Three shall be the number of the counting and the number of the counting shall be three.

Let’s admit it: fantasy authors love trilogies. It’s kind of hardwired into us, a sort of genetic predilection to multiple books, and for a number of years everyone’s been reasonably comfortable with the state of things. Part of it’s historical; the towering works in our field, Tolkien’s most notably, came in that threefold form, and like so much of the rest of his work the idea has stuck (though it should be noted that Tolkien wrote and wanted to release The Lord of the Rings as a single book, not a three-part series, but his publisher balked at the size–which is kind of funny given the shelf-bending weight of a lot of new fantasy books these days). And besides, everyone likes the stability–as an author there’s a comfort in knowing you have time to work out some larger ideas in a book series, as a publisher there’s a comfort in knowing you’ve got an established series to market, and as a reader there’s a comfort in knowing you’ll be able to follow a series past the end of a given book.

But there seem to be some ominous rumblings on the horizon, and I’m not entirely sure where they’re coming from, or why now. At several recent conventions I’ve attended panels which referred to the “imminent death” of the trilogy format, either downwards or upwards–mostly the latter, I think, as the absolutely stand-alone fantasy book seems to be difficult for people to get behind (with a few notable exceptions–John Myers Myers’ (yes, that’s really his name 🙂 ) Silverlock being my favorite. If you haven’t read it already, go find it…though you’ll have to search a bit, as it’s gone through five or six editions over the years. But it’s well worth the effort.). Upping the ante seems to be all the rage these days, probably because of the more recent fantasy phenomena: Harry Potter and The Wheel of Time. Harry Potter, of course, got broader and deeper as time went on (compare the size of Deathly Hallows, for instance, to Sorcerer’s Stone), but at least it was always intended to be seven books in length. The Wheel of Time, in contrast, kept expanding and expanding for so long that the late Robert Jordan even started writing prequels before the original series was complete! But both of these works have exerted such pull on the rest of the genre–and rightfully so–that everyone seems to have gotten on board with the idea of hitting the ground running with a nice four book series minimum…just to get the feet wet, I guess.

So why shouldn’t bigger be better? If three books are good, four, five and six must surely be (progressively) better, and seven and eight and beyond just off the charts. Why leave a world at all if it works? Maybe I’m exaggerating the argument a bit, but I can certainly understand the feeling behind these sentiments. I love LOTR, both books and films. In a way I hate reading The Return of the King, because I know that’s (basically) it, and I don’t get to go back to Middle-Earth again, or at least not at that time and in that story…until I start reading the whole series again, obviously, but despite how enjoyable that is I can’t really argue it’s very different as an experience. There’s a period to the sentence, and you can only read the same sentence, getting the same level of impact from it, so many times.

But in a way that’s precisely what makes a finite series so successful–there is an end to it, and that gives the whole body of the work leading up to the end a kind of temporal shape it wouldn’t otherwise possess. Because from everything I can tell, a super-long series without any defined end point tends to lose definition somewhere in the middle, and unless you’re a hardcore fan you’re not likely to hang around while the author figures out how to get things back on track. Long series tend to wander–either deliberately, to fill space while trying to delay the forward movement of the main plot, or accidentally, as an author tries to figure out where the heck to go next. Even long books face this problem, let alone long series, and fans get increasingly angry if they feel they’re getting led on without any true end in sight (for a TV version of this, see reactions to Lost, or even The X-Files. At some point a show has to roll credits or risk having people give up on it altogether). More to the point, I think they’re a bit lazy artistically–if you’ve written in an environment for so long that you can now do it with your eyes closed, I think you’ve overstayed your welcome there, at least for now. Authors who don’t challenge themselves aren’t being fair to either themselves or their readers, and readers will, eventually, pick up on that fact.

All of which leads us back to the trilogy. Now I don’t think trilogies represent the only legitimate kind of fantasy series, or even the most preferable one; Icarus is one of two planned books, The Third Sign is part of a trilogy, and my latest project could ultimately go anywhere from two to five books–I won’t be sure of that for a while, although I am sure it will stop somewhere. But a trilogy shouldn’t be thrown on the scrap heap either, all on the theory that bigger is unquestionably better–it isn’t. Every story needs to end eventually–and if a trilogy ensures that end, I think the resultant tale will almost always be a more compelling one for it.

For more, check out my next entry, “The Trilogy Strikes Back: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Mushy Middle.” It’ll be sweet when I get these things together for the DVD collection of Season One…