’s Demon, comes out on May 28 from Angry Robot Books. This is the second book in The Islevale Cycle, my time travel/epic fantasy trilogy, which began with Time’s Children (October 2018). This was a challenging – and ultimately rewarding – book to write for a number of reasons. Time travel stories are always difficult to construct because of the constant danger of creating paradoxes, anachronisms, and plotting loopholes. Epic fantasies come with their own challenges – the need to balance and keep track of multiple narrative strands and point of view characters.

Finally, and most importantly for our purposes today, Time’s Demon is the second book in a trilogy – the dreaded middle book – and as such it presented a unique set of issues. Now, not everyone is foolish enough to take on time travel in their novels, and hard SF, space opera, urban fantasy, grimdark, steampunk, and other varieties of speculative fiction are not necessarily any easier to approach than epic fantasy. But most if not all of us writing in our genre will eventually confront the dreaded “middle book” problem. So I would like to discuss my approach to second books.

Let’s start by defining a couple of key terms. Many of us in fantasy and science fiction, as well as in horror, mystery, westerns, romance, and other genres, write what we call “series.” But “series” is not quite as precise a term as we often need. For our purposes, we’ll divide series into two categories: true serials and extended story arcs.

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A true serial is actually a set of essentially stand alone novels set in a single world and usually focused on the same protagonist. The best know examples of this in today’s market include Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books and Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson books. Each book is a new “episode” in the series. Some circumstances evolve over the course of the series, and there can be growth and change in even our main character as the sequence goes on. But each book can be read independently of the others.

An extended story arc is a sequence of books, set in the same world with the same characters, that is basically telling one overarching story. The most prominent example of this today is probably George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. With an extended story arc, there are usually lots of subplots. From book to book one of these subplots might end while a new one begins. But the larger story – the meta-story, if you will – is only fully resolved at the end of the final book.

I have written both true serials (The Thieftaker Chronicles as D.B. Jackson, and The Case Files of Justis Fearsson as David B. Coe) and extended story arcs (The LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands, all as David B. Coe, and now The Islevale Cycle as D.B. Jackson). Neither structure is necessarily easier than the other, and both present problems when we come to the middle volume or volumes.

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All middle books, whether in a serial or an extended arc, need to accomplish certain things. They should, of course, convey to readers (both returning fans and newcomers to the series) any vital information from book one, including key events, crucial background information initially introduced in the first volume, and the basic interactions among recurring characters. Second books should also continue whatever central storylines began in the first book. In an extended arc, that means continuing our progress toward a resolution of that overarching plot. In a true serial, it might mean building on the character development and growth of our protagonist and important secondary characters. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a second book should raise the stakes for the entire series. The obstacles confronting our heroes should be greater, the threats to the world or the people we care about should become more menacing, and the tasks required to bring whatever resolution we give our readers at the end of this middle volume should demand even more from our protagonist(s) than did the resolution of book one.

That last point is vital, and perhaps a bit confusing. Even in an extended story arc, and certainly in a true serial, we should always offer some sense of resolution to our readers. That bears repeating. No matter what kind of story we’re writing, we need for our readers to feel at the end of a middle volume that they have accomplished something, that they are closer to a resolution of even the greatest narrative challenges facing our lead characters. Probably all of us can think of middle books in major series by big-name authors that violate this rule. I know I can. That doesn’t lessen the importance of this point. Big-name authors can get away with a lot of things the rest of us can’t. One of the quickest ways to turn off a reading audience is to make them buy and read a book in a series that doesn’t get them any closer to the end of the tale, or accomplish anything of narrative significance.

In other respects middle books in true serials and extended story arcs can serve very different purposes. In true serials, each book in a sequence needs to possess certain qualities. I hesitate to hint at the idea of “formula” for books, because this can be seen as pejorative, but I really intend no slight. Often, books in a successful true serial have a certain formula that readers come to expect and desire. The key to writing the middle books in such a series is to give readers enough elements from established structures and stories to impart that sense of familiarity, while also changing things up enough – in terms of villains, supernatural or technological innovations, or character twists – to make each story feel different and new. Finding that balance isn’t easy, but it does pay off in reader loyalty. And, as an added bonus, keeping things new for our readers also keeps the writing process fresh for us.

For extended story arcs, the middle volume demands that we accomplish several things at once. We want to 1) continue a running story, 2) increase the tension and perils from book one, 3) get our readers closer to the series climax that will come in book three, and 4) still hold back enough to avoid stealing the thunder from the final volume. Those were my goals in writing Time’s Demon. One of the ways I accomplished them was to shift the narrative focus slightly to a different character in this second volume. All of my major characters (well, all of those I didn’t kill off in the first book…) return in book two. But the difference in titles (Time’s Children versus Time’s Demon) is telling. The narrative of the first book focused on my time traveling heroes Tobias and Mara, and the perils they faced. This second volume is focused more on the time demon, Droë. Tobias and Mara’s story continues and develops, but this is Droë’s book most of all. And book three, by the way, will be called Time’s Assassin, and will focus on yet another character.

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All the important characters have their moments in all three books – the difference is a matter of emphasis. It works, I believe, because the story arc resolves at the necessary pace. My readers won’t feel that they have been deprived of one character or another. Rather, they will get the completed narrative they’re after, but it will come in three books that are related without being clones of one another. Other authors might handle the middle volume of an extended story arc by adding a new plot thread, bringing in a new point of view character, or throwing an unexpected obstacle in the way of their heroes. And, as it happens, I do all of these things in Time’s Demon as well.

The most important thing to remember about middle books in any sort of series is this: Readers want more of the same. They just want that “more of the same” to be a little different each time. That’s the challenge of the middle book. It’s also the reward, for reader and writer.

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D.B. Jackson is the pen name of fantasy author David B. Coe. He is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and as many short stories. His newest novel, Time’s Demon, is the second volume in a time travel/epic fantasy series called The Islevale Cycle. Time’s Children is volume one; David is working on the third book, Time’s Assassin.

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