Jeffrey Archer and The Art of the Trilogy

Jeffrey Archer and The Art of the Trilogy

I’ve recently finished reading Jeffrey Archer’s The Sins of the Father. It’s the second in his trilogy ‘The Clifton Chronicles‘ based in Bristol around the time of WWII. I didn’t realise it was part of a series when I bought it, and am very glad someone in my Bookclub knew and suggested we read the first installment first.

They’re both cracking reads – they’re never going to win prizes for great literature, but as something to entertain and pass the time on trains or, as last month, planes, they work very well.  The writing gallops along at a fair clip, the scenes change from Bristol to New York to PoW camp, from crisis to crisis and from character to character well (although some characters are rather more caricatures, and some crises are resolved rather too quickly and neatly), and the central characters are engaging and, for the most part, believable.

My biggest criticism, however, is of Archer’s poor execution of the art of the trilogy.

When reading a good trilogy, you should never feel like you are. A trilogy is not simply one book that got a bit too long so you chopped it into three; each book must stand alone and tell a story which is complete in its own right, but somehow incomplete without its two partners.

Each book must tie up most of its loose ends and come to a satisfying conclusion so that your reader can choose whether or not her or she wishes to continue. To stop the book in the middle of a scene, as Archer does at the end of book two, simply annoys your reader and makes him or her feel cheated. Yes, you want your reader to want to buy the next installment. Yes, you want him/her to feel sad at leaving the characters behind and intrigued as to what might happen to them next, but no, you can’t create that by leaving their lives hanging in the balance. An inconclusive ending doth not a satisfying story make.

I want to know what the outcome of the debate with which The Sins of the Father closes will be, but I feel so cheated and trapped that I will not buy part 3 when it comes out. I may have a sneaky peek in the library, but I refuse to be swindled out of more money by a cheap trick like this.

My reading experience to date suggests that second books in a trilogy are rather tricky, particularly, it seems, if the series has been written with the intention of it being a trilogy. Book One has established the characters, given them a crisis – or a number of intertwining crises – and brought them to a resolution, while leaving one or two of the secondary questions up in the air. Book Two has to introduce new readers to what has gone before, re-establish the same characters, give them a new crisis, and bring that to a satisfying conclusion while again leaving some questions – and preferably some of the same questions from Book One – unanswered.

The other trilogy I read this year – The Hunger Games – did this well. Book one is about a girl fighting for her life. She wins, and gets to go home. The end. But wait, what about the two boys who are in love with her, which will she pick? It doesn’t matter that much, but it’s enough of a tantalising thread to want to read book two and find out (plus, you like the characters and have enjoyed the story so much you want to know more). Book two can’t just be about their relationships, though, because that’s not what the series is; it needs to be about the Hunger Games again, with the relationships forming a key part of the plot.

By this time, though, it’s clear that there will be a third installment, so the love triangle has to keep simmering away with enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, but without frustrating the reader so much that he/she switches off.

Book two can often feel like a transition book. It sort of has a story of its own, but its purpose is just to develop the characters more and move them into position for the real denouement of the story.

A master can minimise this by creating a new stand-alone story in the middle of the wider narrative, but from all the trilogies I’ve read or seen as movies, it seems that this is incredibly difficult to achieve. Jeffrey Archer appears not to have even tried.

His story picks up as though it were simply the next page. Any reader stumbling on this book unaware that it was part of a series (as I initially was) would doubtless be terribly confused, and Archer does nothing to recap and catch them up with what has happened so far or who these people might be. Book Two makes no attempt to stand alone, but simply continues the tale that was left hanging at the end of Book One.

As I said, it is a cracking read, but it would have benefitted from Archer’s editor telling him to go back and work Book One up to a proper conclusion, then think of a new plot twist for Book Two before making Book Three a satisfying conclusion to the tale. There is enough material, and enough space, to make each book 50% longer, which would make each infinitely more satisfying.

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2 Comments On This Topic
  1. Alisa Russell
    on Jan 22nd at 1:28 pm

    The editor I know would not have been thrilled with what you describe and probably would have passed on the book or made Archer do extensive revisions. Question for you though. I do enjoy books in this time period. Is it worth getting from the library? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 22nd at 6:10 pm

      Yes, I think it must be a nightmare to be the Editor of someone as famous as Archer!

      Yes, the books are definitely worth getting from the library. You’ll whip through them in no time, and they’re interesting insights into some of the culture of that era (especially in an area very different from the more common London or countryside settings).

      Enjoy!

      Reply

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