Fantasy literature is defined by trilogies. This was probably directly a result of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, a formative cornerstone of the genre. But I’ve been having a problem with trilogies I’ve been reading lately: nothing happens in the first book.
Trilogies and Fantasy
Tolkein’s famous series was never meant to be a trilogy. He wrote it as a single work but his publisher for economic reasons released it as three books.
Other famous trilogies in fantasy include The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin, His Dark Material by Philip Pullman, and the more recent Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
Trilogies (and series) make sense for publishers. A quick look over at the Amazon Best Seller list showed that 18 of the top 20 books were parts of a series.
Trilogies and series sell.
Part of the reason behind this is once you get readers hooked, they will continue to buy the rest of the books in the series.
What a Trilogy Should Do
For me, the strength of a trilogy is two-fold:
- each book can be a complete standalone book with an arc for the character and plot that reaches a resolution, and
- through the entire three works, a larger arc for character and plot spans the three books and is resolved.
A great example of this is the Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis. Each book has a sense of completion of the main question in the novel, and then the entire series completes a larger arc. I finished the first book satisfied, invested in the world, and ready to see where the author would take me next.
Each of the books in this trilogy could exist as stand alone novels.
Another way to look at it is like this: Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end.
So a well told trilogy would break down like this: beginning-middle-end (first book), beginning-middle-end (second book), beginning-middle-end (third book).
Unfortunately are not being told this way.
The Trouble with Trilogies
The problem I have is when ideas that are best contained to a single book are stretched out to become a trilogy because this is more marketable and salable.
The primary symptom of these wannabe trilogies is a bad first book where nothing gets resolved.
They generally follow the same plot (albeit with different window settings and characters).
- Some exciting incident to hook the reader, usually a battle or its aftermath
- Two “opposite” characters introduced
- Each muddling along to where they decide to join forces
- Heavy world building
- The gathering of companions
- The journey to get somewhere of vital importance
- A big set fight/battle scene near the end of their travels
- The characters get that somewhere, with a special twist thrown in from the villain, and then the story ends with the characters resolving to take action (in the next book! Maybe!)
I actually don’t have a problem with these set pieces in a novel. But this is not a novel. This is not even a story. It’s the beginning of a story. It is window dressing for an info dump and highly unsatisfying as a reader.
These troubled trilogies break down as: beginning (first novel), middle (second novel), end (third novel).
Keep the Reader Satisfied
Two recent books, by very well known authors whose names I will not reveal, did exactly this.
And, in each case, I felt no sense of satisfaction from the story. In fact, after reading 300-400 pages, I put down the book feeling like the characters did not change and I still did not care about them. Worse than that, I had become reluctant to pick up the next book because I was afraid that after yet another 300-400 pages, I would reach the last page with again only the promise of something happening.
Compare this to the books in the Harry Potter series. Each book is complete with a quest or mystery is resolved. If the first Harry Potter book ended with Harry arriving at Hogwarts, it would be highly unsatisfying to say the least.
In my eyes, if each of the books in a trilogy cannot stand alone, not only does the series suffer, but so does the reader.