Why trilogies? Or, wait, *do* trilogies actually rule?

Actually, I like trilogies probably best, as a reader. It can be difficult to commit to a neverending series if you didn’t get in on the ground floor, as it were. And if you really enjoy the characters and the world, is a single book ever enough?

Though I’ve seen a lot of reviewers particularly mention how nice it is to see a standalone novel. So I may not be in the majority in preferring trilogies. Also, I’m patient enough to simply wait till the third book is out before reading a trilogy, so then the trilogy acts for me like a single standalone. I’m not sure how many readers wait like that.

What I hate most, though, is when the publisher hides the fact that the first book is a non-standalone fragment of a larger work. I HATE that. If we are going to have a cliffhanger, can we have a clear warning about that right up front?

As a writer, the situation is more complex. In discussing the trilogy phenomenon, this post by Justin Landon at tor.com comments on why that is (among other things): on top of questions about what you want to write and about what your contract(s) say you must write, there are financial considerations about sales predictions and so forth.

Justin thinks the appeal of trilogies has to do more with deep wiring in human psychology, though: pattern recognition, right, and a tendency to see things in threes.

Or else he suspects the trilogy form isn’t really as dominant as it seems, with the appearance of dominance created by confirmation bias. Leading to a really clever last line. Yes, Justin, I think we all have that particular problem with confirmation bias.

Anyway, if you have a minute, click through and read the whole thing. Do you have a strong preference for standalones, trilogies, neverending series?

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3 thoughts on “Why trilogies? Or, wait, *do* trilogies actually rule?”

  1. I’ve noticed far more non-trilogy serieses in the last twenty years than trilogies. In fact sometimes it has been a relief to find something that is planned as ‘just’ a trilogy. Examples: R. Jordan, CJ Cherryh, GRRM, Michelle West, Janny Wurts, Marie Brennan…and that is just off the top of my head.

    And let’s not overlook the varying types of series: one LONG story told over multiple books (Jordan, CJC); intertwining stories (West, Wurts); same setting, not necessarily same characters in various installments (Discworld, Brennan).

    I think trilogies are easier to write than a long coherent story and CJC is dealing with it by writing multiple trilogies in FOREIGNER. West is writing multiple serieses (one is five books, one is two, the latest unfinished ) dealing with various aspects of one enormous story. They are all – mostly, IMO – avoiding Robert Jordan/GRRM disease defined as ‘losing control of the story.’

    I also love finding a really good standalone, like any McKillip, or half of your work.

    And I really loathe it when the publishers don’t tell you, as happened with TERRITORY by Bull, and PEGASUS by McKinley.

    One we don’t hear a lot of are situations like in ‘trilogy’ by Ansen Dibell from [invokes ISFDB] the late 70s & early 80s where three books were printed in English and seemed to wrap up a story nicely, and I later discovered there were two more written that were only published in Dutch (and French, apparently, according to Amazon today). She clearly didn’t NEED to go on, but thought she could so continued writing.
    They were science fantasy/planetary fantasy, compared to early CJC and MZB on the cover copy. She did a good job of the telepaths, and the creepiness people would find in having mind readers around. And in the 3rd, SUMMERFAIR, her description of the crowd of hostile telepaths (aliens) being totally silent was genuinely disturbing.

  2. I do tend to like trilogies, because for the most part I don’t like neverending series, and trilogies tend to be completed in enough time to have some weight to the story but not so much that I get bored/annoyed. But I do understand the point about standalones as well–there’s something really great about a story that wraps up neatly in one book. There are also some series that essentially function as connected standalones, but they seem to be pretty rare. Connie Willis’s Oxford books, maybe?

    Anyway, what I personally want is for each story to have the number of books it takes to tell. Some will be one book, some three, and some fifteen. As long as there’s some integrity to it, I’m fine.

  3. I’m fine with a fifteen-book series if I’ve been in from the beginning — and if the author can hold it together, which of course some do. But I don’t necessarily want to start a new series if there are already fifteen books in it. Sometimes I DO, but it is quite a commitment of time.

    It does seem to me that there are more quadrilogies (or whatever — tetralogies?) than there used to be. But maybe I have just noticed a couple and now they seem common-ish. I don’t know. Isn’t The Raven Boys series supposed to go to four? I definitely agree that a series should go as long as it needs to, and then stop.

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