Duology vs. trilogy – a battle to the death

Writing trilogies is rather straightforward.

That’s not to say it’s easy, because writing generally isn’t. As a rule, writing is difficult. But structurally, trilogies make sense. They have beginning books, middle books, and end books. Of course, generally those books must each have a beginning, middle, and end themselves.

But duologies are a bit different, what with having two books. Each book gets a beginning, middle, and end, but what about the series arc?

An illustration with glitter pens. So sorry for my handwriting.

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See how with trilogies, the middle of the middle book is the middle of the series, too? But with duologies, there is no middle book. So where does the middle go???

My friends, it falls in between the books. As if middles aren’t tricky enough, the middle of a duology plants its weird little flag right between the books. (This makes a great place for cliffhangers, hahahahaha, sorry readers I love you.)

Let’s look at what kind of things usually happen in middles. (Conveniently, I have written a blog post about middles before.)

My feeling is that middles should always make things worse, either by building on the already established conflict, or complicating it. In the middle of the middle book, that’s pretty straightforward. But at the climax of the first book? In the beginning of the second book? How do you also make that The Middle?

Carefully, gentle reader. Carefully.

So, in the climax of a duology’s first book, you can middle it up by changing the game to make things worse for the characters. Send in a new character. Reveal that something they thought they knew to be true . . . is actually false. This is the time to do the big turn — and make it really dramatic because this is the climax of a book, too.

In the beginning of the second book, it helps to try to pull back and see the longer arc of the story. What would happen here naturally? It really helped me to stop thinking of it as a beginning — at least for the first draft — and instead think of it as more of the middle. Like, if I’d finished the end of the first book and just kept on going like there was no break. Then, when I had my plot and character and everything down, I looked back to see where I needed reminders about the previous book, and how I could make this middle also a beginning.

So, you may be asking where is the battle to the death between trilogies and duologies. There isn’t one. That was mostly click bait. Trilogies and duologies are both awesome.

What are your thoughts about duologies and trilogies? Do you have any tips for wrapping your head around the long-arc structures?


11 Responses to Duology vs. trilogy – a battle to the death

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Feb 29 2016 at 10:51 am #

    I’m reminded of a book I read about the works of Gilbert & Sullivan, who wrote operettas which had a two-act structure. The author pointed out that Gilbert’s technique was to let the main characters have what appeared to be a happy ending in the first act, but the appearance was false. Frederick’s engagement to Mabel depends on a lie told by the Major-General, Nanki-Poo’s marriage to Yum-Yum is based on the idea that he will die in a month, etc. The second act takes this false happy ending and breaks it, not only restoring the original conflict but enhancing it, and then resolved it a different way, resulting in a proper happy ending.

    • Jodi Mar 16 2016 at 4:17 pm #

      Oh wow, that is really cool! I love the idea of a false happy ending in the middle. How sneaky. Thanks for sharing that!

  2. allreb Mar 2 2016 at 12:28 pm #

    I might be biased because my debut is the first half of a duo, but while I think it’s easy to consider the middle book of a trilogy the middle of a series… well, that’s a whole book of “middle” and it’s easy to get mired. As a reader, one thing I’ve noticed with trilogies is the first book is often a great story in and of itself and kicks off a great arch, and the third book ends the whole arch with a great climax, but sometimes the middle book can sort of feel like it’s just moving pieces around the chess board, getting everything into position for that great third book ending. It still needs to have its own arch *and* do that chessboard set up. That to me feels a lot more daunting than having a book one climax that can serve double-duty as a midpoint for the series arch.

    (To be fair, I didn’t set out to write a duo; my story fell pretty naturally into halves. I’m sure for other folks, their structural tendencies fall more towards thirds or quarters or whatever, and I may eat these words with future projects.)

    • Jodi Mar 16 2016 at 4:18 pm #

      I think some authors have a natural story structure. Duologies feel natural to you. Trilogies feel natural to others. Writing outside that comfortable structure can feel scary and different, but it’s also hugely educating!

  3. Mari Mar 7 2016 at 5:55 pm #

    Very helpful post AND comments. Thanks!

  4. Femke Mar 6 2019 at 3:16 pm #

    I know it’s been three years, but if I understand correctly: the second book of the duo could be seen as 90% climax 125% another point of no return and then so fort. Please correct me if I’m wrong 🙂

    • Jodi Mar 6 2019 at 7:06 pm #

      I think that’s fair!

      The second book in a duology needs to function as its own thing, of course, but also the second half of the entire story, so if you use a beat sheet and stretch it over both books, it should hit all those points, too.

  5. Mike Oct 23 2019 at 3:21 am #

    This makes me think of Lois Bujold’s Wide Green World series. It’s a duology of duologies.

    The first book has Dag and Fawn meet, go through a thrilling and dangerous experience, fall in love, and return to Fawn’s family to get married. But … they now have to try to be accepted by Dag’s people.

    The second book has them go to Dag’s people, where Fawn is not really accepted. Then there is a big dramatic incident. Finally there is a tribal council on the subject of Dag and Fawn, but Dag and Fawn short-circuit it by announcing that they are leaving on a quest to solve a huge problem that has just revealed itself to Dag.

    The third book (first in the second duology) is pretty much a classic riverboat story where Dag and Fawn join a boat crew and float down to the mouth of the river, having some adventures along the way. Also, Fawn’s brother (who came with them) falls in love with the boat captain, Berry, and eventually the announce their intention to marry at the end of the book.

    The fourth book completes the there-and-back-again structure as Dag and Fawn travel back up to the headlands of the river. Along the way they finally figure out what to do about the problem they have been trying to work on since the end of the first duology. It ends with them happily settling down near the home of Berry and Wit (Fawn’s brother).

    • Marc Vun Kannon Oct 23 2019 at 10:01 am #

      I’m also reminded of Jack Chalker’s Well World series. % books long, but the second and third are one story, and the fourth and fifth are one story.

  6. Joab Stieglitz Jan 4 2021 at 9:47 pm #

    Interesting stuff to read. There’s always the option of deciding for yourself who you are and what you’ll become. I have a blog on Things to Remember in Writing a Trilogy
    Hope this will help.

    Joab Stieglitz

  7. Joab May 31 2021 at 10:00 pm #

    Loved this blog Jodi <3, very well-written! A great ending of a story is one of the bases of a memorable book. Once readers open a book, they tend to anticipate what the ending will be.

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