Second Book Syndrome

A strange epidemic that rages through the world of media and fiction alongside sequelitis, Second Book Syndrome is a bizarre phenomenon the plagues many a series. Have you ever read a series or trilogy and found that, despite the greatness of the first book and perhaps the third and onwards, the second one was really not that sharp?

The Harry Potter books, for example, are sort of universally agreed to have taken a bit of a dip in The Chamber of Secrets (not that it deterred any fans as the other five books kept coming out and selling like, well, fun fantasy adventures about teenage wizards), discussions with peers and the analytical sharp tongue of Mark have revealed that Catching Fire was a bit of a disappointment after the pull of The Hunger Games, I completely lost the energy to read The Ask and the Answer despite how incredible and gripping its predecessor The Knife of Never Letting Go had been, A Clash of Kings seemed harder to chew through than the radiance of A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords

What is going on here?

I’ve been racking my brain for reasons behind this outbreak (which is by no means a new phenomenon, of course, but it is the age wherein it can be pondered on the Intertubes by writers who have little better to do with their spare time than come up with witticisms and shout at fictional characters), and I have thought of some potential causes:

In the case of a trilogy, it’s only natural that the second book should be a plateau. The author at hand is merely following the most basic story structure out there, the one that holds all decent narratives together, the progression from Orientation to Conflict to Climax to Resolution. Of course, within these steps a whole bunch of ups and downs can happen, but basically the average story structure can be graphed to look like this:

Story Map

See that bit in the middle?

Despite each part of a trilogy being its own book and its own enclosed story, they all fit into a bigger picture and that graphy line stretches over all three. So you’ll find it divided a bit like so:

Stroy Map books

And then it becomes clear; while the first book is mostly the getting to know what’s going on and the first conflict and the third is the build-up to the climax and the big sigh of relief and sorting out of everyone’s crap at the end, the second book falls in that middle bit and will feel, naturally enough, like the middle of a story, only over an entire book.

While there may be action enough going on, in many senses the second book can fall into the territory of following on from the beginning and leading up the grand finale, and not really hold much of its own except as the stepping stone in between. Which is unfortunate, but it does make sense.

But what about series longer than three books, you say? Well, that makes sense too if you think about it.

Mayhaps, I put to you, the author was bewildered by the success of their first novel and so their hands were a bit shaky when it came to doing it all again. Will the people like it as much as the first? Should I change and evolve the style or stick with the same formula that made its predecessor popular? These are all worries (and fair enough ones too) of the sequel-writer, and especially one that is only creating their second novel ever.

"...Well what do we do now?"

“…Well what do we do now?”

It could be that the dip in quality or enjoyability of Book Two is due to the writer getting their stuff together and still getting the hang of their craft. Sometimes second books will feel formulaic and like photocopies of the first one, and in that case one would have to assume that the writer and/or their people in the world of editing and publishing are dubious or cautious about the continuing success of the series, so they tread carefully and follow the same pattern they did in Book One.

Or sometimes the lull is caused by the opposite, if I may use the Chaos Walking trilogy as an example. As mentioned above, The Knife of Never Letting Go was fast-paced and fascinating, a gripping escape adventure across a science fiction landscape filled with terror and suspense… and the second book, The Ask and Answer, seemed to just stop. In place of the fear of pursuit the main characters were now grounded in one place and all the conflicts where held there, and they seemed very stiff and quiet and a lot of tension was drawn out in a great manipulative waiting game played between conquerors and terrorists.

Which could have been interesting, and I gave it the chance, however I felt that my hook to the adventure and the characters had been well and truly removed by the third book, which I never actually got around to reading. So I swam right away and the series lost a member of its audience, an audience enticed into the series by Book One and eagerly awaited Book Two, only to be handed something of an entirely different style. It’s a jarring experience.

However, that being said, Book Three could have picked up again and been just as exciting as the first. Which is something that has happened in many series—after the speedbump of Book Two, the rest of the series suddenly picks up again and goes back to being awesome.

It’s really quite a weird phenomenon, and the world of publishing goes on around it unperturbed. Perhaps it’s just sort of become accepted as a thing.

Perhaps, though, it’s our own fault as well—we simply apply Middle Child Syndrome to books, leaving poor old Book Two to feel caught in the centre. Book One demands all our attention with its intrigue and introduction to the new world, and Book Three blows us away with its shattering conclusion. Book Two is stuck between them sighing at the figurative dinner table while the readers fuss over the others in the family.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Second Book Syndrome

  1. Ha. Middle Child Syndrome is an appropriate way to describe the second book. I’m actually not comfortable with the idea of writing sequels, even though I know some of my novel ideas can be adapted into three books, for the reasons provided above. I worry too much that the second book will not live up to the first.

    Also, those diagrams of yours are pretty accurate. =D

  2. So true…
    The only exception I’ve experienced is when the books in a trilogy have different main characters. I can think of two examples where my favorite book in a trilogy is #2, and its because I liked the character in that book best.

  3. I’ve written about this before! 😀 I’m glad we agree. The second Percy Jackson book is another that I don’t think was very good.

  4. Pingback: Review: Miyuki by Veronica Bane | Paper Breathers

  5. If you applied this to movies though, there are a number of huge exceptions. Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight are generally considered the best in their trilogies.

    • That’s very true, actually. Perhaps it’s in part due (though this is obviously not the case with Star Wars, which was planned to be a set) to movies more often than not NOT being planned out as series until the first one is successful. It could also have factors like changes in director or production team, whereas books are most often just written by one author.

      It’s interesting to eyeball it from that perspective!

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