Guest Post: Juliet McKenna on Thinking about The Trilogy

Part of an ongoing, non-scheduled series, wherein I grab writers I’m reading, and ask them to talk about something related to that book, that they haven’t had a chance to talk about before, or at enough length.


I read Juliet McKenna’s first book, The Thief’s Gamble, back when it came out, and thought “ooh, nice read!”  I then, several years later, met Juliet in person and thought “oooo, nice person!”  I didn’t connect the writer-person with the book I’d liked until, oh…a year after that?

Yeah, I know.  I’m occasionally slow that way.

She has a new series out -  The Hadrumal Crisis – and book 2, Darkening Skies, hits the shelves this week.  So I thought it would be fun to ask her about her experiences writing a trilogy, and specifically how it feels to have the dread second-book-of, coming out.  What follows is an excerpt from that conversation….


…One thing about writing the second book of an epic fantasy trilogy is recalling all those reviews saying ‘yes, it’s pretty good but the story is still really all about getting the people from the first volume into the necessary places and perils for the really good stuff still to come in the third book’.

This is the second time I have actually written a trilogy planned as such from the outset, as opposed to a sequence of books following on from each other, as my first two series evolved. Thankfully, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution avoided the dread second volume syndrome thanks to the natural progression of revolutions. They tend to fall into three phases – things must change – we’ll make things change – now we need to  make the changes stick… So that was okay.

This time it was much less clear cut, but I decided that was still a good notion; to make sure there was plenty of decisive action in this second book, ideally leaving the readers wondering ‘oh, wow, how’s *that* going to  play out in Book 3?’.

The interesting thing about second-of-three books is that often, there’s often a lot of internal change as well – the characters go through  immense development out of the events of book one that are essential to  what happens in book three.  Like watching a child become an adult; if  you’re not there for the teen years, it seems to come out of nowhere!  Many folk have compared writing a trilogy to a three-act play, where no single act really stands on its own – which is a problem when the three acts are separated by 6-12 months rather than a curtain-fall or brief  intermission.  Did you approach book two (and plan for book three) with that delay in mind?

That’s a very good point, and certainly true of Darkening Skies. The three main characters are all dealing with the experiences they’ve been through in Dangerous Waters in personal terms as well as addressing the practicalities of the situations they’re now in. The extent to which they’ve learned important truths about themselves – or not – will play a large part in their actions and reactions to events in the third book.

And yes, I am very conscious of these breaks in the story for the first readers, primarily because as a reader myself, I really don’t like those cliff-hanger endings that are almost literally Our Hero falling over a precipice, grabbing at a spindly tree and then watching the first trickle of sandy soil as the roots begin to give way… to be continued…

That’s fine if I know I can pick up the next volume as soon as I’ve finished this one but if not, I find that very frustrating. So I prefer, as reader and writer, to end the first two books with a turn of events that’s decisive without being conclusive. To leave myself, the readers and the characters thinking ‘phew’, before everyone takes a breath and wonders what the fallout from what’s just happened might be.

In purely practical terms, structuring a break in the fictional timeline also makes the essential recapping at the start of the next book easier. If everyone’s had some downtime, working in a few reminders and reflections comes much more naturally. As opposed to a lengthy ‘do you remember when…?’ conversation where one character could justifiably say, ‘what, you mean, like yesterday?’


Of course, with books one and two out now, you get to avoid the delay, and just dive in, knowing that she’s got you covered when book three comes out…..

AND! you can lay hands on a free short story by Juliet, set in this universe, here

AND! read the opening chapter here

Juliet’s website     Solaris (publisher) blog    Juliet on Livejournal


2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Juliet McKenna on Thinking about The Trilogy”

  1. This is actually the fourteenth book set in the same world – but don’t worry, you don’t have to read all the backlist for each individual series to make sense – so I have most of the history looking backwards already mapped out. Though I didn’t start the very first book with everything already set in stone. I had the broad brush strokes and the fine detail’s been added as I’ve gone along, as I’ve needed it for the purposes of the story I’m telling at that particular time.

    Looking forward? That’s blank canvas, beyond the outline for this particular trilogy at least. And I already know that the final book of the three that I’m working on will leave this world and its characters not quite where I expected when I started Dangerous Waters.

    One thing I’ve learned in the past decade or more of writing is to appreciate the unfolding momentum of a story as its internal logic becomes apparent, even when that takes the narrative away from what I had planned, often making my job as the writer all the more difficult. Now I realise that’s when my writing can become all the more rewarding.

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