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With science fiction increasingly dominated by multi-volume works I find myself more and more having to review volume X of Y. Sometimes, though this is far from as common as I would like, I actually get to review each volume in a sequence. I’m reviewing one such right now, and in the middle of writing up my review of the final part of one trilogy I found myself writing:

There is a three-act structure that we see repeated again and again in trilogies with but minor variations: in act one you build up the protagonist, make us cheer them on, until they seem on the brink of achieving some great goal. In act two, you knock them down again, so that our investment in their success turns into identification with their troubles and a sense of tension (because this structure is necessarily downbeat, because it is an entr’acte between two more positive acts, the middle volume of trilogies is often slower and less engaging than those that bracket it). In act three, you start the protagonist’s ascent once more, made to seem more tenuous because we now know what forces are arrayed against them, but also their eventual achievements are that much more worthy because they have come by overcoming troubles.

This does seem to fit so many of the trilogies I’ve read. It also fits longer single volume works (I’m thinking, for instance, of Spirit by Gwyneth Jones). Is this really a common pattern?

24 thoughts on “Trilogies

  1. I’m not really sure, but it sounds convincing.

    I’m trying to remember the last set of books I read that was actually a trilogy and not a septology or an infinite-ology. I have read the first books of a couple this year — “Racing the Dark” and “Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” and “Soulless.”

    Soulless seems like the only one which would fit this arc… Racing the Dark is very informally structured, and has already torn the main character apart a lot. And Hundred Thousand Kingdoms uses different protagonists in each book.

    Do you think this is a good way to write trilogies? Do you generally respond to it?

    1. To be honest, I don’t normally respond well to trilogies, and even less well to works extended beyond that point. Aegypt, Book of the New Sun and possibly the Mars trilogy are the only works I can think of off hand that fully justified the length.

      1. I like the post-farcical-Rincewind-type Discworld books a lot. And the two-book Sarantine Mosaic by GGK. But yeah, not a big trilogy fan either.

        I haven’t read the Mars books. I know I need to. Husband wants me to start with a different KSR though, Years of Rice and Salt.

  2. This is part one in a series of three posts, right, Paul?

    …Color me cynical, but I think the tendency toward trilogies these days is primarily economical. Why sell one book (or movie) when you can sell three?

    (And why sell three when you can sell seven?)

    (Or sneak in even an eighth?)

    More seriously, though, the number three is special because it gives you a dialectic. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Which can be used to create the plot pattern you describe above, but it can support other plots as well.

    1. There will be no sequel (until I decide to write one).

      It’s partly economical. Back in the 60s the most economical size for a book to be was about 180 pages, then the economics of printing changed and suddenly books became twice that length at least. A growth that, to my mind, was not always for the good. I think the urge for trilogies, and trilogies of trilogies, is part of that expansive urge. Also, if the first volume works you already have an established audience for the later books.

      But I think it is also to do with bloat. Few stories really require so many pages, but the editing process within publishing houses seems to be in decline and I suspect there aren’t that many people now to say: you can do this better in fewer words.

      1. And Maureen reminds me that trilogies really date back to the triple-decker novels of the 19th century, when they were a response to the economic demands of the circulating libraries. And their revival in the 60s and after owes much to the success of Tolkien’s trilogy.

        1. Tolkien deserves a lot of credit, agreed, but I think we’re in a new age of trilogies and septologies, thanks to Rowling and other contemporary fantasists.

          1. Oh, and lest we forget, Tolkien’s LOTR is actually a sextology (it’s just collected in three physical books). Plus a rather long appendix, which if you read it makes it more like a septology.

            And you have to read that appendix—I mean, how else can you find out what happens to Aragorn? Or read Elvish?

    1. I’m writing an essay that I’ll soon post (a response to James Wood’s How Fiction Works), and that essay contains some discussion of the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky. In particular, I discuss Shklovsky’s analysis of how plots are structured, and what precisely makes a story feel like a story—feel complete.

      He proposes that most stories proceed by creating a false state of affairs, then replacing that with a true state of affairs—a pattern that lends itself easily to two- and three-act structures.

      E.g., two lovers separate, then reconcile.
      Or: two people meet-cute, despise one another, then grow to love one another.

      And so on. Peter Parker’s a geek, he becomes Spider-Man, he learns how to live with being Spider-Man.

      This simple structure can be adapted into the Hollywood three-act screenplay, or “spread out” across the three books of a trilogy.

  3. Now that you mention it, I can’t really think of a trilogy that doesn’t work that way, unless it is a larger work split for length. What came immediately to mind after Tolkien was KJ Parker’s Fencer trilogy. I will now be thinking of it when I finally take on her Engineer books. It also makes me wonder how that affects works envisioned as a trilogy and then expanded. Knowng that Peake did have a fourth Gormenghast book in the works makes me want to go back and read them again. I am also now wondering about the Oedipus cycle: read in the order we think they were produced, it doesn’t work. But read in the chronological order of events, it does. Most of the editions I can think of place the plays in chronological order: I wonder when that began?

  4. There are other ways of making trilogies, of course. Consider Gus Van Sant’s “death trilogy”: Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005).

    Except for when the protagonists of Gerry show up inside a video game in Elephant, there are no recurring characters across the films. Rather, what they share is a unifying style, and the central theme of young men dying. However, Van Sant applies that style, and examines that theme, in three very different ways, which results in three very different but also similar films.

    (…I should add that people can mock Van Sant’s Psycho remake all they want, but I doubt that without that exercise, he would have been able to make his death trilogy—which is also, in some ways, a remake of certain Bela Tarr films (he recreates some scenes fairly exactly). I suspect that his Psycho project opened up for Van Sant a lot of room regarding how much a film can be a remake but also be its own film. See also Werner Herzog’s recent Bad Lieutenant “remake.”)

    1. I have not see Gerry or Last Days. I should rent them.

      Have you seen Paranoid Park? I liked it. Definitely seems like he has a strong connection to marginal youth.

      1. Gerry’s my favorite of the three, but they’re all wonderful films.

        I saw Paranoid Park and liked it but wasn’t enamored of it. My favorite Van Sant film regarding marginal youth remains My Own Private Idaho, which is probably my favorite of his films. It remains as startling now as it was then—perhaps even more so!

        1. Also, Gerry’s your favorite? Man, I’ve got to see it. Last Days was quite good, but I thought Elephant was superlative. One of my favorite films, really.

    2. I was going to ask about this: thematic trilogies, I’d call them. Also Kieślowski’s three colors trilogy: Red, Blue and White. Can you think of authors who’ve written trilogies using frameworks beside chronology? Not to self-plug, per se, but I’ve written three books I refer to as a trilogy–but they don’t contain the same characters, take place at hundred year intervals, and just have some themes in common. Essentially, I think of them as one thing, though I’m not sure if readers would see them that way without provocation.

      1. I’ve been trying to think of some written conceptual or thematic trilogies, too. Yuriy Tarnawsky is working on one, I know: His 2007 collection LIKE BLOOD IN WATER is the first part of a trio of “mini-novels.” No characters recur; rather it’s a set of three books bound together by their examination of a formal concept.

        Moving into non-fiction, Curtis White’s three critical books (THE MIDDLE MIND (2003), THE SPIRIT OF DISOBEDIENCE (2006), and THE BARBARIC HEART (2009)) add up to something of a trilogy, in a way… But I guess that kind of thing is common in criticism. I read once that Eric Schlossinger intended to follow FAST FOOD NATION (2001) with two more books, one on the pharmaceutical industry, and one on the prison industry, although he hasn’t yet done so.

        Moving back into fiction, Christine Brooke-Rose’s novels OUT (1964), SUCH (1966), BETWEEN (1968), and THRU (1975) share stylistic and thematic concerns, and you can buy them bound together (THE CHRISTINE BROOKE-ROSE OMNIBUS).


        1. I’ll also add that John Haskell, who I’ve blogged about a bit here already, has said in an interview that he conceived of his two novels, American Purgatorio and Out of My Skin, as two books in a trilogy tipping it’s hat to The Divine Comedy.

          Obviously, Dante’s work is itself an example of a non-chronological trilogy.

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