I’ll define a trilogy as three novels with a thematic or narrative relationship OR as a novel in three parts. N.K. Jemisin’s fabulous Inheritance Trilogy is an example of a trilogy in which each volume stands alone as a complete story while a larger thematic narrative arc is addressed across all three books. My own Spiritwalker Trilogy is a novel in three parts. I do attempt to give each volume a beginning, a middle, and some manner of emotional resolution at the end, and I think I manage that fairly well, but the full story will take all three books to tell.
One of the challenges in writing this kind of trilogy arises in how to start volumes 2 and 3. I’m not starting a new story; I’m continuing one. Most of the readers who pick up volume 2 will have read volume 1, but a few won’t, so I need an effective way to introduce the world to new readers while not boring returning readers. Additionally, many returning readers will have read volume 1 many months ago, and the situation and characters may not be fresh in their minds. So I need to reintroduce them to both the characters and the situation in a way that engages them as well. Meanwhile, other readers will recently have read COLD MAGIC, or will have re-read the closing chapters to reacquaint themselves with the story. I don’t want to bore them.
Over all, it is important to avoid repetitive information dump about the previous volume, but at the same time it can be a mistake simply to dump the reader straight into the continuing action without any careful reminders. While some readers may revel in a launch straight into the action with no scene setting, for others it can be off-putting or confusing.
My job as the writer is to bring all of these different types of readers back into the story in a way that makes them want to stay with me.
With COLD FIRE the opening was made additionally complicated by the unfortunate fact that COLD MAGIC ends with (this is not really a spoiler) the main character in a room with ten other characters. Also, because of the nature of that scene, I could not use one of my favorite techniques with first chapters in later volumes in a series, in which I simply skip ahead a day or a week to a scene that uses action or interaction to reintroduce one of the continuing conflicts and a few of the characters. In this case, I had to address a significant comment made at the end of COLD MAGIC. In other words, COLD FIRE had to start about ten seconds after COLD MAGIC ends.
I wrote at least five versions of the first five chapters of COLD FIRE, each of which was an attempt to manage to reintroduce eleven characters, a political and personal conflict, the basics of this fantasy world, and our heroine’s strong emotional reaction to what she is told at the end of the COLD MAGIC. All in first person point of view (the “I” form).
None of these versions worked. Heavy, clunky, confusing, ponderous, just too much information to absorb. Let me assure you that it is remarkably difficult to introduce eleven characters in the first chapter of a novel while at the same time reminding the reader of what has been going on and creating action and tension that will encourage the reader to turn the page.
Out of the blue, as I whined via email to a couple of my beta readers about my problem, writer Katharine Kerr (the Deverry series, License to Ensorcell) made an unusual but intriguing suggestion:
“Why don’t you go back in time?” she asked.
It turned out she meant something else, but meanwhile I thought she meant that my best bet was to backtrack slightly in the story, going back over the same ground to reintroduce it. I realized I could begin the novel with a mere three characters walking through the streets at night in winter in a city under curfew. They then walk into the scene that occurs at the end of volume 1.
Thus I have to initially introduce only three characters into a situation that has intrinsic conflict because of the night, the cold, and the curfew. A new reader can enter the story here. A reader who hasn’t reread the first book is quickly recalled to the main conflicts. Some readers, of course, might find this gambit repetitive, so I also introduced new material that isn’t present in COLD MAGIC. I added new conversation, cut down the final exchange to the bare minimum, and most importantly, I was able to write a brief action sequence not present in COLD MAGIC which makes clear the basics of the political situation and, most importantly, reveals how very powerful a strong cold mage can be. For various reasons, but mostly because of the way the plot in COLD FIRE unfolds, I needed to display cold magic’s full magical potency early on.
I don’t intend to repeat this technique in COLD STEEL because I won’t have to. But with book 2, in the end it was the only way I could figure to juggle the many competing strands that I had to open up for the reader when they step back into the Spiritwalker world in COLD FIRE.
In other words, in the business of writing, the one thing I know is that I have to keep learning, trying new things, and adapting to the fresh challenge each book presents.