Q: When writing a three book series, are the first two books supposed to have endings that allow each of them to stand alone, independent of the next one? Or, should it bring the book to a conclusion that leaves the reader knowing that there is more to come, and they need to read on to know what happens? — Sam
Cynthia Leitich Smith, the author of the bestselling Tantalize series, gives us her response:
Great question! First, quickly, we typically think of three linked books as a trilogy and four or more as a series. Beyond that, there’s no one right answer for every writer when it comes to career strategy and questions of craft.
That said, I have enjoyed reading successful trilogies that were essentially one long story split into three parts. And I have authored the Tantalize series, a sextet of books, including two graphic novels, in which each book could stand alone, however, an overriding super arc united them all and offered added layers and resonance to those readers who committed to the experience in the whole.
I personally prefer the latter approach because I’m honoring every reader’s expectation of a satisfying story, no matter which book they pick up first. They’re not lost at the beginning, and they’re given some measure of closure at the end. For each title, whatever the central question may be, it’s answered.
With that in mind, don’t start with a clean slate at the beginning of each new manuscript. Honor your characters’ prior internal growth and history. Consider their earned perspective as they move forward. Furthermore, not every loose end must be neatly tied. You shouldn’t feel obligated to do that in any book. Life is a bit messy, and art should, to some measure, reflect that messiness. You can pick up one or more of those threads as you move forward, again, so long as there’s some resolution to the key question at hand.
For example, in the Tantalize series, the character Quincie P. Morris faces off against a charming villain who goes by the name Bradley Sanguini. Though she ultimately triumphs against him in book 3 (Blessed), her losses along the way are significant and heart-wrenching. In book 4 (Diabolical), she would have learned from those experiences. There was no way I could have her fall for any of his tricks again without compromising the integrity of the character and losing readers’ trust.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of the Tantalize series and other acclaimed books and short stories for young readers. She hosts a children’s-YA literature resource site at http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, the most well-read blog in her age/format market at http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/ and looks forward to the release of Feral Nights (Book One in the Feral series) in January 2013.
Welcome to our new advice column for writers. “Ask the Scribe” will come out every other Tuesday beginning September 4, 2012. If you are a current Writers’ League of Texas member and have a burning question about craft or the business of writing, please submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: Your submission cannot be anonymous, however we can keep your identity anonymous when it is posted on the blog.