The Trilogy, Why For Art Thou?

Oh, trilogies! How you beguile me. Spending more time with beloved characters is a siren’s song. More often than not I just want closure. Can’t we find satisfying conclusions without the bloated second and third course? I long for the days when one novel was enough. When writers like Joanna Russ and Robert Heinlein challenged themselves and their readers with something different every time out. How have we come to a day where the default is a regurgitation of sameness for three volumes (or more)?

I have a theory, but it’s going to take me a little while to get there… bear with me.

It’s often assumed the trilogy is a relic of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Assumptions are often wrong, like the time I assumed cod pieces were appropriate work attire. Tolkien’s novels were published as a trilogy, although it had nothing to do with how Tolkien wanted his story told. It wasn’t even a marketing decision by his publisher. Rather, it was a reality of the time. Paper shortages abounded in post-war England and disposable income was tight. Releasing the novel in three installments kept prices low.

Another problem in the theory is Tolkien absolutely viewed The Simarillion as part of the novel. He wanted it published alongside Lord of the Rings. The facts line up to make Tolkien’s iconic work either an absurdly long single novel, a duology, or a prologue plus six books and five appendices. There’s also a chance all that was concocted to protect Tolkien from the hordes of deranged readers (or just me) from heckling him in the netherworld about run-on series with no hope of ending. More likely, the concept of the trilogy never entered the wizened master’s mind.

It doesn’t mean that today’s authors and editors aren’t still influenced by Lord of the Rings’ final form. Let’s assume for a moment they aren’t. I’ll come back to it though, I promise.

In truth, the trilogy is far older than Tolkien, harkening back to the earliest forms of fiction. In the Dionysian festivals of ancient Greece, trilogies of plays were performed. The Oresteia is the only surviving trilogy of the time, reportedly performed for the first time at the festival in Athens in 458 BC. Around the same time in India, Mahabharata was written. Or at least Wikipedia tells me this is true. More recently, Henryk Sienkiewicz, who later won a Nobel Prize for literature, wrote a series of three books called, with no irony intended, The Trilogy. The first, By Fire and Sword, was published in 1884. I could keep doing this, but I think I’ve made the point—trilogies have been here for a long time.

Why though? The most obvious answer is it simply mirrors the three act structure proposed by Aristotle. Simply put, the Greek thinker described stories as having a beginning, middle, and end. A more fleshed out description would call it Set up, Conflict, and Resolution. Perhaps the trilogy is merely a reflection of that, in which each novel represents one of the three acts as Chevy Chase is the Dusty Bottoms of the Three Amigos (that metaphor makes no sense, but Dusty Bottoms). This seems like a logical explanation. It also seems far too easy. There’s no why. And while you can convict someone of a crime without motive, it sure helps to know why someone chased Elizabeth Bear around with French baguette at WorldCon. (Ok, this didn’t happen.)

The answer must be a psychological or physical reality of the human brain. It may be a leap of logic, but there’s such a preponderance of trilogies that there must be more weight behind their existence than mere historical precedent. I present the Rule of Three. When a celebrity dies we always presume two more will be on their way. Our speech patterns often use threes—ready, set, go. Good, bad, and ugly. The third time’s the charm. Lift on three. Ready, aim, fire. You see where I’m going. The Rule of Three presumes that everything memorable and effective happens in threes. But, once again, there’s the nagging question—why?

Two is the lowest number the mind can use to form patterns, and it is human nature to find those patterns. But patterns are about as interesting as repeated beatings with a rubber hose. Or, for someone with masochistic tendencies, repeated eating of S’mores. The third in a series is what changes expectations. It’s the surprise that breaks the pattern that makes something interesting, and we’re always looking for it. Maybe, we’re looking for it because our brains inherently want to group things together in way that data can be digested. There’s a name for that phenomenon!

The clustering illusion, basically, is the tendency to perceive small samples from random distributions as having disproportionate significance. Celebrities dying in three are a perfect example, as is the notion that Derek Jeter (Yankee great) is a clutch hitter. Just because Jeter always gets a hit when we’re paying attention, doesn’t mean he actually always gets a hit. Our brain remembers and groups the times he does, and the result is an impression that Derek Jeter is the Ursula Le Guin of professional baseball. This illusion of pattern is easily compounded with something called the confirmation bias. Our minds subconsciously suppress the times Jeter fails because we want to observe a pattern and draw causation from it. Regardless of what we call it, the fact is that the human brain craves patterns. It wants to make sense of data.

Does the trilogy exist because our brain wants it to? Do editors and publishers buy trilogies because of an innate psychological resonance that’s hard coded into the human mind?

Hell if I know. But, I asked a few to find out. The response, generally speaking, was that authors pitch trilogies, not the other way around. Huh, that was quick. There are exceptions though! Thank God.

Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns was a standalone expanded into three novels after its initial submission. TC McCarthy’s first draft of Germline was a novella expanded in to three books at his (eventual) editor’s request. Also, in some cases an editor will see a world or characters with more to explore. An author, often someone new to the field and unsure of how his work will be received, hasn’t fleshed out the possibility of additional stories. I also learned something about the math of series, which makes me wonder why the trilogy exists at all.

If book one sells, let’s say, 1000 copies, then book two will sell 800, and book three 600, and so on and so forth. When a series is a hit, the second and third books will have closer sales totals and the decline becomes less steep. The endgame is for the first book to continue growing in sales as subsequent books are released, dragging the following book along in its wake. When it works you might end up with Charlaine Harris’s latest Sookie Stackhouse novel selling a quarter million copies in the first week because of pent up demand accrued over years. In other words, editors don’t chase trilogies or series, but try to buy the best books in a structure best suited to the work that will sell.

Which brings us back to my first assumption, are authors writing trilogies because Lord of the Rings tells us it’s the one true path? Probably. Not really. Don’t you love clarity?

I say probably, because it’s pretty likely that certain writers compose trilogies because it’s a story telling structure that is familiar, both for the reasons I’ve described in this article and because of things like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and a host of other iconic fantasy series, were presented this way.

I say not really, because I believe we perceive the trilogy as a dominant story telling medium in genre precisely because of the things I talk about here—cluster illusions and confirmation bias. We bemoan the trilogy because we see the pattern we want to exist, which really has no reflection of its dominance in the market place. Are there a lot of trilogies? Yes. There are also hundreds of other types of series. Urban fantasy, for example, is largely composed on long run-on episodic stories. Epic fantasy, still pleasantly plump with trilogies, often expands far beyond three books.

While the trilogy exists and thrives, I would argue we see the trilogy as a dominant story telling structure because we want to. Those of us observing the marketplace as finding the patterns we want to find in our own illusions of pattern and causation.

Or I’m experiencing a special kind of confirmation bias. One in which I’m always right.

Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.


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