Breaking Down the Trilogy: Book One, Or Where It All Starts

Hey guys! I’ve wanted to do a discussion post about trilogies for a while, but I haven’t been able to figure out what to focus on. So I decided to skip trying to condense my rambles, and I am instead doing a series of three blog posts (you might even say a trilogy) about trilogies, with each post looking at one of the books in a trilogy.

Today’s topic is: The First Book

These books are usually the most straightforward. They set up the world, introduce us to the characters, start some short range and long range conflicts, and leave us with enough of a cliffhanger ending that we want to read books two and three. Simple, right?

Not always.

what i look for b1

Have your own plot: This one is simple. Book One is also a book. It needs to—in my opinion—be able to stand on its own, at least mostly. It should have its own plot within the overarching series’ plot.

Make me want to keep reading (without gimmicks): Anyone can write a cliffhanger. What a great Book Ones does is write a story so well, and end it at exactly the right moment, so that I want to keep reading naturally, not because the author set off emotional fireworks in the last chapter.

A balance of drama and development: A lot of trilogies end up being action-packed. The format attracts faster-paced genres, and the format allows for intense stories with a ton of conflicts. I love this, but I don’t want the first book to be one giant fight scene. There should be breathing room, scenes where I get to relax and focus on the details like characters and world building. Every book needs this, in my opinion, but especially the beginning of a series.

get right b1

Introducing characters: This something that most trilogies—or rather, most books—are able to do. As long as the author is good, I find that I rarely have problems with the characters in a trilogy, at least not in the first book.

Setting the Stage: Most Book Ones give the reader a sense of what the series will be like. How will it be paced? What will the writing be like? What will the mood of the book be? What will the book talk about?

As a person who likes to know what I’m getting into, I love this. For me, trilogies should be a continuation of a theme, not a disjointed mess of themes, tones, and styles. I love it when Book Ones set the stage well for the series.

common mistakes b1

Clunky world building: Since it’s the beginning of a new series, there has to be some world building. Because most trilogies are fantasy, paranormal, or dystopian, and because the world has to be complex enough to support three books, this world building is rarely simple.

Complex world building is something I’ll never complain about—as long as it is done well. The problem is, in a rush to get the exposition out of the way so that the action can start, Book Ones often leave the world building wanting.

And this is a problem. If I don’t understand the politics/magic/caste system of your world, I probably don’t care about the conflicts they cause.

The lid fell off the jar of love triangle sprinkles: I don’t hate love triangles wholesale. Especially for trilogies, they are a way to keep the romantic spark alive for three books, to add conflict, and to keep the characters interesting.

But Book One needs to do more than introduce two love interests and throw down the gauntlet. Maybe by the end of the series the love triangle can come to the forefront of the plot, but in the beginning, when everything is new? Yeah, I want some real plot, not just Instalove and dramatic gestures.

Too big of a CLIFFHANGER: Do you feel THE DRAMA? The SUSPENSE? No???!!! Are the all caps and excessive punctuation marks not enough?!

Okay, that’s a bit ridiculous, but this is sometimes how I feel at the end of Book Ones. The author is so desperate to get you to read the second book that they detonate a massive plot bomb on the last pages, shattering your heart and forcing you to read the next book.

Sometimes, I am willing to forgive this because the cliffhanger was so good. (The Wrath and the Dawn, I’m looking at you.) But most of the time, I’m just annoyed, and a lot of the time, I won’t continue the series.

pet peeves b1

It’s just a ton of exposition: Just because Book One sets up the rest of the trilogy doesn’t mean that it gets a free pass to be all exposition and no plot. So many Book Ones feel like they exist only so that later books can come out.

I’m fine if an author knows that their story will be a trilogy and makes sure that the first book is a solid foundation. But as I mentioned before, I want the first book to have its own plot, and sometimes authors just don’t do that. Which sucks, in my opinion.

“We Get it Already,” AKA obvious plot lines: Trilogies make good story arcs, but they also make repetitive plots common. These days, I basically expect the first book in a fantasy or dystopian series to start out with a few characters and a simple goal, and by the end, the goal has started some massive chain of events rolling (creating the second and third books). This is a good template the first few times you read it, but I’m dying for some originality by now.

What do you think? Do we have the same pet peeves? How do you feel about first books in trilogies?

7 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Trilogy: Book One, Or Where It All Starts

  1. The Wrath and the Dawn’s cliffhanger did it exceptionally well. But I agree, I usually hate it when the first books do that because it feels like a cheap shot. -cough- Delirium and The Maze Runner -cough cough-


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