In this two-part series, I will examine the place of the trilogy in fantasy fiction, and the problems that one faces when writing a trilogy, and what, in my opinion, is the best way to go about doing so.

No matter how long you’ve been a part of the genre, as a reader, writer or general hanger-on, you’ve probably come across the legend of the Fantasy Trilogy. It’s a mainstay of the mythology of the genre (that’s for all of you who like academia and university-level answer-padding and argument-obfuscation). In shorter words, it’s a very common trope that has been a part of fantasy for a long time.

Now, I’m not arguing against trilogies in general. Trilogies have a long and proud tradition in fantasy, and not only in written, printed fantasy. Most people will recognise the Star Wars trilogy (numbers 1, 2 and 3 don’t count in my book) as a ‘space fantasy’, and let’s not overlook Lord of the Rings, which, although not an intentional trilogy, still became one of the defining trilogies of the genre (and indeed, one of the initial trend-setters). These trilogies are a credit to the genre, and will most likely survive for and be cherished by uncounted future generations.

However, many of us will also know about the Inheritance Cycle and Twilight, among others. These and other lesser-known trilogies and series most emphatically do not do credit to the form. They are poorly-conceived, lacking in focus and therefore unenjoyable.

Just where do these trilogies go wrong? And what, then, is the folly of the trilogy?

3. The Middle Slump

The middle book, book 2 of 3, the book that is neither the beginning nor the end, is a particularly challenging one to write. Here, you must continue to follow the threads of the story without letting things sag or stagnate, as well as maintaining consistent characterisation and an interesting storyline. Certainly, this is a problem faced by The Middle of any story, no matter how short or long. It is a problem as old as storytelling, I would be willing to bet. What happens between the beginning and the end? The problem with trilogy middles is one of perception: the author sets out to Write A Trilogy, but they might not have enough of a story to fill three books. What do they do, instead? Random encounters! Seemingly endless, unconnected side quests! These are of course temporary solutions at best, and at worst serve only to bog the story down further, possibly even making the reader lose interest.

Not every trilogy or series feels the Slump, however. Nobody ever said that The Empire Strikes Back was a disappointment, as far as I’m aware (if you have, please raise your hand and place your head within range of my rifle, thank you.) So what’s the secret to avoiding the Eldest Problem? In order to avoid Middle-Book Slump like we see in Eldest and Brisingr, the answer is quite simple: Don’t set out to Write A Trilogy. Set out to write a story, and if that story happens to be long enough for three books, so be it. Setting your sights on the big picture may cause you to forget about the details, and those details are what flesh out a story’s middle. And please, don’t give your hero Seven Promises that they must fulfill in turn. While this may well be acceptable in the realm of computer games, in a novel it’s just not cricket. Above all, remember that quality (how good it is) is the most important thing, while quantity (how much there is of it) is unimportant. The finest Belgian chocolate truffles are tiny little things, and yet they are incomparably better to ten gallons of tasteless, watery mystery-meat soup with yellow wobbly bits and not enough salt.

2. Trilogy Creep

I’ll spare you the link to TVTropes, and summarise the fact that ‘trilogy creep’ is what happens when an author writes Book 4. Many famous series that started as trilogies have suffered from trilogy creep, including the Wheel of Time trilogy, which exploded into 11 books including a 12th written by a different author; and The Belgariad, which was planned as a trilogy but became 14 books in two collections. Most recently, Inheritance has expanded from three books to four.

That being said, not all Trilogy Creep is inherently bad: The Earthsea Trilogy became five books when the author went back years later to expand on the characters’ lives. This is the best kind of Creep, where the story genuinely can and should go on, being driven by characters who don’t stop living just because the books are finished. These characters lived beyond the trilogy, and their stories were worth going back to and expanding upon. Or The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, cheekily referred to as a ‘trilogy in four (now five) parts’, where the story continues naturally beyond the three-book plan, and doing so is in the best interest of the story. The kind of Trilogy Creep to which I refer in the negative is most often the result of poor planning, unwieldy prose, endless descriptions of pointless minutiae, or substantial padding and ‘filler’ material of the sort present in abundance in Eldest and Brisingr.

In my opinion, Trilogy Creep happens because of reason number 1, below: the first books are published before the story is finished, and the author changes his or her mind halfway through, taking the story in a new direction. Or they didn’t plan it out and ended up with far more story than 3 books could hold. Trilogy Creep that happens because of poor planning, excessive filler, or because the publisher wants more to sell is inexcusable, as I see it: if you set out to write a trilogy, write a trilogy. Don’t name something “book 1 of 3” if there’s even the slightest chance of a fourth book.

1. Publishing One Before the Second is Finished

Absolutely the number one reason trilogies and others series may be ruined, is when the author publishes book 1 before finishing (or worse, before starting) book 2. The simple fact of the matter is that worlds change, ideas change and writing styles change.

In my experience as a worldbuilder, one thing that I have noticed is that no imaginary world is fixed. They grow and evolve as you add new things, discover and attempt to close up holes or gaps, and as you re-evaluate old ideas or learn new ways of thinking. Therefore, publishing your first book before the second is finished is definitely one of the worst things you can do for continuity, unless you are really strict about the details and circumstances of your world and the psychology of your characters. A good example of bad continuity (or a bad example of good continuity) is the Inheritance Cycle, yet again: magic is tied to the language. No wait, it’s the thought that counts. No, sorry, a tiny grammatical error will dramatically change the spell’s effects. No wait, you don’t need the language at all. Nono, now it’s about singing. Or is it about emotion? In only four books, Paolini’s stance on magic, and therefore his internal continuity, slingshots from one extreme to the other, and then off the rails altogether (and, predictably, crashing into a ditch on the side of the road). If Paolini had waited for all of his books to be finished before publishing the first, he would have been able to edit out such inconsistencies.

Second, especially for less-experienced writers like Paolini, writing style and narrative voice is something that develops over time and experience, and it takes a long time and a lot of practice to ‘find’ the voice you are most comfortable with. If you write the first book in a series and publish it before the others are finished, you may well find that Book 3 uses an almost entirely different narrative voice, and that over the course of your series your style may change and shift constantly. If you wait until the series is finished before publishing, you will of course be able to develop a consistent narrative voice that doesn’t change too drastically between books. An example of this is, once again, the Inheritance cycle: in book 1, Paolini starts with a particularly… fresh-faced eagerness in his narrative voice: a writer discovering the joy of telling a story with words for the first time. However, in books 2 and 3, his narrative voice changes dramatically in each book. Paolini has yet to find his voice, and that is quite disconcerting to readers.

Last, especially in the economy of the market, where profits matter more than quality of material (again, quality over quantity!), there is always the risk that if the second is published too late after the first, the audience and readership will have moved on to something else, and the second book will not be nearly as successful. This, of course, potentially leads to termination of the contract, which would mean your half-finished trilogy may never be completed. And that’s the worst fate for any trilogy-maker. Remember Obernewtyn? Eight years on, we’re still waiting for the final book. The series stalled, we readers moved on, and now we no longer care or remember what happened to the characters. (Possibly not the best example, given that Obernewtyn is such an excellently crafted series that I, personally, am happy to wait for the last book to come out and eagerly re-read the entire series in preparation).

If your trilogy isn’t cancelled because of lack of interest, then you risk the ire of impatient fans (assuming you have any after the three-year wait between books 1 and 2). In the case of Paolini, his fans became restless, and more and more grew dissatisfied with the existing books during the wait for Inheritance, the final book in the series. As one commenter quoted, his fans are growing up while he’s left behind. The waning fanbase can only spell trouble for Paolini, not only for this particular series but for all his future works.

Conclusion

While trilogies and series are not themselves inherently bad, jumping the gun and publishing before the series is finished is. In my opinion, the best trilogies are written as a single seamless story, all at once, and only later divided into books (for example, Lord of the Rings, divided at the printing stage purely because of technological limitations). Using this method, you can keep track of internal consistency, timelines, characters and your writing voice. You can go back at the end and edit out any unfortunate slips in logic or the laws of your world, as well as streamline the prose, dialogue and characterisation into a consistent form that unites the three books as a single body of work at a linguistic level. Unless you can exercise the obsessive attention to detail and discipline of a computer, or perhaps a Star Wars fan, doing so mid-production is a daunting task, to say the least.

Tune in soon for Part Two, which unfortunately has been cancelled due to lack of interest.

Comment

  1. Fireshark on 20 April 2012, 17:02 said:

    I thought this was a very nice article. I think the reason trilogies are so popular is that many stories are easy to divide into three acts. Of course, that can leave the middle a bit barren between the establishing stuff in the first part and the conclusion in the last part. I think the best use of the middle is for character development, but obviously people need to care about the characters if they’re going to be interested.

    A solution I actually like, if the second part has less action, is actually something Paolini did—create a B plot. It took me the longest time to notice that Eragon does basically nothing in Eldest, because things are still happening with Roran.

  2. Betty Cross on 20 April 2012, 18:15 said:

    My novel Mistress of the Topaz will have only one sequel, Mistress of Land and Sea. So I guess that’s a duology, if such a thing exists.

    At least I’ve avoided the second book of the trilogy problem.

  3. Betty Cross on 20 April 2012, 18:23 said:

    Sorry about the double submission.

  4. Danielle on 20 April 2012, 18:35 said:

    @ Fireshark:

    I like B-plots when they’re well-done. But I think that they only work if the main character is actually doing something (other than getting magical plastic surgery from lesbian nudist elves). In the Inheritance Cycle, the B-plot was the only part of the book somewhat worth reading. But in the hands of a skilled author, B-plots can add quite a bit to the story. C.S. Lewis used it, J.R.R. Tolkien used it….and with them, they worked incredibly well.

    I liked the article, Taku. A great look at what makes a trilogy work—and what can kill it.

  5. TakuGifian on 20 April 2012, 19:04 said:

    When it comes to it, Fireshark, B-plots are best interwoven through the primary, sort of happening at the same time. Each character has their own story that’s happening in concert. For example, in the recent Jackie Chan remake of Around the World in 80 Days, the primary plot is Fogg’s journey around the world, and the various obstacles that they overcome. The B-plot is Jackie Chan’s character’s quest to return a stolen jade Buddha to his village, and these alternative motivations are happening at the same time, one feeding off the other. Possibly not the best example (possibly not the best movie either), but you get my drift, I hope.

  6. Requiem on 20 April 2012, 22:37 said:

    This is interesting for me because i’m unsure if I want to write a trilogy or a series. My book Aeons of Eternity could be expanded but i’m unsure if I should. It has the potential to go over 3 books but i’m not sure if I want to write that many books.

    The one i’m currently writing could technically be called the second book, and I intended to write the prequel for it before releasing the second because it explains the characters more in depth as well as sets the stage for the second book: Wasteland of Fate. If I made it a trilogy it might be easier on me sense I am new to writing novels.

    A trilogy would end the series with a nice conclusion without worry of creeping, and it may be better since I want to explore other genres.

    But here are the book title names so far ( could be changed)
    Aeons of Eternity: The Aeon Wars
    Aeons of Eternity: Wasteland of Fate
    Aeons of Eternity: Twilight of the Aeons

  7. Jaggers on 21 April 2012, 19:16 said:

    Much as I adore Douglas Adams, I think the HHTG series deteriorated after THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE and got too tangled in nonsense like the Krikkit robots that lasted too long. There were charming parts in all five books, but the overall experience became noticeably inferior as the series went on.

    I recall the Obernewtyn books fondly and thought the series was not completed because the last book(s) had not been published in my country.

  8. swenson on 21 April 2012, 21:19 said:

    Yeah, I don’t like books 4 and 5 of the Hitchhiker trilogy either (as much as the first three, I mean), but my reasons for disliking them aren’t connected to trilogy slump. So I think it still counts as a successful trilogy.

  9. Snow White Queen on 22 April 2012, 15:34 said:

    This is such a great article, Taku. You definitely have enough interest for Part 2. :)

    A way that I’ve considered for overcoming the Middle Slump is to make the middle part the more explosive, dynamic part, as the last book usually is, and then devoting the last book to giving the resolution all the attention and complexity it deserves, rather than just tacking it on. Don’t know how that’s going to work, but I’m going to try experimenting.

  10. happycrab91 on 24 April 2012, 02:46 said:

    Good article it’s given me some things to think about.

    I built my plot in a way so that it has to be 3 books, no more and no less. Unless I do some sort of prequel or jump a long way into the future. It’s about 3 things. Though if I ever get to book 2 it might get too long compared to book 1 and book 3 might be too short. So it’d be odd to have 2 be significantly longer than the others. And I’m not going to pad 1 or 3 out. It wouldn’t work if I split any of the 3 books. And the plot has a definitive conclusion so it wouldn’t make sense for things to continue after 3.

    I am concerned about book 2 because like you said it might have the problem of being the middle slump. I want each book to have it’s own general story that’s concluded like a Harry Potter book, but unlike HP my series will have a lot of travelling. Book 2 they go places to do some things, then their goal is to get somewhere. And they get there. And some stuff happens. But nothing that’s much of a plot. I dunno how book 2 should end yet.

    I dont wanna do a Paolini and tack on a random war after they get somewhere just so the ending is exciting. So I was already thinking of doing a B-plot of whats happening in the place the A-plot people are travelling to. Then A-plot people eventually get mixed into whats already been happening in B-plot. Because book 2 is meant to primarily be about this place and I think I’ll take too long to get there then the book will get too long if I try to make enough happen when we’re finally there.

    Yeah……. someone give me the motivation to start writing heaps.