To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

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Hillsy
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To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by Hillsy » January 5th, 2010, 8:09 am

Maybe I shouldn't obsess, but there are elements of human behaviour I find difficult to understand and I hate an unsolved question. Why do slow walkers never look behind themselves, for instance. Surely they realise everyone is moving faster than them? (I have thousands by the way I won't bore you with)

One that bothers me is "The Trilogy" (Yes, Capitalised). Specifically, the prefabricated idea of writing a 3 book series. OK, it may seem like a odd bugbear: I'm a huge fan of LOTR (who isn't?) and i've read two trilogies in the last 6 months (First law and Night Angel). Also I'm not complaining of length either as I'm a Wheel of Time disciple and I'm looking forward to starting on Adrian Tschivovsky's and Justina Robson's'4th books in their respective series. It really comes down to that number "3".

After the responses I got about a cliche I was worried about viewtopic.php?f=2&t=241 in my novel and noting how acutely people try to do the unexpected thing with a tired old concept, I again got back to this idea of preplanning 3 books. Not 4. Not 2. Not 27 and a half. Exactly 3. Possibly the 2nd oldest cliche in fantasy writing (after the good guy winning) and one that's almost impossible to serve up as a fresh idea.

I understand perfectly the urge to write a story so huge, complex and epic that a mere 1 book, even 2, is laughably akin to squeezing an elephant into a fridge (one of my first drafts hit 287000, straight through, no shoehorned-in intermission). I also understand the series; how wonderful it must be to have a world you want to visit again and again and folow the adventures of a character you love. Both very very reasonable.

So where does this plan to write EXACTLY 3 novels come from? I would've thought a series would have no limit, restricted purely by the number of interesting plotlines that can be sqeezed from that marraige of character and world. If its epic tale you're working on, why restrict it in your mind to around 500K-700K words. Especially if you're in the beginning stages. Seriously, read The Eye of the World, the 1st in a projected 14 book series. That book was plotted to be self contained - I'm utterly convinced of that - and it was opened up afterwards to explore the larger story. Robert Jordan, rest his soul, didn't have a trilogy in mind he didn't limit himslef. He had 2 novels in mind when he started writing. The Eye Of The World, and the full, undiluted Wheel of Time. The first was 1 novel long, the second was however long it took to get from start to finish.

And from an agents perspective (Feel free to dive in Nathan...hehe) does a trilogy not smack a little of cliche? Or is it just something that's accepted as part of the marketting; Trilogies are an accepted feature of the bookshop landscape and thereby are only as cliche'd as Romance or Crime?

So please, to sooth my troubled mind: instead of the series or the serialised epic novel, why the trilogy?

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by Tzalaran » January 5th, 2010, 9:43 am

my opinion is that it stems from the 3 act structure of greek and roman drama. generally a story arc fits nicely into 3 installments, and therefore it is easy to split things in that manner.

There are plenty of series that don't adhere to the trilogy (Taltos series, Sword of Truth series, Tiger and Del saga, WoT, Elric saga), but most story arcs just fall neatly into that 3 part structure so a trilogy makes sense. You might be right in saying it is a crutch to writers, but i don't feel it is inherently bad. :)
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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by casnow » January 6th, 2010, 7:02 am

I would put forth the guess that Editors/Publishers are not willing to take a risk for more than 3 books at one time. I'm sure if you wrote a successful trilogy that was selling well, and then wanted to add #'s 4-5 in the series then you could. Why not two? Maybe b/c soem part of the author/agent knows that if they can get buy-in for two books, then they can probably get it for 3 books.

Just a wild guess though.

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by Scott » January 6th, 2010, 8:58 am

Three is the magic number, isn't it? I can see how that could neatly serve the fantasy community. :)

Aside from the above comments which I agree with, a trilogy seems to give you that something extra without overstaying your welcome. I mean, look what happened to the Star Wars saga. Urgh.

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by Kaitlyne » January 6th, 2010, 9:21 pm

Tzalaran wrote:my opinion is that it stems from the 3 act structure of greek and roman drama. generally a story arc fits nicely into 3 installments, and therefore it is easy to split things in that manner.

There are plenty of series that don't adhere to the trilogy (Taltos series, Sword of Truth series, Tiger and Del saga, WoT, Elric saga), but most story arcs just fall neatly into that 3 part structure so a trilogy makes sense. You might be right in saying it is a crutch to writers, but i don't feel it is inherently bad. :)
I think this is basically the answer. Three has also been a "magic" number for ages. I remember in middle school being taught to write in threes when doing lists, and in high school the basic structure of essays involved a statement, three pieces of support, etc., generally centered around three arguments. I'm actually curious if three is a magic number in other cultures as well. I'm not sure why this is of course, whether it's something about the fundamental balance of having three of something or if it's that culturally we have been taught to favor values of three. I can even remember in my theology classes in school learning that certain numbers were given special standing in the Bible, 3, 7, and 12 in particular. The numbers were repeated throughout and considered special, so it's even possible that our current favoring of the number three goes back to ancient times when it was considered religiously important. That's pure speculation on my part. :)

I agree completely with the three act structure being the main reasoning behind trilogies, however.

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by CharleeVale » January 6th, 2010, 9:55 pm

I just always assumed it was because we all need our 'beginning, middle, and end'.

CV

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by Kaitlyne » January 7th, 2010, 12:58 am

CharleeVale wrote:I just always assumed it was because we all need our 'beginning, middle, and end'.

CV
Am I allowed to quote you on that next time someone asks me what a three-act structure is? Cuz that's awesome haha.

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by CharleeVale » January 7th, 2010, 1:25 am

Kaitlyne wrote: Am I allowed to quote you on that next time someone asks me what a three-act structure is? Cuz that's awesome haha.
Haha. Absolutely you can.

CV

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by lexcade » January 7th, 2010, 5:38 am

i kind of agree with the number 3 being a psychological safety blanket, kind of like the number 10 and any exponent of 10.

think about it:
breakfast, lunch, dinner
morning, noon, night
larry, curly, moe

it just...fits. and granted, not every idea is going to span into a trilogy, but for the larger ones, it just...fits.
"Art imitates nature as well as it can, as a pupil follows his master; thus it is sort of a grandchild of God." ~~Dante

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by Hillsy » January 7th, 2010, 5:55 am

Before I get all cynical n that, I too thought first about the three act structure as an explaination so don't think I'm being all aloof like...hehe

OK, I'm going to be astonishly cynical here (even for me) and then issue a challenge. When it comes to the decision to begin a trilogy, the 3 act theory does not come into it, in the traditional sense. It is something (and I've done this myself with plots, themes and god knows what else) that's tagged on later to explain a subconcious thought process. "I have decided to do this, now I must explain to myself why" (If I was uber cynical I'd say that many of these explainations - including several of mine - are shoe-horned in to make the concept seem more thought out than it is). Here's why I think the 3 act structure often does not apply to the decision to go Triplicate.

1. Process: More importantly, the order in which things must be concieved in order to trilogise(?) something. In a normal secnario the first thing comes the skeleton plot (This includes characters, world building, conflict and all that jazz): Person A does X and now if he doesn't do Y then Z will happen, person B wants Z to happen and intends to stop A doing Y and prevent A's preferable outcome, Q. This is essentially your structure in its rawest form. Next comes the realisation this will not fit into 1 book, not by a long shot (these things happen). OK, now in order to Trilogise(?), in the 3 act sense, the next step HAS to be to organically plot out everything, start to finish and see if it falls into 3 easy chunks. In other words the plot has 3 scenes worthy of ending a book, each conviniently at the end of each "Act". As soon as you insert or expand upon a scene in order to make it a bookender, you are no longer taking a 3 act structure and making each act a book from a trilogy. You're taking a Trilogy and hammering a 3 act structure into it. Which leads me ontooooooooo........

2. Length: This is, in my eyes, the source of my confusion. LOTR, the books. Hands up anyone who can tell me where The Two Towers ends? Correct! Isengaard's been flattened which (technically speaking) is the middle of Act 3, and Frodo's strung up by Shelob the spider which (technically speaking) is still Act 2. But that makes sense: LOTR isn't a trilogy, it's one book. The first book doesn't exactly end with a KAPOW either. It's hacked into 3 purely by happenstance. "The point!" you all cry. The point is that if Tolkein had conceived of a trilogy based on his three act structure I'm sure the books would have mimicked the films more closely, which of course was conceived of as a trilogy first and foremost. In order to create 3 books of comparable length, most of the time you must manipulate the story in order to achieve a certain length acceptable to call each act a novel in its own right. Then manipulate each act to make it work in terms of reading well. All this is adherence to a preconcieved notion, not writing a story. I'm sorry if you disagree with me but (and I'm not saying this is better or worse and it doesn't mean I don't wish you all success and publication!) that seems to be the decision one makes, that the Trilogy is more important than the story.

3. Planning: This is a follow on from the above point, but is probably the most apt. To construct a 3 act style Trilogy takes a phenomenal amount of plotting just to map out each Act to novel length. Then you've got to know your ability to stick, within reason, to those plots and make them all about the right length. I mean we're mainly budding novellist here: do we really know our own ability that well yet? On top of this tricky planning, length and application balance we now throw in the fact that any additional conflict/plotline/event we throw in has to not only be unrecognisable as filler, but also not get out of control. How often do you read about series going on longer than expected because the author introduced a character that ended up chewing through more and more plot? Could it be that the author added content only to find he infact added 2 books rather than 200 pages?

I appreciate the fact that the notion of 3 acts falling neatly into 3 books sounds perfect, I believed it. But I struggle to accept that the majority or people are writing "Trilogies" and not just large 3 Act books. Tzalaran called it a crutch and while I agree with him it's by no means a bad thing (I like trilogies - more precisely I like multi-volume spanning stories) it's not a crutch. What I believe it is is a decision made by the writer, not the story, because it is what they either want to do it, or they feel it is "the thing to do". But I don't know; the concept of a trilogy has never occured to me (series yes, trilogies no) so I just don't understand the mental process involved.

So here's my challenge: prove me wrong. I know for a fact we've got several trilogy writers knocking about, have you got your 3 act and book ending scenes decided yet? Are they all about a novel apart? Or do you just plan to introduce content until it fits?

P.S. Christ I just realised I've written an essay!!!!!!

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » January 7th, 2010, 7:26 am

I agree with elements of what everyone has said, but I think trilogies are popular mostly because of habit. Trilogy writers, I think, have read a whole bunch of trilogies. It's a fantasy tradition that self-reinforces. Started with the publishing decision to split LotR into three books. Was followed by lots of imitators. And the writers kept reading and liking these trilogies, and some of these readers were writers. They emulate what they like. "What a fantastic trilogy! I shall write one myself." And it just happens that the long form also suits the Epic fantasy novel, as the outward journey of the epic is naturally inclined toward large, complex events. A tradition of big books in fantasy... which comes from the epic form (the structure of the narrative) as well as from the simple tradition (self-reinforcing again). So I think the trilogy is pushed by the nature of the form and then entrenched by habit and familiarity, and then supported by the symmetry of Threeness - beginning, middle, end; first act, second act, third act; conflict, rising action, climax; alvin, simon, theodore.

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Re: To Trilogy or not to Trilogy - Why is that a question?

Post by lexcade » January 10th, 2010, 4:24 pm

i'll see where i am at the end of book 2 :-)

if i need another book to bring the story to a satisfying ending, then i'll write it. heck, maybe it'll span into four! *i hope not*

if not, then i'll have an original and a continuance.

and besides, if tolkien could have stopped describing every little thing to death, he might not have needed to chop LOTR up so much...
"Art imitates nature as well as it can, as a pupil follows his master; thus it is sort of a grandchild of God." ~~Dante

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