Tom Pollock is the author of the Skyscraper Throne trilogy which coolly reimagines London as a city of monsters and miracles.
You can find him on the web here: http://tompollock.com/ & on Twitter here: @tomhpollock
Three, that’s the magic number, especially when it comes to… well, magic. Trilogies are endemic in western literature (the Deptford trilogy, the Karla Trilogy etc) but they are extra-endemic (extrademic? ultrademic? MMMMONSTERDEMIC.*) in fantasy.
The Lord of the Rings? Trilogy His Dark Materials? Trilogy. Earthsea? Quartet, technically, but the fourth book was written eighteen years later than - and was in part a comment and revision on - the first three, which were a trilogy. Lord of the extremely long form Brandon Sanderson has even said he envisions making his Mistborn sequence a trilogy of trilogies, to which I can only say, I admire the man’s stamina.
So what’s so great about three volume series? Is it just tradition? Or is there more to it than that? I thought I’d ask some people who’d written some. So I took to Twitter.
Joe Abercrombie talked about echoing the classics and said it felt ‘intuitively right.’ Sarah Pinborough and Jon Courtenay Grimwood both welcomed the opportunity to write longer story arcs and deeper character development than a single book allowed, while Patrick Ness even cited Aristotelian unity, which I admit I had to look up. Kate Elliott described her use of the three act structure as follows: 1. Set problem, 2. Complicate, 3. Resolve.’, while Sarah Rees Brennan has her own (tongue, if you’ll forgive the pun, in cheek) rule: ‘Book one: set up, Book two: make-out, Book three: defeat evil.’
Okay, so what’s clear here is that this isn’t, as the bishop said to the Forth Bridge engineer, only about length. It’s the fact of having three acts that’s doing the work. But what work? Obviously enough, that’s going to vary from book to book, but maybe we can generalise a bit.
Conventionally, the beginning of a narrative throws down a challenge: a murder to solve, a dangerous piece of jewellery to dispose of, whatever. The end of that narrative – again conventionally – answers that challenge, either successfully (Professor Plum, Library, Candlestick. *smugly dons deerstalker*), or unsuccessfully, (and the dark lord’s shadow covered all the lands in a second darkness, probably should’ve called in those Eagles earlier, huh Gandalf?)
But this kind of simple call and response, isn’t really that interesting. Why? Because if we grasp the challenge implicit in the opening act, then we know the sort of thing that’s coming in the final one. We may not know who the killer is, but we know there’s going to be one. So we need a middle act, to introduce an element of the unexpected, to destabilise the narrative a bit and throw us off our guard, as Elliott puts it – we need to complicate the problem, to escalate it, so that it makes us wince at the price exacted to solve it, perhaps even make us conflicted that we want it solved or not. If, for example, all the evidence begins to point to the killer being the detective’s mum, that raises the stakes.
Complicating the problem also necessitates complicating the solution, and since the solution usually comes from the actions of characters, the people in the story become complex too. Brennan’s second act ‘make out’ rule is a pretty good example of this, a romance not only complicates the problem by raising the stakes - because now it’s not just the world that’s in danger, it’s your boyfriend - but it also complicates the solution: is the hero strengthened by that relationship? Or fatally weakened by it? Either way it’s interesting.
Obviously, three acts isn’t the only structure you can do this in – five acts is also popular, and as Elizabeth Bear pointed out a lot of longer series use epic or episodic structures - but it is probably the simplest.
Equally obviously, not all three-act stories are sold and packaged as trilogies, but beyond a certain length, it just starts to make sense for both material reasons (there’s only so many pages a book can have before the binding disintegrates) and financial ones (if you’re going to write three times as much book, it’s nice to actually get paid three times.)
But why stop at plot? Act two of a trilogy gives you the opportunity to complicate so much more.
Like theme, for example. The trilogy I’ve just finished: The Skyscraper Throne is about cities and monsters and crane-fingered demolition gods, but it’s also about two teenage girls whose world is changing beyond all recognition. So the first book is about discovery, about finding a world that’s always been around you, that you’ve seen every day of your life, but is also impossibly strange and threatening. The second book was about testing your limits against that world, and deciding how far it’s going to shape you, and how much you can shape it… And the third book? Well, spoilers obviously, but the third book is about the fact that when you’ve done all of that, you can never go home again. Because encountering the fantastic -like growing up - isn’t something you can do as a tourist. There no magic wardrobe door you can run back through and slam to leave it all behind you. You do this, you give up home, you give up safety forever**
As it happens, each of these narrative arcs fits well with particular sub-genres. So the genre gets more complex with each book too – the first book is a (very) urban fantasy, the second book is a (very) urban fantasy and a dystopia, the third book is a (very) urban, dystopic, apocalyptic nightmare…
…with dragons made out of burning methane.
And that’s what the trilogy format gave to me: the opportunity to write three books about three different themes, in three different genres that taken together chart the shape of a young life in a very strange time. And monsters. Never forget the monsters.
*(Yep, that was an Unreal tournament reference)
**(Do I win some kind of tragic self-aggrandizement award for quoting myself?)Many thanks to Tom for this interesting post about trilogies!