Dear YA authors,
I graduated from middle grade fiction a long time ago. Hardly knowing what was to become of me, I left the world of short, heartwarming stories about orphans and cats behind and invaded the unknown land of death, kissing, and trilogies. I used to bemoan the absence of books over 300 pages, but now the shelves are chock full of long books. Not only that, but no author stops at a single book– they always write at least three books per series. I thought that was great.
At least, until I realized I wanted something else.
Series are great. It’s always nice to follow the same characters through a few books, watching them as they grow over time. Trilogies likewise. Trilogies have a distinct format that makes it enjoyable to see two opponents fight each other for three books in a row. It’s a great feeling, when you reach the end, to know that the main characters have finally won out against all odds. They can finally live. Regardless of the predictability of a trilogy– with its charming first book, its slightly sagging sequel, and its dark and bloody finale– a trilogy makes a nice, tight boxed set that looks great on any bookshelf.
But after a while, trilogies get tiring, don’t you think?
The majority of books in YA are trilogies. If any book you thought was a stand-alone ends in a cliffhanger, you can safely assume that it’s the first of three. Trilogies have become the default series length. Perhaps it’s because long series are more difficult to sustain, especially when it’s the same villain every time. J.K. Rowling did it, but she added so many mini-villains along the way that we didn’t really see Voldemort until the fourth book. If the villain keeps escaping from final battles, won’t the readers get bored? Not with only three books.
But does the villain have to escape? I know the thrill of cliffhangers– I know how fun they are to write, imagining the readers squirming in pain as you force them to wait for the next book. I know how terrible they are to read as well. This is no “Save the Readers– Abolish Cliffhangers” plea. I simply think the reign of trilogies as lords of the book pile should end.
I have a hankering for a good stand-alone novel.
I’m sure I could find one anywhere. Debut authors trying to break into YA; remnants of the middle grade fantasy I used to read; or adult crime novels. But that isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I don’t want to go back to middle grade. Neither do I want to skip ahead to adult. I want to see a YA fantasy published as a stand-alone novel. No sequels, no cliffhangers– just a simple book that ties up its own loose ends.
I read Shadow and Bone a few weeks ago. I loved it. However, as I neared the end, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I loved the main characters, I loved the world, and I loved the plot– but I desperately wanted it to stand alone. As a stand-alone novel, it would be perfect. The romantic character arc had already happened, the villain was right there to defeat, the world could be set to rights in a single blow. Everything was perfect.
Shadow and Bone ended with a promise for a trilogy.
I still loved the ending. I loved almost everything about that book. It would have been better, however, as a stand-alone novel.
Airman is my favorite book by Eoin Colfer. It has remained my favorite book despite competitors such as Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian. Why? Because it stands alone. It takes skill to write a good stand-alone novel. The ability to create the same level of tension over one book instead of over three is extremely difficult. Trilogies tend to take their time developing characters and romantic subplots, but stand-alone novels are forced to do it quickly and expertly. In my opinion, stand-alone novels are more difficult to write than series.
Of course, trilogies have their charms. As I said before, their structure works well. Not only that, but with three books published instead of just one, that’s at least three times the money. But is that your goal as authors? Is your goal to write money-making books? Or is it to write good books? In the same time you write a trilogy, you can write three stand-alones, and there’s nothing to say they won’t sell as well. Not only that, but they’ll help your reputation. Do you know how many times I have picked up an interesting-looking book and set it back down because it was the second or third book in a trilogy? With stand-alones, however, you have the opportunity to catch the reader immediately instead of letting them forget about you.
Still want to write a series? You don’t think your publisher will keep you on if you only write stand-alones? Fair enough, but take a look at a few series for me. Artemis Fowl, for example. Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. The Iron Man movie franchise. All of these series are made up of stand-alone novels. Some, like Artemis Fowl and Iron Man, use the same main characters– others, like Redwall, only use the same world. However, each novel stands alone. How is that possible? Simply this: they use different antagonists.
The only thing that changes between each Redwall novel is the characters involved, but even then, only specific characters. The main characters infallibly come from Redwall Abbey or have allies therein– all the main characters are remarkably similar. However, the villains are diverse. From book to book, we rarely found anything new about Redwall Abbey or Mossflower Wood, but we always found a new faction of villains to defeat. It was the way that the world expanded; not by showing different places in which to battle, but by showing different people.
Iron Man couldn’t have been the only movie in its franchise. Although the antagonist had been defeated, there was an unresolved threat– the public view of Tony Stark. Similar was The Hunger Games trilogy, though it concentrated more on the Capitol through all three books than on three separate villains. The Hunger Games did need to be a trilogy, though I have other issues with its format.
Artemis Fowl, like Redwall, always brought in new and interesting antagonists to defeat. They might be completely unheard of, popping out of the woodwork because they want a crack at the boy genius, or they might be old enemies from even before the series began. Things remain unresolved at the end of each book, but the villain is always defeated.
I don’t want any more trilogies. I’ve grown tired of seeing Darth Vader spinning away from the exploding Death Star. I want to see some stand-alone novels that tie up their own loose ends. Stand-alones aren’t evil. Neither is a trilogy the answer for everything. Enough with boxed sets.