Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga is set in the fictional city of Janloon and follows two rival clans as they wage war for control over magical jade. Jade City, the first book in the series, won the World Fantasy Award and the second, Jade War, hit shelves earlier this summer. Writing the follow-up to a successful novel can be stressful, but Lee believes she’s found the secret to writing a gripping middle volume. Read on for her advice on banishing middle book syndrome.
It’s a frequently-held opinion among writers that the second book in a trilogy is often the hardest to write. The first book is carried along by the fresh energy of the story and the characters, and the reader comes in with no expectations, ready to be drawn in. The third and final book has the momentum of the previous books behind it as it races toward the series-ending climax. The second book, however? Sometimes readers come away feeling as if it’s the “soggy middle” of the series, a necessary but unremarkable bridge between the first and third installments.
I’ve been living in Book Two Land for the past three years. My latest novel Jade War is the second book in the Green Bone Saga and the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning Jade City. Before Jade War, I wrote Cross Fire, the sequel to my young adult science fiction novel, Exo. Writing two Book Twos back-to-back was a surefire recipe for stress, but it taught me what I believe is the secret to writing a second book that equals or surpasses the first.
The middle book can’t just continue the story. It has to break it.
Great sequels do not simply merrily resume the story with the same conflicts and antagonists. The characters can’t be dealing with the exact same issues they had in the first book. A couple of years ago, I discarded 35,000 words of a first draft manuscript of a book two because I realized that I’d picked up right where I’d left off after book one, drawing out the same story threads, only to find them thinning alarmingly as I went on. While it’s true that the overarching struggle and character arcs of the series must move forward and take on new dimensions and higher stakes, in order to be compelling in its own right, a second book should challenge the reader with new elements that recontextualize the story they know so far. A tall order, when the sequel also can’t stray too far by abandoning or downplaying what readers loved most about the first book.
Successful sequels pull this off in different ways. The Obelisk Gate, the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, hooked me by introducing the opposing point of view of Nassun, Essun’s daughter, forcing me to view the main character in a different light. Pretties, the sequel to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, placed the main character, Tally, exactly where she didn’t want to be—on the opposite side of the struggle.
With the Green Bone Saga, I built myself two frameworks: one that expanded the story and took it in new directions, and one that kept the series focused. Jade City revolved around the conflict over control of magical jade waged between the two major clans in the fictional metropolis of Janloon. I knew I had to fundamentally change the game, to break the story in some way, with each subsequent installment. My guiding mantra was that the second book would take the story international, and the third book would make it intergenerational. With that in mind, Jade War couldn’t be driven by more of the same street battles. It is propelled instead by international threats and conflicts, foreign crime bosses and avaricious governments, the nuances of cultural diaspora, and a whole plotline set in another country that intersects with the main story.
At the same time, I was determined not to fall prey to the relentless scope creep that sometimes afflicts book series. A strong middle book breaks the story in some way, but the series still requires an intact spine, something that makes it cohesive as a whole. For me, that was the vision of this trilogy as a family saga. No matter how much I expanded or layered the story, at the end of the day, I would never stray far afield from the beating heart of the books: the family.
Sometimes maligned or overlooked, the middle book in a trilogy, at its best, is a game-changer for the characters and the reader. What are some of your favorite middle books?
Fonda Lee is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Jade City and the award-winning YA science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire. Born and raised in Canada, Lee is a black belt martial artist, a former corporate strategist, and action movie aficionado who now lives in Portland, Oregon with her family.