How to Write a Better Book Two in a Trilogy: A Readers’ Survey of What Makes a Second Book Bad or Better than the First

Most writers learn to execute a first story in a trilogy very well, while very few writers even attempt to draft a second story unless their first story gets a book deal. Then reality kicks in and the writer is faced with an unknown quandary: book two.

Surprisingly, very little advice exists on the Internet or in writing craft books about how to tackle the second book in a trilogy. Even if you’ve plotted the trilogy before writing book one, as I did, book two often ends up being incredibly challenging for many authors. You’d think it would be easier; after all, the world and the characters are already established. Now you can just have fun, right? Wrong.

The second book in a trilogy is a like Act II in three-act story structure. In other words, the second book is the muddling middle. And as Act II is where in the inner struggle/spiritual journey of the main character takes center stage, the tight pacing and action are often lost. Worse, a second book can feel like aimless wandering until we get back on track with book three, where the writer can actually tie up the series with a bang.

So in an effort to understand the mystery of crafting a good book two, I conducted a survey on Twitter back in April and got a huge response. The mystery boiled down to one simple answer: Do it better. Whether it’s world-building, plotting, or characters, do it better, give the reader more—more romance, new characters, deeper established characters, new places, more action, more twists, more betrayals.

So without further ado, I present my survey results (because I know “do it better” won’t satisfy you). Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom to read the answers to my second and third questions: What makes a book two “bad” or “good”?

Thank you to everyone who participated!

What second book in a trilogy do you like more than the first book and why?

FORMAT OF SURVEY:
Title – Author – # of Readers Who Listed This Title
Reasons stated, if any

(I bolded the titles that received more than one mention.)

A Million Suns – Beth Revis – 1
Great pacing
More reader connection to characters
Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins – 14
Expanded the world
Had more action/danger
More exciting arena
Loved new characters introduced/more intriguing characters
The stage is set, so more focus on plot and character growth
Story one-upped itself in excitement, intrigue, pain/misery
Voice is stronger
Established characters still grow/have a lot to learn/make new mistakes
City of Ashes – Cassandra Clare – 1
Clockwork Prince – Cassandra Clare – 3
More interesting relationship dynamics
Untold
More even tone
Crown of Midnight – Sarah Maas – 10
Expanded the world
Had more action / adventure
Every action had a consequence
Pulled reader in more emotionally
Higher stakes / tougher choices
Felt more put together / more developed plot
Liked characters more
Days of Blood and Starlight – Laini Taylor – 1
World expansion
Froi of the Exiles – Melina Marchetta – 2
Special and masterful
Voice is stronger
New characters
Old characters still grow/have a lot to learn/make new mistakes
Golden Son – Pierce Brown – 1
Emotionally gripping / suspenseful
Heist Society – Ally Carter – 1
If I Should Die – Amy Plum – 1
More originality
Ignite – Sara B. Larson – 1
Inferno – Dan Brown – 1
Better character development
Fixed romantic issues
Better swoons
Linger – Maggie Stiefvater – 1
New and intriguing characters introduced
Map of Fates – Maggie Hall – 2
Romance sizzles
Character growth is incredible
More mature
More dangerous
Never Fade – Alexandra Bracken – 1
Raven Flight – Juliet Marillier – 1
Rebel Angels – Libba Bray – 1
Took the action to a new locale
Developed love interests and friendships better
Scarlet – Marissa Meyer – 3
World expansion
More action
The Sea of Monsters – Rick Riordan – 2
Tyson
Siege and Storm – Leigh Bardugo – 8
Nicolai (this reason stated by several readers)
Epic escalation of plot and character development
Introduction of new characters
The stage is set, so more focus on plot and character growth
World expansion
Explored Alina’s powers and relationships more
Ten Thousand Skies Above You – Claudia Gray – 1
The Conjurer’s Riddle – Andrea Cremer – 1
Brought in pirates
The Crown of Embers – Rae Carson – 3
World expansion
Character growth
Pulled reader in more emotionally
More adventure
The Dream Thieves – Maggie Stiefvater – 3
With the world and rules established, we get to go hardcore into a character’s development.
More important roles for characters.
Incredible character development, especially for Ronan.
More interesting / less confusing
Liked characters more
The Essence – Kimberly Derting – 1
The Eternity Key – Bree Despain – 1
The Evolution of Mara Dyer – Michelle Hodkin – 2
The romance is explosive in this one
The Heart of Betrayal – Mary E. Pearson – 3
Getting to know the real characters, which makes the betrayals hurt even more.
The swoons.
First book set up the second book very well
The Hunt – Megan Shepherd – 1
World expansion
More character development
The Magician King – Lev Grossman – 1
The Queen of Attolia – Megan Whalen Turner – 1
The stage is set, so more focus on plot and character growth
The Rose Society – Marie Lu – 3
The stage is set, so more focus on plot and character growth
Darker plot
More action
Magiano
Great ending
The Scorch Trials – James Dashner – 1
Twist at the end
The Sleeping Prince – Melinda Salisbury – 1
More action-packed
Liked the different POV/new perspective
The Second Summer of the Sisterhood – Ann Brashares – 1
More character development
The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien – 1
All the pieces were in place so Tolkien could increase the tension and action.
The Vanishing Throne – Elizabeth May – 1
Funnier
Gave life to characters
The White Rose – Amy Ewing – 1
More backstory that the first lacked
More magic
The Winner’s Crime – Marie Rutkoski – 5
World expansion
Pulled reader in more emotionally
More adventure
Unpredictable plot
The stage is set, so more focus on plot and character growth
Arin
This Shattered World – Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner – 1
Better characterization
Better conflict/storyline
Under the Never Sky – Veronica Rossi – 1
World expansion
Character growth
Unhinged – A.G. Howard – 2
World expansion
More romance
Unravel Me – Tahereh Mafi – 6
More protagonist development
More reader love for romantic partner
Better romance
Warner / got to see a different side of him
Walk the Edge – Katie McGarry – 2
Characters spoke to reader on a more personal level
Wandering Star – Romina Russell – 1
World expansion
More character development

What makes a second in a trilogy “bad”?

(Many answers are similar, but still offer helpful insight.)

They tend to drag and feel more like fillers between the first and third book.
Repetition of stuff we’ve done before in the first book.
Wheel spinning so that there’s still something left for book three, wheel spinning defined as reader can tell the writer is creating more problems in the story just to fill time between now and the series climax (book three), and it’s not cute.
It tries to tell the same story as book one and/or the story of book one was pretty much done and book two is aimless wandering.
When it’s just a bridge leading from book 1/point A to book 3/point B. It needs to have its own story and purpose.
If it feels like book one promised one thing and book two goes in a completely different direction.
If a girl picks the wrong boy. That’s a big one.
Lack of plot.
If it drags.
If a likeable character becomes unlikeable/dies.
If the reader doesn’t like where the series is going.
If a new love interest is introduced and the male character starts hanging out with said character.
So many times they feel like a filler between book 1 and 3. You will read the entire book and feel like nothing progressed.
Conflict that isn’t necessary just to pass time.
Characters added for no essential purpose in the story.
It’s just a bridge between books 1 and 3, without their own arcs or separate conflict.
If it feels like a filler book; if the series could have easily been a duology, but it’s dragged out for no apparent reason.
When the plot seems to be going nowhere. When it feels like some filler just so that it can be a trilogy.
A lot of trilogies should have been duologies because not a lot happens in book two.
When the writer comes up with a completely different plot.
If the characters become too whiney.
When it’s confusing.
They often feel like a buffer, like the boring cousin of adventurous, dangerous twins.
The love triangle gets too tedious.

What makes a second book in a trilogy “good”?

(Many answers are similar, but still offer helpful insight.)

The Empire Strikes Back Principle: We care more for the characters just as everything gets a whole lots worse for them. (And somebody should definitely get a limb chopped off. Necessary for all superior middles.)
More on Empire Strikes Back: There are whole bunch of reversals and surprises in it: new allies, betrayals, settings, etc. Lots of forward motion.
The world must open up, but not shift. It must BUILD on the pre-existing world, but the players and stakes expand.
Characters are more fleshed out.
There’s still lots of suspense and a good pace.
World expansion.
Character development.
More danger and threats.
If something mind-blowing happens and everything from beginning to end had led up to that moment.
Feels like a complete story in and of itself, but also adds to the overall story arc.
When book two builds on the plot book one had, but makes it even better and stuff starts blowing up in the protagonist’s face.

———————————

Kathryn Purdie’s love of storytelling began as a young girl when her dad told her about Boo Radley while they listened to the film score of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her own attempts at storytelling usually involved home video productions featuring her younger sister as a nerd or writing plays to perform with the neighborhood kids. In high school and college, she focused on acting, composing sappy poetry, singing folk ballads on her guitar, and completing at least ten pages in her journal every night. When she was in recovery from donating a kidney to her brother, inspiration for her first novel struck. She’s been writing darkly fantastical stories ever since. Kathryn is the author of BURNING GLASS, the first novel in a YA fantasy trilogy from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins. 

5 thoughts on “How to Write a Better Book Two in a Trilogy: A Readers’ Survey of What Makes a Second Book Bad or Better than the First

  1. Where was this six months ago when I plotted out book two?! (But seriously, this is so helpful. I feel *slightly* better about the book I'm about to turn in to my editor.) And now I have a bunch of sequels to go read.

    Like

  2. Such a great idea to do this survey. I especially like the list of great 2nd books (many added to TBR). Will be coming back to this when I write a book 2.

    Like

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