It’s happened to so many of our favorites. I won’t name names, but we’ve all read an epic fantasy series or a long line of urban fantasy novels and thought, Gee… The first three were so much better. It happens with movie franchises, television series, with anything that comes with a long list of sequels. Sometimes a multi-season show, or a multi-book series, continues to work for us. Sometimes we just stay with it for the fanservice, but not always. But it used to be a truism that the natural state of a series of novels was three: the trilogy. More was pushing it.
What factors in a series make it less interesting or exciting to read after the second or third book comes out?
One thing I see frequently is characters who start with a fascinating range of problems, but then they solve them, and gain power and insight, sometimes in the form of magic or technology now at their disposal, sometimes merely in wisdom. That’s fine – what you want for your characters – except that suddenly the author either has to cook up bigger and bigger problems, bad guys or whatever to compensate for the increased abilities of the protagonists (looking at you, comic book franchises). This happens in video games sometimes, where the protagonist becomes overpowered, or collects an OP weapon or ability, and suddenly the challenge is gone.
The opposite problem also exists. If your protagonists solve their problems, but the cost is so great that it’s much more difficult for them to solve the next ones, and by the fourth book they’re limping on the shreds of their abilities and the whole thing just becomes massively grim – well, you’re probably going to lose me. We want to see our protagonists suffer and learn, but not be beaten down into the emotionally broken remnants of their former selves, still somehow struggling against their fate.
Repetition can also be deadly. If your characters are facing problems that are way, way too similar to the ones they faced before, it just looks lazy.
Often, the problem is that the first novel is mostly world building and character development and team building, with a little story wrapped around it, and the second novel is a story wherein the characters use all that world and team they’ve built, and then by the third novel, the author has no idea what else to do.
But take heart. If you look at series that did it right, you’ll find they are many and varied. Usually, the author has the characters learn and grow and increase their abilities – but then the ground shifts under them and the problem is a whole different thing this time. Or teams break up and reshuffle, or bad guys learn from their mistakes and turn into good guys and everyone has to deal with the consequences of their actions and their trust issues. Or the whole setting changes, bringing a new host of issues. Or the rules change. Or…
Shake it up, authors. Don’t get caught in traps of letting your characters have too much power to keep their obstacles relevant, just because you like them and so do your readers. Don’t fail to consider the consequences of success, as well as the consequences of failure. Sequelitis can be overcome!