- by Elaine Isaak
I’m excited about the release of my third novel, The Bastard Queen, this weekend! I’ll be celebrating at the Arisia Convention in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a special “three party”. But you can help me get the word out: I have not committed trilogy!
Fantasy fiction has acquired the scurrilous reputation of being chock-full of trilogies. Certainly there are a lot of them–and the grand-daddy of fantasy as we know it today was J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, published in three volumes and now referred to as a trilogy, or often “The Trilogy.” However, if you look closely, you’ll find the work is divided into 6 books internally, and it was never actually Tolkien’s intent to release the work in three volumes.
Nonetheless, he spawned countless imitators, and the expectation of many readers is that fantasy books come in threes (just like the mystic moments in a fairy tale). Nothing will make an editor cringe more quickly than to hear an unpublished novelist announce with glee that he is working on a trilogy. Unless you’ve got an overarching story that falls nicely into a three-part structure and truly requires the breadth and page-count of multiple volumes, best to write one book first–then see where it might go.
Notice I mentioned the overaching story and three part structure. A good trilogy has a shape to it, just the way a good scene, chapter or novel does. The action rises across the books, building to an even bigger climax in the final volume. Ideally, each book reaches a sort of equilibrium at its own conclusion, allowing reader and characters to take a breath before plunging ahead–even more ideally, it’s just a small breath, keeping the reader eager for the next book. You’d like to avoid the problem of “The Empire Strikes Back,” wherein the ending resolves nothing and is clearly just dangling bait for the next film. If you look instead a Peter Jackson’s film version of The Trilogy, you’ll find that he has deliberately changed the pace of the books, strengthening the intermediate adversaries to build tension into each film individually, allow for a satisfying climax each time that still leaves the viewer wanting more, and escalates the stakes and the tension to make the third film really pay off. That’s what a trilogy should do.
So now that I have a third book in the series, I will be faced with accusations of Trilogy everywhere I go. However, this third book, like the first two, is a separate adventure in the same realm. It launches from incidents and characters in the first two, in the same way that our own history builds on the choices of past generations. Do they need to be read in order? It’s probably a richer world that way, but I hope that the new reader can pick up The Bastard Queen and enjoy Fiona’s tale without having to know all about her father and grandfather.
I have not committed trilogy! In fact, I already have a partial manuscript for book 4. . .