The four hobbits from The Lord of the Rings

I promise no one is raging that these four didn't start the story as badasses.

Every time we critique the first book in a series, the first movie in a trilogy, or the first season of a TV show, it is inevitable that the comments section will flood with folks demanding to know how we could do such a thing. Don’t we know there’s more to the story than this? How can we judge the first installment on its own?

Oddly, this never happens when we praise something. When I dissected the worldbuilding of Three Parts Dead, I noticed a distinct lack of people asking how I could praise just the first book in a series. What if the later books ruined everything I said was good? 

Obviously, a lot of this sentiment is little more than fan ragers looking for any excuse to invalidate critique of something they like. But there is also some genuine confusion here. A book series, film trilogy, or TV show could each be considered a single story, so how and why would we critique just part of it? I’ve discussed this before over several articles, and now it’s time to put the salient points all in one place.*

Every Moment Matters 

Anakin and Ahsoka from Clone Wars
I’m sure these two were always the beloved characters they ended up as.

There is a pervasive idea among some people – generally fans of whatever story we might be discussing – that it doesn’t matter how the audience feels in any particular moment, so long as a story’s content is in service of something later. This philosophy can be applied across multiple books, within one book, or even to a single chapter.

You might be bored to tears because there’s too much technobabble, but you need all that technobabble to understand the hero’s brilliant solution in the climax. Sure, the world might be confusing because you’re expected to memorize 42 varieties of elf, but that’ll be important three books from now when a 42-way elven war breaks out. It’s not much fun to read about a puppy-kicking protagonist, but it’s important that you stick with the story for the catharsis of the hero learning not to kick puppies

Suffice to say, this is not a productive way to look at storytelling, especially for storytellers themselves. The most practical issue is that audiences have no reason to push past boring or confusing parts of the story. Both experienced and newbie authors have a habit of maintaining the same patterns throughout the entirety of a story. That means if there’s a problem early in the story, it’ll probably be there for the rest of the story too, whether that’s one book or ten.

Even if there actually is a later payoff, and said payoff is better than my snarky examples, it doesn’t magically undo how unpleasant getting to that payoff was. Nothing can do that, thanks to the linear nature of space-time. Some people might weight a story’s ending so heavily that this can actually work out for them, but it’s pretty unrealistic to expect everyone else to feel that way. 

From a storyteller’s standpoint, if a trilogy’s premise requires that book one be boring or confusing so it can set up books two and three, that’s not a reason for readers to buckle down and push through the unpleasant stuff. Instead, it’s a sign that the premise needs to be revised so that the first book can be enjoyable too. 

For a real example, consider the Clone Wars TV show. The first season, along with most of the second season, is rough. Really rough. Anakin is the same wooden grump we know so well from the prequels, Ahsoka is an annoying child sidekick, the bad guys alternate between laughable incompetence and mustache-twirling evil, and Ziro the Hutt competes with Jar Jar Binks for the title of Star Wars’ worst alien.

The show gets better. Much better. Anakin matures into a far more interesting and tragic character than we ever get in the prequel films. Ahsoka becomes a fan favorite, first for her upbeat attitude in the face of long odds and then for her crushing disillusionment with the Jedi Order. The later seasons are some of Star Wars’ best storytelling, but we didn’t need the terrible first season to get there. Better writing and direction could have made the show a classic much earlier, and saying “it gets better later” doesn’t do anything for someone stuck reviewing one of Ziro’s inane criminal schemes

At a smaller scale, writers miss the chance to make easy improvements because they think a later payoff is all that matters. If beta readers report that the protagonist isn’t sympathetic, that can be remedied by giving the character problems that aren’t their fault. But an author is less likely to do that if they think everything will be fine once the hero loses it all at the start of book two. 

No One Thinks Unresolved Arcs Are Mistakes

A still image from Return of the King, showing Gandalf and the Eagles flying to save Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom
No one is confusing this for a plot arc.

Once we filter out the fan-rage interference, there’s a genuine fear among authors whenever a first book, season, or movie is critiqued: that they’ll be instantly judged for arcs that haven’t resolved yet. It’s easy to imagine readers throwing a book away in disgust because the murderer’s identity isn’t revealed in chapter one or abandoning a character halfway through their growth from naive farm kid to grizzled veteran. 

Fortunately, this isn’t something to worry about, as it’s very easy to tell an unresolved arc from a story element that isn’t working. At the end of the novel A Game of Thrones, it’s clear that the political situation in Westeros remains an unresolved conflict. Through dialogue and narration, we see that the war has just started, so we know Martin didn’t forget to tie things up at the end. Nor are we expecting a resolution so early, because Martin already gave us a satisfying conclusion to the first book: the execution of Eddard Stark. That death signals the end of negotiation-based conflicts and the start of open war. 

Compare that to something like the Eagle Problem* from The Fellowship of the Ring. This isn’t an unresolved arc; it’s just a situation where the characters ignore an obvious advantage. When the story’s main conflict is about heroes reaching a destination, and there are eagles who can carry people, readers will naturally wonder why the eagles don’t carry the heroes to their destination. Mordor doesn’t seem to have much in the way of air defenses, and the book is pretty clear that Gwaihir the Windlord holds Gandalf in high esteem. 

Tolkien could certainly have offered an explanation in The Two Towers or Return of the King, but it would still have felt like a mistake in Fellowship. Something that obvious really needs to be addressed in the moment. As it happens, Tolkien didn’t offer such an explanation. In fact, by book three’s ending, the problem has only gotten worse. Not only is it obvious that the Great Eagles could easily sweep Nazgûl and Fellbeast alike from the sky, but we also see that they’re indeed willing to fly all the way to Mt. Doom. That’s exactly what they do when Frodo needs to be airlifted back to Gondor.

As long as an unresolved arc is clearly marked, readers and critics alike will easily pick up on it. That said, leaving things unresolved isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. If a story has no resolution at its end, that’s a problem worth criticizing, even if the next book resolves everything.

Likewise, if an author leaves too many things hanging, it’s reasonable to question whether any conclusion exists that could possibly resolve them all. You might remember how even in Lost’s first season, there were simply too many open mysteries to ever be satisfactorily explained. The Way of Kings has the same problem with its Parshendi. So much about the Parshendi doesn’t make sense that it’s difficult to imagine an uncontrived scenario for them, no matter how many books the series ends up having. 

Character arcs are similar to external arcs. If a character ends the first book with unresolved issues, that won’t be a problem so long as it feels like some progress has been made. No one looks at a story like The Mandalorian and demands to know why the hero doesn’t start the first episode with healthy emotional bonds; we’re happy to watch him develop those over time. However, there is an important caveat for such arcs: a character has to be engaging at the beginning of their arc as well as the end. Audiences are happy to watch the protagonist develop over multiple books. They’re less happy when the protagonist starts off as an obnoxious bully and slowly transforms into someone who’s fun to read about. 

Good Critique Requires Examining the First Installment

Cover art for The World of Ice and Fire
How many football posts does Martin have to make before I can critique this?

For storytellers to improve their craft, they need to accept critique, and they can’t wait until they’ve finished a series to get it. If they don’t polish up the first book, they’ll have trouble writing a great series in the first place.

This isn’t always easy to remember. The internet is full of superfans who will happily explain that any problem with their favorite story doesn’t count because it’s fixed in the sequel, but those do not represent most of the people who will read your book. When a story has that level of devotion, it’s usually because the author is already famous and successful, giving them room to make mistakes that most of us could never get away with.

Alternatively, sometimes an author is so good at one element of storytelling that fans assume everything else must be just as good. Someone who’s a master of character development surely wouldn’t add in dragons that don’t make any sense; it must be a deep worldbuilding mystery for part two! Needless to say, this level of skill isn’t something we can just assume we’ll have, either. 

If a series can only be judged in its entirety, that would make critique absurdly impractical. Any series could protect itself from criticism just by being really long. Most critics don’t have the time to read a 14-book mega-series, so those stories would be unreasonably difficult to talk about.

That’s assuming they’re even complete. New books couldn’t be critiqued at all, since it takes several years at minimum to finish a series, to say nothing of series that never get finished at all. When would it be okay to critique an incomplete series? Do we have to wait until the author clearly abandons it or until they die? What if the publisher hires someone else to finish the series for them?

You can see how unworkable that paradigm is. It’s also unfair to series where the first installment is excellent but the rest goes downhill. Season one of Heroes is still good, despite what came after!

The bottom line is that stories are sold as separate products, even when they’re part of a series. If a book needs its sequel to be good, then why are they sold separately? We can all see how weird it would be if companies sold us half a smartphone, then made us wait two years to buy the other half.* Stories are the same way. If something about them isn’t working when first published, broadcast, or streamed, then that’s a problem, even if the sequel eventually fixes it. 

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