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Lately, more and more fantasy books I've seen are part of a trilogy. Is this because readers like it, or is it a cynical plot by publishers to draw out the story longer, so they can make more money? :D

I'm worried if I follow the market, I maybe forced to unnecessarily drag out the book, in the way many fantasy books are. On the other hand, by not doing so, I maybe ignoring an important genre expectation.

My question is: As a writer, should I plot my book so it can follows the trilogy structure?

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7 Answers 7

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Hell no! You do not have to do it and there is no need to do it. And I am writing a fantasy trilogy ;)

There are a lot of fantasy series which are longer than just three books. If you have a series in mind, plot it, write your first book and see how it sells. If you don't, don't.

The advantage for the reader is, that he knows how many book will come when choosing to read a trilogy. Some series do not mention how many books shall come. Which sounds like (and often is) milking the reader as long as possible. These series often end someday because of quality problems, not because of a well plotted story.

If you plotted a single book, go for it, don't try to make it bigger as needed to follow an arbitrary structure. People won't think you are the next Tolkien just because you write a trilogy. I often read carefully before buying a book to find out if it is part of a series. Then I refuse to buy it. I do not want to start yet another series. I'm reading too many.

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"I do not want to start yet another series. I'm reading too many." Exactly. –  Shantnu Tiwari Oct 8 '11 at 16:08

I am answering this purely as a reader. I am not a professional writer, so I can only imagine the pressures a series would put on the author.

It is an interesting question, as I do indeed see so many more series on the shelves - obviously a trend that many follow.

As a reader, I like trilogies etc. because if I like the story, I will get so much more with many books than I will with just one! But at the same time I don't like to wait; when I browse book-stores, I will avoid trilogies unless the whole set is out. (This is just as true for on-line shopping as it is for those other ones, you know, the off-line ones.. "book stores" I think they are called.)

If I read the first novel of a series when it comes out, it will inevitably be at least a year before I get the next. Likely I will have forgotten enough of it that my passion for reading the next is lower. Harry Potter was a notable exception (thanks to a certain wonderful seven year old). Anyway, so I love omnibuses.. complete series - or books that are definitely stand-alone: I despise it when I get a book that doesn't state clearly "I am the FIRST IN A SERIES.."

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I think the reason for the popularity of the trilogy structure in the fantasy genre is compelling, but far from expected or mandatory.

It's simply that fantasy novels tend to be long, for many reasons, including:

  • Fantasy novels typically require lots of world-building exposition, explaining the setting, the mechanics of magic, central factions in the world, etc. etc.
  • Fantasy novels are often interested in exploration; showing off various fantastical elements (places, creatures, magic items...) is often a lot of the book's focus. So the narrative is designed with a lot of shifting from place to place, and introducing new elements very frequently.
  • Fantasy novels often have epic plots, about the rise and fall of kingdoms and dragons and deities. Epic plots tend naturally to be of greater length, because this gives both time and wordcount to properly build up this epic scope. Readers will probably not care much whether the Empire of Lime can defeat the Bespectacled Dragon unless they've gotten a sense of all these elements as being rich, intriguing, and with real substance.

Since fantasy tends to expand into great length, multi-book structures are necessary. The moment that's a given, trilogies are a natural choice -

  • it's a short, well-defined series;
  • that's a length fantasy readers will be willing to risk dipping into;
  • the three-book structure can, in many senses, duplicate the three-act structure;
  • it's a short as you can get besides a duo (which - maybe this is just me - feels like an awkward length, which needs to work harder to justify the split into multiple books, and is harder to structure a single narrative around).

In other words, trilogies are popular because they're "short" (compared to longer sagas), not because they're long (compared to stand-alones). I think you'll find that stand-alones are actually easier sells, both to publishers and to readers - they'd much rather buy/read something complete, self-contained, and non-risky. It's simply that such books are less common, particularly when a lot of genre fans are interested in fantasy specifically for the length-inducing elements I've mentioned (world-building, exploration, epic plots).

So, if you feel your novel works best without falling into the trilogy structure, in all probability you are correct. I would reconsider only if you yourself think there are some elements in your book that need expanding (an additional viewpoint; an important element in your fantasy setting that might be poorly understood; a character who merits more action and attention than you originally planned, etc.).

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And, in the case of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, way too long. –  Robusto Oct 9 '11 at 23:46
    
If he'd kept to his original plan for a trilogy, maybe not :) –  Standback Oct 10 '11 at 4:24
    
ASOIAF is not way too long, you Philistine. Just arriving too slowly. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 11 '11 at 11:07

This is a bit like asking how long a piece of string should be.

A fantasy work should be as long as it needs to be, no more, no less. One book, three books, ten books, as long as that's how it should be, then great.

Trilogies are a classic in literature, going back to Greek plays. The reason they're so classic is because, at their simplest, they consist of "beginning", "middle", "end", which suits story telling.

Unfortunately, Fantasy is awash with trilogies, so in a sense they've become almost clichéd. This may be because authors think it shows their success in developing a fantasy trilogy like Tolkien and others who've gone before i.e. it makes them "established" in the genre. No doubt there's also an appeal from a marketing perspective, as well as appeal from the author's perspective (having payment/contract for three books). Certainly, from a publisher's point of view, they would be far happier to see three books being written and selling than just one. Readers may like it because, hey, who doesn't want to read more about great characters?

I do think things are changing though. I rarely invest time in trilogies and/or series these days unless reviews are exceptional (for example, The Malazan Book of the Fallen series). For the most part, what I expect are books well-written, and focused. My time is so limited that I simply can't invest the effort into every fantasy series that comes along.

If you feel your story warrants a trilogy, great, but always remember that it's easier to pad and bulk up a story than it is to wield a discerning scalpel and cut out the unnecessary. Ask yourself what is necessary to tell your story.

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The best way to write any novel (or story)is to write it as if it is a standalone. By all means leave areas that can be explored in a sequel, and good characterization will enable you to pick up the story anyway, as there will be backstories, alliances, problems etc to flesh out. But by writing with one eye to a sequel or as part of a trilogy, before knowing if the first book will be published you risk short changing the reader in book one, and placing artificial, unnecessary limitations on your story and action.

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I think the idea of "placing artificial, unnecessary limitations on your story and action" can go both ways. You may have a quest story long enough that it needs to be told in three parts. Your story may cover someone's entire life (King Arthur). If it's really so big that it needs to be in more than one book, I think arbitrarily forcing book 1 to end on a tidy note can be just as bad as stretching out an idea two books longer than it should go. –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 8 '11 at 16:26
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That's a fair point Luaren, but the question is whether a rantasy book HAS to be in 3 parts, or more than one part. Subject matter that doesn;t fit into one book obviously should be spread over more than one. The issue is taking a story and writing it with an eye to a sequel that mightn't ever be produced, and that is artificial. –  Gerbil Oct 11 '11 at 10:24
    
Oh, I see what you mean -- deliberately not finishing certain aspects of the story in the hope of coaxing the publisher to pick up the sequel(s). I can see how doing that on purpose might wreck the narrative of the first one, yes. –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 11 '11 at 11:11
    
that's it exactly, thanks Lauren –  Gerbil Oct 12 '11 at 11:32

There is no expectation that a fantasy be a trilogy. Many, many successful fantasy books are standalone.

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Your story should be only as long as it needs to be, and not a word more.

If your protagonist has a lot to accomplish, then sure, write more than one book. But for FSM's sake don't pad it thinking that you must "commit trilogy." Just because CJ Cherryh gave that advice to Mercedes Lackey 25 years ago doesn't mean it holds for every writer. (Hell, it doesn't mean it holds for Lackey now. Her current trilogy is not getting good reviews; her Valedmar stories are running out of steam.)

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"And not a word less either" I'd add. Oh: do you have a link, maybe, to that Cherryh/Lackey convo? Sound incredibly interesting. (Well, I'm a sucker for history of all kinds) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Oct 8 '11 at 1:11
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if you Google lackey cherryh "commit trilogy" you can find it in several places. She mentioned it first in the foreword to one of the "other writers play in Valdemar" books. –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 8 '11 at 13:04

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