Wednesday, June 15, 2011

First of Three: How Should the First Book of a Trilogy End?

On my flight home from New York (had a fantastic time! On the trip, that is, not the flight), I read the first book in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking).

At the same time, I was eagerly looking forward to the third book in Sarah Rees Brennan's Demon's Lexicon trilogy, The Demon's Surrender. Haven't managed to get it yet - if you have, tell me nothing!

I was ploughing through Ness's book, which is action-packed and focuses on a character making a journey, so it constantly propels the reader forward to a destination, an end-point. In the food court of Terminal 4 in JFK, I could see that destination and was moving happily towards it.

Without spoiling, I will just say this: Ness ends with a cliffhanger. It is a conclusion but it isn't an ending. The main questions of the book have been answered but immediately, another much larger question is posed.

In spite of the fact that it isn't my usual type of book (it's quite dystopian), I am very keen to read Book Two. The quality of the writing is good and I like the characters, so I probably would have considered Book Two anyway. But the cliff-hanger ending is such that I feel I have to read on, whether I want to or not.

By contrast, Rees Brennan's first book ends with a major twist but no cliffhanger. My desire to read Book Two came from my curiosity about how the characters would handle the revelation medium-term, and again from the quality of the writing and the characterisation.

I feel The Knife of Never Letting Go can't be read as a stand-alone book. I feel the story is unfinished, and if I was to leave the saga there, I would feel unsatisfied,as though I had put the book down halfway through and never discovered the ending. The end of Book One wasn't a logical place to bow out, should I have wanted to. Put it this way - I wouldn't buy this book as a gift for someone because I would feel I was obliging them to spend their own money on the sequel.

However, if I bought someone The Demon's Lexicon as a gift, I would think 'OK, if it isn't their cup of tea, they can leave the trilogy there and still have read a self-contained story, albeit one that has a sequel.'

Has anyone here read The Knife of Never Letting Go? Did you feel satisfied by the ending or driven to go on?

How do you think the first book of a trilogy should end - a gotta-know-more cliffhanger, or a self-contained ending that's open for a sequel?


  1. I read The Knife of Never Letting Go recently, and yes, I'm definitely going to have to get my hands on the sequel. Mind you, that's sort of how I felt about the whole book: driven along by the plot and the mysteries rather than my usual way of reading a novel, which feels more like enjoying spending time with characters who happen to be involved in a story. (F'rinstance, I'm reading Song of Ice and Fire now, (late to the game, I know,) and beginning each new chapter I don't think "Oh great, I find out what's been happening to Character X;" I think "Ah, my old pal! How are you doing now?" and it's how they are rather than what's happening to them that I'm really interested in.)

    I think I would have been considerably less interested in reading the sequel if it hadn't had the cliffhanger. Not because I didn't enjoy the book- I did- but because the story gripped me more than the characters and if the story had come to anything that looked like a conclusion that probably would have been enough for me.

  2. You just phrased my point better than I did :D

    Exactly, for me The Knife of Never Letting Go was all about plot, and when the plot was unresolved, I wanted to read on. If that plot had been resolved, the sequel would have gone on to my to-read list but probably wouldn't have been bought for a while. I liked the characters but they weren't the primary factor holding my interest.

    Cheers for stopping by, btw :)

  3. I don't mind either, but this is why I prefer to wait until a writer's all done with the books before I start to read them. I HATE to wait!

  4. Sarah, I don't do that with books but I love discovering a TV series that's been on for a while, so I have a lovely backlog of box sets to work my way through :)

  5. I'd be more satisfied with an ending that was more standalone, while still letting the reader know that the story will continue.

    The Magician's Guild, by Trudi Canavan, ends that way. You know that Sonea's story isn't over, and the things she has discovered are hugely important and could have devestating consequences, but you can set the book down knowing that the story of the first book is done. For now, the characters are safe and have achieved their goals, but the reader knows there is more to come.

    I think the best time for a reader to be left desperate to know what happens next is in the middle part of a trilogy. The middle book is always in danger of being just filler, so ending it on a tense note is one way of making it feel like part of the big story. Leaving the characters in a situation where they are in no imemdiate danger, but it's very clear that something has to be done as soon as possible to overcome the new threat, is a solid ending here.

    Then, of course, in the 3rd book, you can have the big finish and tie up the loose ends.

    It's about escalating the conflict, raising the stakes. If book 1 ends on a note of real danger and uncertainty, the writer needs to up the ante in the next to keep the reader from losing interest. In the end, you can risk exhausting the reader, and they'll keep reading not out of enjoyment, but out of a cathartic need to see the characters through their hardship.

    The best example of a well-crafted trilogy I can think off at the moment is Back to the Future. The first movie is self-contained, but tells the audience that the adventure is not yet over. The second leaves Marty in a desperate situation, directly leading to the 3rd film, even showing a hint of what the next adventure will be, hitting the audience with excitement to see how he and Doc will get back home.

  6. I've read 1 & 2 so far of the Chaos Walking trilogy. I absolutely love the books, and I think they all work very well together as a whole so I wouldn't expect Ness to have done anything different. Normally I'm not a fan of cliffhangers, but I would have read the sequel no matter what so I didn't mind.

  7. There seems to be two different concepts of trilogy out there - one where it's really a story in three parts, and another where it's three stories that fit together but are still standalones. And the former happens much more with trilogies than other series lengths - blame Tolkein maybe.

  8. Paul, I agree that the place for a proper honest-to-goodness cliffhanger is at the end of Book 2. I was surprised to find one in Book One!

    Elena, I probably would have read the second book anyway because I was enjoying it, but the cliffhanger surprised me a bit! If I hadn't already been considering buying Book 2, though, it would probably have annoyed me - a bit too manipulative! But it's not like the writer is doing it to foist an inferior product on the public - it's a good book and I was considering the sequel anyway.

    Claire, I already blame Tolkein for most things :) Definitely two schools of thought on trilogies - I think I prefer the three-linked-standalones method, just because it cuts down on the suspense!


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