This could just be blatantly calling out every duology that’s been turned into a trilogy, but I’m labeling it as a #marywrites because I have some writing-specific thoughts, y’all. However, yes, I am going to say outright that I’m thinking about Blood & Honey by Shelby Mahurin, and it is 100% the reason for why I finally wrote this post. This has been on my mind for a while, but the travesty that was B&H made me want to pull my hair out, so here we are!
I can say, with confidence, that I hate trilogies. I don’t like reading them, and I don’t like writing them. There’s, like, a single handful of trilogies out there in the world that didn’t make me want to bash my head against the wall? Middle books are hard. They are truly the worst thing in the world to write, and almost no one ever ends up liking them. Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan is a really good example of this because while I thought it was a truly perfect middle book (it is, I’m right, get over it), there are a lot of people that were highly disappointed by it. However, when you think about the arc of the overall story, Storm and Shadow had all the perfect elements that most middle books don’t.
Because, truly, most middle books are just straight up nothing. What even happens in B&H? NOTHING. The same plot from the first book is regurgitated into the second, and it’s all filler right up until a cliffhanger ending. I felt similarly about The Damned by Renee Ahdieh. I’m not actually sure if this was originally pitched as a duology that later became a trilogy, but it certainly reads like that. And while this post is not meant to be all duologies are better, trilogies suck, that’s definitely part of the vibe. Trilogies are just the worst, and stories are almost always better when they’re tightened into a duology.
However. I’m saying that while having written both, and because I’ve written both, I am seriously more confused than I’ve ever been every time I hear that a planned duology has turned into a trilogy. This is not possible? I know I write weirdly, and a lot of my writer friends give me the hairy eyeball when I talk about writing because I do it insanely fast, but I also know that I have one thing in common with every other series writer out there.
Even if you don’t know the exact end of your final book, you know what the overall arc is to getting there. When I wrote Saints, I didn’t know who was going to die at the end of the second book or how all of the characters were going to end up, but I did know what villains they were going to encounter, that there was going to be a marginally happy ending, and that Landon (MC) was going to survive everything. When I started the first sister witches, I had no idea that I was going to bring them to Ireland or create a bunch of side characters that I’d fall hopelessly in love with, but I did know that I was ending with a wedding between Henley & Luciana, I wanted the last chapter to mirror the first one, and I knew that our Big Bad in the first book was going to be defeated in the first book to make way for the Big Bad of books two & three.
And there is no universe where you can convince me that Mahurin didn’t also know the overall arc of her story.
Here’s the thing. Saints is a duology. Sister witches is a trilogy. I’m a huge fan of cliffhangers, and I find that series generally contain at least one cliffhanger, so it makes sense how we get to cliffhangers. In a duology, it’s going to be at the end of the first book. It can’t be at the end of the second because that’s the finale, so if you want to hook your readers for another book, it’s coming at the end of the first. There’s a lot that happens in the first Saints, a lot of chaos and action and forward movement, but all of it is leading up to that cliffhanger at the end. And you can tell it’s coming because there’s a lot that needs to be resolved, but, by the time the characters get back to their city and are ready to face off against the Big Bad, there’s only one chapter left, and it’s not all that long. You know a cliffhanger is coming, and it’s going to setup the entirety of the second book.
The breakneck speed of the first Saints does not at all match the pace of the first sister witches, though. Because SW is a trilogy, the first one is a bit slower. The cliffhanger comes in at the end of the second book, and the first one has a full story in it. I can pitch SW1 as a standalone with greater series potential. Not all of the loose ends are tied up by the close of the final chapter, but enough are that it feels like a cohesive story. And while sure, I could cliffhanger at the end of SW1 rather than the second one, most trilogies follow this format. You want to introduce your reader to the world slowly, grab their attention in a big way during the second one, and then bring everything home in the third one. And that’s very different pacing than a duology.
If, in a world that will never exist, I wanted to make Saints a trilogy, the first book would look very different. Let’s talk Six of Crows as an example. I know that there’s potential for a third book with those characters, but given that it would exist many years after the events of Crooked Kingdom, it doesn’t really count as a trilogy. But imagine that the Crows duology is, instead, a trilogy. That cliffhanger at the end of SOC now can’t happen there because about a third of that book needs to be shifted. Realistically, I’d say Crows would probably end around them on the ship back to Ketterdam. It’s not quite a cliffhanger, but all of our characters are mostly okay, they’re together again, they’ve just successfully pulled off an insane heist, and they’re headed home. And while Inej being taken no longer works as a cliffhanger because it’s somewhere in the first third of this nonexistent middle book, you know what does work as a cliffhanger? The fiasco at the bridge when Kaz is exchanging Van Eck’s wife for Inej. Imagine CK now, beginning with all of our crew scrambled apart, trying to get back together, and the last thing we’ve read of them is just disaster. Obviously, there’s a lot of stretching that needs to happen across these two books to pull them apart and make them into a trilogy, and now you’re starting to think well, hm. This doesn’t quite work.
EXACTLY. Crows works really well as a duology, and while Bardugo probably could have pulled it off as a trilogy, it’s not written that way, and it wouldn’t actually work that way. There’s a lot of weird restructuring that you’d need to do in order to reshape it into a trilogy, and here’s where the really strange part comes in. Imagine that you’ve just read Six of Crows, and you’re all set for a duology, especially after that crazy ending, and it’s announced that it’s actually going to be a trilogy, but Bardugo’s already written Crooked Kingdom, and what happens now is that she needs to stretch out the arc of that single book into two.
It sounds impossible, right? Because it is. If Crows was a trilogy, we wouldn’t love it as much as we did. But you know what wouldn’t work as a duology? Shadow and Bone. It was planned as a trilogy, and thus it works that way. The same thing would happen if you tried to stretch out The Merciful Crow duology or Faizal’s We Hunt the Flame. Suddenly, these masterpieces become weirdly shaped and wonkily told because the tight writing and excellent pacing of a duology is suddenly stretched like too little butter across too much toast.
As a writer, when I sit down, I know the shape of my story. I knew that Saints was going to be a duology. I knew that it was going to have a cliffhanger at the end, and I knew, vaguely, what I wanted the end of the overall story to look like. I knew that sister witches was going to be a trilogy, despite the fact that I hate trilogies. I knew that the middle book was going to be hard as hell to write, that I was going to drag my feet through it, but would it work as a duology? Heck no! While the second book is slow, it’s a bridge between the first and third. There’s so much that needs to happen, so much setup and building that would have felt rushed and way too dramatic if I’d tried to cram it into two books. But the same is true for Saints. It works as a duology, and if I’d made it into a trilogy, that middle book would have been awful because it wouldn’t have belonged.
It truly blows my mind that some authors plan out a duology and then just–make it in a trilogy. That’s not a feasible thing. Even if you’re flying by the seat of your pants with a series, there’s a certain shape that trilogies take versus duologies. When you’re working on the first book, you know the path of what comes next. As much as pantsing seems like it’s shaking a magic eight ball and seeing what happens, there is a clear journey from point a to b to c. When you get to the end of a first book, as a writer, you know what’s coming after. You know if it’s going to wrap up in one or two books. Even if I’d sat down with sister witches without knowing how long it was going to be, I would have known by the end of the first book. I would have been able to sit back and say yup, this definitely needs a bitch of a middle book.
Imagine, for an awful second, that Lisa Maxwell had decided The Serpent’s Curse was going to be the last book in her quartet. I know this is going off the rails a little since we’re talking duology to trilogy, but there is SO MUCH that happens in the third book of this series that I truly cannot imagine what it would have been like if it had been a trilogy, but Maxwell’s publishers pushed her to make it into a quartet after the first book was already out. Y’all, no. The arc of that story, from first to third, would have needed to look wildly different if this was going to be a trilogy instead of a quartet. Everything would have needed to be much tighter, faster, and far more chaotic. It would have felt like hurtling through a train wreck trying to get through everything Maxwell’s developed about the world, and a lot probably would have been cut. The Last Magician would have been paced very differently if it was meant for a trilogy, and you’re telling me that, post publication, everything would have been just roses if it was then announced surprise! This is going to be a quartet!
I would have died. I promise you, when sister witches comes out, it’s going to either be sold as a standalone and I’m going to cry into my pillow for years, or it’s going to be a trilogy. No in between. Nothing longer. Because the stress of realizing that I need to rework a trilogy to become a quartet? Zero percent chance. If you’re writing a duology, and you’ve suddenly signed on for a trilogy post release of your first book, no thanks. That trilogy isn’t worth it. It just isn’t.
My brain is saying to me, this is privilege! But honestly? No amount of money is worth disappointing both myself and potential readers. I’m trying to picture someone reading Sorcery of Thorns and going, “You know what? This should be a duology.” Can you even imagine! Wait, this is the perfect way to describe this. You wouldn’t read a standalone and then expect a sequel, so why do authors write a duology, but publish a trilogy? Because we know the shape of a story. And B&H was a huge disappointment because it was meant to be a duology, but it was extended to a trilogy. It’s just not a thing you can actually do. You can’t just willy nilly “extend” a story. There’s a framework already in place that doesn’t allow for that without some huge sacrifices. B&H’s plot is just a regurgitation of the first book because it was meant to be a finale, and it instead had to be a middle book.
It would be like taking There Will Come a Darkness and saying that it was a quartet now. I promise you, I would not love As the Shadow Rises quite as much as I do if the shape of it had had to change to accommodate the length of a quartet. The structure of the series would have been ruined in such a way that it would not survive, and the second & third book would be too long, too slow, and repetitive.
If you set out to write a duology, write a damn duology. No money is worth sacrificing your story, especially after you’ve already published one book. A trilogy looks so different from a duology, and there’s no way to successfully pull it into a trilogy unless you can go back and restructure your first book. And, even then, you’re going to have a hell of a time.