Because Trilogies Are AwesomeApril 11th, 2010 at 21:33
In recentish times I’ve talked about my top 10 standalone fantasy novels, why series novels should not pretend to be standalone fantasy novels, and the kind of standalone fantasy novel that’s really a stealthy series.
There’s one kind of fantasy novel I haven’t discussed in any depth, and it’s the fantasy format which is most iconic as well as the most vilified. It also, apparently, sells better than any other fantasy format.
I’m talking about the trilogy.
The trilogy gets a bad rap, mostly from people who don’t read fantasy novels. It’s the equivalent of Fabio book covers – the feature of the genre most fixated on by outsiders. In truth, fantasy trilogies are popular for many good reasons. They are long enough that you can tell a really epic story and build up a thoroughly detailed world, but not so long that people start worrying about the author’s life expectancy.
According to publishing legend, the format came about when the hardback of a moderately successful novel by some chap called Tolkien proved too long to publish in a single paperback edition. It was broken up into three paperbacks, and promptly became a zeitgeist-making, record-smashing, hugely popular book of a generation, and then another generation, inspiring publishers to actively hunt “something a bit like it”. While many of the immediate successors to Tolkien did not in fact write trilogies, ultimately the popularity of this format is laid at his door.
There are many people who argue that The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy at all, but either a single book or six books. Do these people not recognise a zeitgeist when they see one? In recent years, developments in publishing glue have meant that you can in fact print a paperback of the entirety of The Lord of the Rings in a single volume, and many trilogies (not looking at anyone in particular, Ms Larke) are now made up of individual volumes long enough to challenge the limits of said wonderglue.
It’s not about the length of the books, though. Slender or fat, there is something oddly satisfying about a trilogy. A set up adventure, a making things worse book, and a resolving things in epic fashion book. I’m a fan of the format – and it’s interesting to see how these have taken over so substantially as *the* prime fantasy format. I seem to recall a greater percentage of longer ongoing fantasy series in the 80′s and 90′s – yes, Robert Jordan really did ruin it for the rest of us…
For a writer, a trilogy is probably the most saleable fantasy format, especially in Australia right now. But that’s okay, because a trilogy can be anything from three linked novels (Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters trilogy was each about a different character from a different generation of the same family) to one story over three volumes. There’s a lot of variation there, and no rules to say every trilogy should be the same.
There are many potential pitfalls, of course. Each book has to be satisfying in of itself. You may not know when writing it what the ultimate publishing schedule might be, and have to assume at least a year between reading volume 1 & 2. You have to make sure there’s enough happening in Book 1 that people want to come back for more, even though you’re really just setting up for more interesting stuff to happen later (if there isn’t more interesting stuff in books 2 & 3, you’re doing something wrong!). You have to try to avoid the dread ‘saggy bit’ in book 2, the bit that makes reviewers say it should have been a duology. Book 2 has to be The Empire Strikes Back, not Temple of Doom. Only you want Book 3 to be Last Crusade, not Return of the Jedi. (cough, though actually I kind of liked Return of the Jedi, never mind, move on)
Book 3 is the most important one. Book 1 has to be awesome, but Book 2 has to be awesomer and Book 3 has to be awesomest. It has to draw together all the traily bits and promises of Books 1 & 2. It has to fulfil all the promises. It has to resolve all the character arcs. It has to be EPIC. It has to have a few surprises in too, no point in just giving the reader what it says on the box… no pressure at all, then, for the trilogy writer.
Did I mention I’m writing a Book 3 right now? Yep, no pressure at all.
I haven’t done this before. Well, I have technically, but those of you who know the story of my first trilogy know that there are reasons why I might have a few hang ups about Book 3. By the time I managed to write a Book 3 that worked, I didn’t have a publisher any more… but that was a loooong time ago.
I can write this book now. It’s just big, the biggest thing I’ve contemplated in a long time. There’s so much to do! I’m throwing in all this new stuff in the final volume that will turn everything on its head and between you and me? I’m not entirely sure everyone’s getting out of this one alive. Here’s hoping some of them do, or this is going to be one depressing final volume.
Also I haven’t found the iconic frock for this book yet. Can one make a frock out of clockwork? It would look kind of awesome on the cover!
Cough. Okay. Carry on about your business. I have a book to work on…