Dec 26 2013 11:00am

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.

Sky Thibedeau
1. SkylarkThibedeau
As Yogurt says to Lone Star "It's 'Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money". I'd say that's especially true of Peter Jackson's Hobbit.
2. hoopmanjh
Don't forget Dante! And there were other fantasy trilogies earlier in the 20th Century -- E.R. Eddison's (admittedly incomplete) Zimiamvia trilogy and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy.

But I think it wasn't really Tolkien who cemented the form -- it was the "second wave" that started in the 1970's -- Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books spring to mind; was there an earlier example that was actually marketed as a trilogy? Even Shannara started off as a standalone book, although it quickly started expanding.
Lady Pirate
3. Lady Pirate
Is it really an over abundance of trilogies? So often I read "trilogies" to realize it's a book with a bloated two-book sequel. (The same goes for movies, another form of storytelling.)

I don't think trilogies are the go-to standard these days. I see a lot of fellow writers selling their first book with a complete plot, beginning, middle, end, then in edits with their publisher having to add in threads that could lead to a sequel but don't impact the actual plot of the current book.
Paul Weimer
4. PrinceJvstin
Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns was a standalone expanded into three novels after its initial submission.

Also importantly, the PoT could have been even longer (as Mark talks about in an afterword to Emperor). He decided to short-circuit the Robert Jordan/Terry Goodkind/Terry Brooks model. That is a whole nother problem entirely, perhaps.
Joe G
5. joeinformatico
A few reasons:

-LotR gets released in paperback in the US in the early 60s, becoming a big hit on college campuses and inspiring the next generation of fantasy writers. Terry Brooks is among the first of this crop, and the most successful because the readers want more like Tolkien, establishing a trend in fantasy fiction that would dominate for over 30 years.

- Star Wars cements the power of three part stories in SF&F circles.

-This may no longer be true, but at a talk by Robert J. Sawyer he noted Barnes and Noble preferred that trade paperbacks be limited to 250,000 words unless the author had a proven sales reputation, so they could fit 5 books per display gondola (shelf space being at a premium). If you had a longer story to tell, you needed more books.

- In the same talk, he related that in the early 2000s his UK publisher told him UK genre readers overwhelmingly preferred to read series.

- Especially these days, both publishers and authors like having dependable streams of income. If you have an early success, better to build on it than take a risk, is the thinking.
Lady Pirate
6. Moanique
20 years ago I sat in a small room at a well-known science fiction convention and listened as a famous writer--one that everyone who reads this site would know and who has published dozens of novels--talk about the fact that he couldn't sell a standlone SF novel to save his life. Publishers demanded a series, be it three books or whatever.

I don't mind series books per se but when publishers tend to see everything in that frame then stories better suited to a single book are going to be padded out and published regardless.

Someone like Clifford D. Simak would have a difficult time making his way in the business these days. And that's a loss. I have yet to see the self-publishing market pick this back up to any great degree since it appears that most popular books there are also constructed around being a trilogy/quadrology/series whatever. The market is now conditioned to it.
j p
7. sps49
The Silmarillion was published posthumously. How could Tolkien have demanded itbe published with the rest of the books two decades previously?
Sky Thibedeau
8. SkylarkThibedeau
Another thing with publishers is that they can cancel the third volume in your trilogy if the other two didn't sell as well as your other books. That's what happened with Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman and their 'Starsheild' series. The third book was cancelled by Random House and the Heroine Merinda Neskat is stuck in Literary Limbo.
Lady Pirate
9. Nabarg
The first version of the Silmarillion was written long befordra LOTR. Tolkien rewrote it hos whole life, and wanted a version of it published along with the trilogy. The publishers dissuaded him, and he continued to work on it.
Lady Pirate
10. Lynne Stringer
Three acts work. First act: orientation. Second act: Complication. Third act: resolution. Seven is another number that works. Personally, I think it should only be done if you have an idea that goes that way. Padding it out to make it a trilogy is a bad idea. I've written a fantasy trilogy myself and I only did it that way because it worked that way. My new fantasy novel will be a stand alone novel.
Pernilla Leijonhufvud
11. Therru
The problem with your main example is that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy; it's a single novel consisting of (in fact) six 'books', published in three volumes. The definition of a trilogy is that each œuvre (book, film, play, etc) is a finished, separate narrative, although tied in with the other two. This is clearly not the case with The Lord of the Rings, in which each volume carries on the narrative directly from the previous one, and the story isn't concluded until the end of volume three. Three volumes =/= trilogy.

You might conceivably call The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a trilogy, though, if you overlook the fact that the Silmarillion was published posthumously.
Brian R
12. Mayhem
Can I add a shoutout to the Increasingly Inaccurately Named Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy as the cover quote informs me.
Constance Sublette
13. Zorra
Novels were published in three parts all through the Victorian era, long before Henryk Sienkiewicz published his Trilogy -- which is quite wonderful for those who enjoy this sort of thing, including the style and rhetorical flourishes of a time and place long gone. Yes, I am one of those. I have found such treasures in these novels.

Unlike the Victorian 3-parter or LotR, his was a true trilogy too -- these are three separate novels, all stand alones, but take place within a particular historical milieu (1648 - 1764 signaling Poland's decline and eventual dissolution, in which it is consumed by several European powers and finally erased all together in 1795. It was a huge patriotic venture on Sienkiewicz's part, part of the patriots' long struggle for the reestablishment of Poland as an independent state -- part of the reason doubtless that he was given the Nobel Prize for literature. Poland regained national status only after WWI, in 1918. This is quite a tale in itself!

Love, C.
14. hoopmanjh
Dumas' Musketeer books were also a trilogy. And strangely prescient in that the third installment was too long to be published in a single volume.
Lady Pirate
15. Tehanu
Ack! There's a perfectly good term for what Lord of the Rings is: it's not a trilogy, it's a three-decker. It's a single novel (and as Tolkien himself observed, the biggest problem is it's too short) that happened to be published in 3 volumes for economic reasons (paper shortage, yes). It also has appendices, which is a bit more unusual in fiction than in non-fiction. But if it were a trilogy, each of the 3 volumes would be a stand-alone novel, not a long connected narrative.

Anyhow, three-deckers were very popular in Regency and Victorian times for exactly the same reason: if the 1st volume tanked, the publisher didn't need to publish the other 2.
Lady Pirate
16. Warren B.
Well that was a lot of words to say not very much.

On the topic of words, I'm not entirely sure you know what 'wizened' means.
Walker White
17. Walker
But I think it wasn't really Tolkien who cemented the form -- it was the "second wave" that started in the 1970's -- Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books spring to mind
If so, it is ironic, because these are examples for how not to write a trilogy. The Illearth War is one of the greatest examples of an unreadable middle book where no progress is made.
Lady Pirate
18. Stephanie Saulter
Mark Lawrence isn't as unusual as some might think. I too wrote a stand-alone novel. When my now-agent read the manuscript and emailed to say he'd like to represent me, in the same breath he asked if it was the start of a trilogy or series, and if not could I make it so? It wasn't something I had even considered up to that point, but he said it would make it a lot easier for him to sell the book; publishers consider it a lower risk to buy a pipeline of two or three than a single volume. I was amazed to learn this; in the industries I'd been accustomed to, buyers prefer to make the smallest commitment possible. But naturally it was a wonderful prospect for a new and unknown author, and in the course of writing the book I had thought about how the world I'd created would develop and what would happen to the characters; so I sketched out ideas for two more books and sent them off to him. And that was what he sold to a publisher a month later: a trilogy, which is what everyone now assumes I must have had in mind all along.
In the two years since, I've learned that while many authors do plan trilogies/series from the outset, many others have experiences like mine. The trilogy phenomenon is largely driven by publishers' perceptions of what readers want - which seems to be contradicted by the diminishing sales figures for the later books. But if you're the author and that's the offer on the table, you're not going to say no, are you?
I'm delighted to have the opportunity to write three books and know that they will all be published (and in my case while they are connected by setting, characters and chronology of events, they are fundamentally stand-alone novels), and I believe that they are all good books (I wouldn't send them out into the world otherwise). But the fact that I've ended up writing a trilogy doesn't mean I'm wedded to the form. It's driven by the commercial reality of what it takes to get published, especially at the start of your career when you have no pre-existing fan base who can be relied upon to buy anything you write.
Justin Landon
19. jdiddyesquire
@Walker -- Pretty sure Tolkein's corpse is pretty damn wizened.
Shelly wb
20. shellywb
From my recollection, trilogies started popping up bigtime around 1970 and the next few years, with the Dune series and of course the Earthsea trilogy and the Pern books. I remember the bookstores flooded with those and trilogies by Brooks, Donaldson, Kurtz, and any number of less memorable authors.

The first trilogy I actually read was the Foundation trilogy.
Constance Sublette
21. Zorra
@14 -- The overt The Three Musketeers books -- published serially like so much Victorian era fiction -- were only one section in Dumas's extended French history from Louis XIII through Napoleon as fiction. An astonishing creator in so many ways, that Dumas ... son of the San Domingue mulatto, General Dumas, broken by Napoleon as part of his purge of all people of color from any adminstrative position or in le Grande Armée. Another famous achiever among those brilliant men of color who emerged in France in the decades before and during the Revolution was the Chevalier de Saint-George.

Love, C.
22. hoopmanjh
@21 -- Yeah, I definitely need to read more Dumas. I know they were intially serialized; I was reading the Oxford editions, which were published in a total of five volumes.

To return to the topic more generally, I think trilogies (or three-deckers or what have you) existed prior to the 1970s, but the 1970s was when the concept of the "trilogy" for marketing purposes really took off.
Jared Shurin
23. Jared_Shurin
@joe: "Robert J. Sawyer he noted Barnes and Noble preferred that trade paperbacks be limited to 250,000 words"

Good god, I should hope so.

@Justin: I really like this post, but the main counter-argument (?) - I'm not sure Tolkien's intent matters. However it happened, the books were published as a trilogy, they were a huge success and, like everything else Tolkien did (intentionally or not) it became the de facto fantasy law.

That actually still fits the pattern you're describing now: where people are being 'urged' into trilogies whether or not the work was ever intended as such.

What's also interesting is, as mentioned above, how the Jordan/Martin axis-of-neverendingness has impacted it, in that, if sales do maintain a certain level, the series can go go from a trilogy to something... larger (see: Weeks, Brett and until-I-see-evidence-otherwise-Rothfuss).
Lady Pirate
24. Brandoch Daha
@20. shellywb

Any point in pointing out that Dune itself - never mind the two follow-up novels - is a three-decker novel?
Lady Pirate
25. Cool Bev
Does anyone recall who declared that, for marketing purposes, all books would be referred to as trilogies: trilogies of 1, 2, 3 or any number of books. For instance, the Book of the New Sun is a trilogy of 5 books. Simple, no?
Lady Pirate
26. Paronomasia
How about Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy of trilogies with a related/unrelated trilogy (Alloy of Law trilogy) thrown in there. Saga habit.
Lady Pirate
27. William Campbell Powell
LotR a trilogy? Maybe, but when I first encountered it as a schoolboy in the early 1970s in the UK, it was readily available as a single volume, albeit with the appendices significantly edited down. Hard choice, but I saved my pocket-money till I could afford the 3 volume set (and the appendices that my schoolfriends raved about). Note the words: Three Volume Set. Nobody called it a trilogy.
Lady Pirate
28. Agricola
Trilogies are all very well - but I have had a series spoilt by the time delay and not remembering key facts. Another anoying habit is when the third part is not published to match - eg 2 hard backs followed by a trade paper back. For me, after Tolkien I guess the Foundation books came next, followed by the vast splintering of stories that was Moorcock. Then they just kept coming!
Lady Pirate
29. SueBursztynski
I am not a fan of trilogies(LOTR is one novel and I have it in a single volume with full appendices). I hate being forced to buy three books just to finish a story and so do a lot of other people. I once proposed and led a con panel on "The Dreaded Trilogy". The hall was packed, I suddenly realised I was the only panel member who hadn't written a trilogy and felt rather sorry for my fellow panellists because that was a hostile audience out there, and it wasn't their fault, was it? It is indeed a marketing decision. Stephanie, good luck to you, but I wouldn't be so confident that you're guaranteed three sales when you're asked to write a trilogy. I have known "trilogies" to be scrapped after a cliffhanger ending to Book 2 because sales weren't good, in one case after four volumes of a six volume set, by a well known writer, so even fame doesn't guarantee you anything. I've seen the lot published, but quickly remaindered. You might also have the experience of the commissioning editor being thrown out after you've done one volume and the publisher no longer interested. Contracts always have a get-out-of-jail escape clause somewhere.
Lady Pirate
30. bluemeanies
I don't know how unique I am but I like trilogies/series (especially completed ones) because it allows me to have something to read next knowing I am likely to like it. I'll frequently buy the fist volume and then only get the rest if I liked it. Or get the first volume in a library. And I'll get all the rest currently in paperback after the debut verdict. So I guess I contribute to the publishers pattern somewhat- a dropoff after using the first book as a sampler. Some of them might be still waiting on a shelf for me to sample. Buying a standalone feels different, knowing it will be over when the book is done can be discoraging if your not as adventurous as you'd like to be as a reader.
Andrew Mason
31. AnotherAndrew
I believe Hitchhiker's was never called a trilogy until the fourth book was published.

Foundation, like LOTR, is an unintentional trilogy: it was planned as a series of short stories.
Lady Pirate
32. Abigail H Endsley
Trilogies are great because if I'm often not ready to let go of characters at the end of the first story. I'm usually excited to know there are two more books out there!

But then there are those times that you pick up a book, read all the way through, and then realize that the story doesn't conclude and you have to wait until book two comes out! Ugh, I thought this was a stand-alone! CURSE YOU THREE-PART STORIES!
Lady Pirate
33. rfresa
I enjoy trilogies when they either feel like one book, or each of the three has its own arc. I don't like trilogies when the second is a long slog of character torment just to pad out the pages and make it into a trilogy, but the author is saving all the good stuff for part 3. Robin Hobb's trilogies are a perfect example of this. Each of her trilogies has a horrible second book that almost made me give up on the series altogether. Seriously, if you only have enough story for two books, just write two books! Or just call it a series and keep writing as long as you feel like it, or until you die.

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