What is a fantasy trilogy?

I have been having an interesting email discussion with a Sydney specialist bookseller about the expectations readers have when they pick up a trilogy – in other words, what they expect a trilogy to have extra, over and above a stand-alone novel.

Now obviously it will have better world building, because there is simply more words to do it in.
But what else do you expect to be different?

A trilogy has more room for an author to shift focus between characters, to have more characters, more complexity of plot.
Are you disappointed (or delighted) by a trilogy that …
Shifts focus?
Has huge complexity in, say, the politics?
Concentrates on more depth in fewer characters? Prefers to expand into more characters? Kills off too many of the characters – after all there are lots more!? (A complaint I have heard about G.R.R. Martin’s present epic.)
What makes you stop reading a trilogy (i.e. fail to buy the second or third book)?
What do you expect of the story arc in a trilogy? e.g. do you prefer a story that follows one or two characters from childhood through to hero/ine status? Or are you happy if it deals with a shorter time frame? What about one that switches from one generation to the next?

Do you prefer trilogies to series? How would you define the difference?

And for those who have done tons of reading: What’s the best trilogy you’ve ever read?

If you have any opinions on any of the above, I’d love to hear them!


What is a fantasy trilogy? — 84 Comments

  1. One of the difficulties of defining a trilogy is that some people consider one long story divided into three as NOT a trilogy. So, to them, Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy. Their definition of a trilogy seems to be three interconnected books, each self-contained. I’m hard-pressed to think of any examples.

    Whatever the definition, a 400-600,000 word story ought to be more than just three times the length of a standalone novel. The quote I remind myself of regularly comes from the Tor website:

    ‘Epic fantasy characteristically produces its effects not so much by the novelty of its invention as by its depth of insight and strength of execution.’

    So depth of insight – with regards politics, characterisation, worldbuilding, plot, philosophy – ought to be central to a good trilogy. Executed well, of course.

    I think the single most crucial feature of an extended work is a device of some kind which binds the story together. This device is usually a mystery, partly explained to the reader, which is revealed gradually. In Julian May’s Galactic Milieu trilogy, for example, the device is the identity of the Hydra and Fury. This device should be introduced right at the beginning and only resolved near the end.

    The difference between a trilogy and a series is a simple matter of the number of books. More than three = series.

  2. I expect a fantasy trilogy to be one large tale split over three books. (Karen’s Kingmaker duology was a ‘trilogy’ in that sense, and they could have published it as three shorter titles except for the huge cliffhanger at the end of book one.)

    With a series I expect self-contained books, and I really want to know before I start whether they can be read out of order without detracting from the enjoyment. For example, Pratchett’s Discworld series. (And in TV, Fawlty Towers or BlackAdder versus Lost or Sopranos.) Characters grow and change, but reading a later book before an earlier one is no different to a flashback.

    I regard trilogies as one *BIG* book (equiv = a movie) and will only buy them when they’re all available at once. I’ve been caught too many times where I’ve been reading book three several years after books one and two and I have no idea what’s going on and don’t remember any of the characters or plot. (The Tamir books were the most recent example.)

  3. LOTR isn’t a trilogy. It was written by Tolkien as a single volume and cut into three by the publisher. That was a marketing decision, not a narrative construction by the author.

    I approach a trilogy as a 3 act play. There is an over-arcing story which opens in location A and closes in location B. It has a beginning and an end, to a self-contained series of events.

    Within that long story arc, there are 3 parts. Each of those parts has a beginning and an end, bearing in mind that the beginning of part 1 is the beginning of the Whole Story, and the end of part 3 is the end of the Whole Story. The middle child is traditionally the most difficult, since its middle and end relate to itself only, not the Whole Story. If that makes sense. It’s the bridge connecting the Beginning and the End. It starts in the middle of an onging story, and it ends in the middle of an ongoing story, so to speak.

    Absolutely there needs to be depth and complexity in a trilogy, since there is more space and a work of that length requires a lot of muscle. It needs sufficient story to add that muscle, not just wandering and words to fill up the spaces.

    I don’t think anything longer than 3 books is automatically a series. A play in 5 acts is still one story, told in a more extended format. You could say Jordan’s writing a play in 549 acts. *g* A series, to me, is a bunch of standalone novels using the same characters ie Discworld, or any number of crime books.

    I think the readers of epic fantasy want a sense of completion in a trilogy, that the main characters we start out with are the ones we follow through to the end. That’s not to say that all the characters will survive to the end, but the main ones do, and moreover their stories are all ‘wrapped up’. Not necessarily happily, but if we’re going to invest in a bunch of people I think we want to know our investment pays off at the end.

    You cite Martin, but if you look closely, most of his main characters are intact. Of course, who knows if that will hold till the end? I do think he ranks his characters in tiers, and so far none of the 1st tier is dead yet, as I read it. But I could be very very wrong.

    Trilogies contain big storylines and smaller storylines that hopefully fit in with the big story. Within the smaller storylines, people can die, their stories finish sooner than the Big story being told. But when you weave all the smaller storylines together, they form the musculature that supports the spine of the Big Story, that starts with Bk 1 and finishes with Bk 3.

    In theory, anyhow. But I’m sure, as with everything, there’s more than one way to write a story.

  4. LOTR is a trilogy. A story spread over three books is popularly called a trilogy. Whether the author structures the narrative so it falls in to three roughly equal lengths is irrelevant. One story over three books is a trilogy.

    I’ll buy your point about series, though. Sold to the skeptic.


    Here’s the problem with Martin’s series. He begins the first books with a device – the Stark children and their wolves, one wolf per child – and to all intents and purposes has abandoned it. I’m not sure what meaning the wolves have if the Starks aren’t ‘tier one’ characters. If they weren’t meant to have a deep meaning, if they weren’t a continuity device, then they ought not to have been featured so prominently in the first chapter. I think Martin is winging it. His story is out of control. He uses the death (or presumed death) of main characters for effect, and I’ve tired of it.

  5. Well, we can agree to disagree (at the moment) on the Martin. He hasn’t finished the story. When it’s finished, I’ll have a better idea of what he’s aiming for and whether he’s acheived it. It may turn out that you’re absolutely right, he’s lost the plot, and so forth. I haven’t reached that conclusion yet.

    I still hold to my point on LOTR. The author’s intention is all that counts. In Tolkien’s head, that was one book. It’s a single story released in 3 volumes, which for me is different to a trilogy. I think if you know you’re writing a trilogy you structure things differently.

    As a sidebar, Simon, I originally wrote KK as a single novel (and in doing so, wrote a crappy underdeveloped story, let me tell you!!!!). When I re-examined the manuscript I saw where I’d shortchanged things, looked for a good point to break the narrative, broke it, and continued. At that point I was thinking 2 act play, not 3 act play. I do agree though, that a trilogy is ONE big book.

  6. Now you’ve got me puzzled, Karen, You tell Simon that a trilogy is one big book, but say LOTR isn’t a trilogy because Tolkien write it as one big book. I do like arguing with you, and of course I find myself mostly coming around to your point of view. But you’ve lost me here.

  7. Okay. *g* Technically that’s correct, in that LOTR was able to be split into 3 separate volumes. I guess my contention is that it wasn’t Tolkien’s intention to split them like that, that he envisioned a single unit, and possibly he would have structured the story differently if he had known it would be divided like that. For eg, in the movies Jackson rejigged the storylines so you didn’t just stick with one or two characters for such a long time. In a single volume you can catch up to the others quickly, if you’re waiting for publication dates spread out, you can’t. So maybe Tolkien would have structured that way, I don’t know.

    The closest analogy I can come up with is my current project. Book 1 of the trilogy is divided into 3 parts, but they are 3 parts within a whole section of the over-arcing story. They’re like mini-acts in the first act of the 3 act play idea. If suddenly Voyager decided to split bk 1 into three slimmer volumes, (1a, b and c) which put together would make up the first volume/act of the trilogy — it would kind of work, but not really. Because if each of those acts was going to be asked to stand alone, I’d structure them differently.

    Perhaps it’s a question of knowing stuff that interferes with perception. If I didn’t know Tolkien wrote LOTR as a single story, I might not bother about it and judge it as it’s often presented. But because I *do* know he didn’t intend it as a trilogy, that gets in the way. And further confusion is created when the publishers release it both in parts and as a single unit. That blurs the boundaries.

    I guess I think that ‘true’ trilogies are bigger big stories than is presented with LOTR. Certainly most trilogies these days have individual word counts that are higher than the 3 parts of LOTR. If you put together each volume of your first trilogy, or each one of Glenda’s 2 trilogies, you’d end up with a far bigger single unit than LOTR, indicating an increase in scope, treatment and complexity.

  8. Sorry for hijacking your blog, Glenda …

    OK Karen, I’m with you until the last paragraph. LOTR’s word counts are 190k for FOTR, 180k for TTT and 140k + appendices for ROTK. 500k + for the trilogy. Mine was 540k, Glenda’s IOG trilogy about 420k. I suspect many, if not most trilogies are shorter than LOTR, though they probably have as many or more plot strands because they’re not as wordy, and offer nowhere near the backstory (sadly IMO).

    I didn’t intend mine as a trilogy either. Although something is resolved at the end of each book, the intention was for readers to start at the beginning of bk 1 and finish at the end of bk 3. I make little concession to the person who starts with bk 2 or 3. Unlike Tolkien I do give a little backstory at the beginning of bks 2 and 3, but primarily to remind readers who read the previous book months or years before.

    So, who writes ‘trilogies’? If the author’s intention is all that counts, how can the reader tell whether they are reading a trilogy or one story split into three? I suspect, Karen, we’re doing semantics again…

  9. Really? Those are the word counts? Amazing. Because I have the books as single volumes and they are really skinny! Yet not on terribly thin paper or with very small typeface.

    And no, most people probably don’t know LOTR was a single volume. It’s still a great book with huge sales.

    What I will say about trilogies (or 4 acters, or 5 acters) is this: I do not believe each book is a self contained unit where you reset to zero at the beginning of the next installment. When you do that, it’s a series. A trilogy (or whatever) is, for me, a series of linked/connected stories where the over-arcing storyline is continued, experientially and thematically. You don’t start over with each volume. And if you do, you’re not fulfilling reader expectations, because readers picking up a trilogy *do* expect that — and as a former genre bookseller who spent 7 years talking to readers/customers about what they liked and didn’t like, and what worked for them and why/why not, on that point I say I really do know what I’m talking about.

    And if you don’t do that, when you’ve got series titles that imply or state overtly that you’re holding the first, second or third part in a story called ‘The Ruins of the Ancients’ or whatever, with each part of the story having a subtitle, if you will, then you are playing with fire where your average genre reader is concerned.

    As for why people don’t complete a trilogy, well: if you get people not picking up bk 2, then they didn’t enjoy book 1 and it probably doesn’t have anything to do with how the trilogy is structured. It’s the style, the tone, the characters, the story. If they do go on to bk 2 then don’t pick up bk 3, it’s more likely to be something to do with the structure, or middle-book-itis, though sometimes it’s because people don’t like the way the story has developed.

    Putting it simplistically, I guess what keeps people reading is the fact they want to know what happens next!!! So if you’ve created an interesting world with interesting characters facing interesting dilemmas, you’re on the right track. But I think you need to be aware of setting up/delivering on expectations. In trilogies/series, readers invest emotionally in a set of characters, they live their lives vicariously, they want to see their stories through to the end. And if you dont do that, you disappoint them.

  10. This is fascinating. I’m happy for my blog to be hijacked…

    So Karen, is my Isles of Glory a trilogy or a series? There were a set of characters that went right through to the end, but each book had a kind of ending although not a complete resolution, and the character focus changed with each book.

    The investment in characters can be fulfilled in a series surely…I can think of lots of series which involve the same central character, and plenty where the main character may be different, but the original people keep cropping up.

    Do you think there is a preference for different things (series/standalones/trilogies) in different countries?

    Russell – I am wondering if you are right about GRR Martin. His books are not s series, because nothing has been resolved anywhere – it’s a “decology” or however many books he intends (does he even know?) – and I tend to have a dislike of an -ology that keeps widening out without really getting anywhere, as wonderful as his story and his writing are. It would be interesting to know whether Jordan’s later books sold as well as his first ones. Maybe a bookseller can tell us that…

  11. From what I know in my short career of bookselling, Jordan’s later books sell no where near as much as say, the first 5 books. I only ever sell the later ones to true die hards, and almost every time they complain about how many books there might be!

    As for Martin, I’ve read on his site that the Song was supposed to be 5 books in length, but now that the 4th is out he believes there will be no more than 7.

  12. I don’t think it’s possible to judge Martin’s work until he’s finished the story, and frankly I think it’s unfair to try it at this stage. Only when the story is complete can we, the audience, stand back and say, yes that worked for us, or no it didn’t. But saying he hasn’t told it properly when it isn’t finished yet — nuh. No more than it’s fair to judge a trilogy by its first 2 books when the 3rd isn’t done.

    I think IoG tends to fall between two stools, Glenda. It’s not entirely what I class as a trilogy, but it’s not quite a series, either.

    See, I think it comes down to the definition. I think it’s possible to have a trilogy that’s not a series, and a 3-book series that’s not a trilogy. In my definition of trilogy then I’d have to say no, I don’t IoG quite fits the picture. Nor MM either. But I stress that’s in *my* definition of a trilogy. I think a trilogy is a very specific story structure (I know you’ll scream but again I say, the 3 act play. Hamlet is a 5 act play, which could extrapolate out to a fiveology).

    Where the trouble lies, I think, is in perceptions. If the ‘reader norm’ default position of what a trilogy is lies more closely with mine, and a writer doesn’t deliver that, folk might feel dissatisfied. Not because of inherent flaws in the work but because an expectation hasn’t been met. OTOH, trilogy is an easy catch-all term to market a 3 book series. When actually, sometimes what’s written is more a series with a loosely connected theme.

    Trilogies, in general, tend to set up an over-arcing story question, ie Will the good wizards stop the evil overlord from fulfilling his dream of world domination? That’s the question asked in the beginning of bk 1, and answered by the conclusion of bk 3. Other story questions are raised and answered along the way, but the primary story question is the spine that connects all 3 books. It’s the throughline, the narrative engine. And it’s one major question, into which all the other story questions feed, or arise out of. So in bk 1 you set up the dilemma, in bk 2 you complicate matters diabolically, and in bk 3, after much angst, you solve the dilemma.

    That, simplistically, is what I see as a classic trilogy construction. I think it’s the expectation most readers have when reading a trilogy. Which isn’t to say you can’t play around with the construct, but you have to be careful. Otherwise I think it’s like telling a joke and leaving off the punchline. People feel cheated.

  13. From where booksellers stand all of Jordan’s books sell.

    We continually sell the whole series, not just later books and always field enquiries for the next book.

    Yes, readers do complain about how many books there are, and that the quality of the last 3 or 4 may not have been as good as the earlier ones, but they still buy…

    And his sales are reflected in industry figures.

  14. Re Jordan, I guess that demonstrates the power of story!

    Re what I said about judging a series mid-stream, I think on reflection I’m wrong. It is of course possible to pull out at any point because the story no longer engages, for whatever reason. But I still feel reluctant to say something hasn’t worked at all until it’s finished. And that’s a contradiction, and I’m not sure what to do about that!

  15. I prefer stand alone books. I hate having two books in a set, and the third never eventuates. I like a good story that fits into a single book…and it can be part of a series. I’m getting very frustrated with the Martin books because of the extreme amount of dangling he is resorting to. His later books would make no sense to someone picking up a random book.

    If I read a trilogy, I like each book to be able to stand alone.

  16. The more you say, Karen, the less I agree with you. Your definition is far too narrow. Here’s what I think people expect from a ‘trilogy’:

    1) Three books.

    2) One major plot line.

    3) Everything else such as consistent main characters, resolution at the end of each book, books of similar length and so on are incidental.

    So, is LOTR a trilogy? Yes. So are Glenda’s IOG and MM books. Karen’s is not, because it has only two books. The most problematic example i can think of is Herbert’s Dune. The first books is stand-alone, but the second and third do add to the first and depend on it. If pressed, I’d take either position on them.

    I don’t think it matters what the author intends. I don’t think it matters how the author conceives of the story arc, whether it is based on acts of a play or any other model. Three books to tell one story = trilogy.

    And of course it’s possible to judge Martin now. People have spent the last ten years judging Jordan; why should Martin be any different? Fact is, he originally envisaged his story in four volumes. He’s produced five separate books so far and we have every right to judge it. We judge it every time we decide whether or not to buy the next book. Why do you persist in cutting Martin slack you’d not grant anyone else?

  17. I sometimes think that readers who feel Isles of Glory was not a trilogy mistook what I considered the overreaching story arc of the fantasy – it is so common to have Evil Overlord (or equivalent) appears in bk 1, looks like winning bk 2, and dies end bk 3, that that is what people expected in IoG.

    And then they are disappointed because I subverted the trope in bk 2. To me, the trilogy story arc was:
    what on earth happened to bring a world of magic and ghemphs and strange birds as portrayed in bk 1 to the world without any of those things in book 3 (which absence you know about right from the beginning), and at a more intimate level, what happened to Blaze/Flame/Tor/Ruarth.

    I answered all those questions by the end of Bk3, not before. So to me, it is still a trilogy, although each book ends with a conclusion of some sort.

    Once again, in Mirage Makers, I have done the slightly unexpected. The trilogy story arc to me, is not Kardiastan versus Tyrans. That’s one of the several other other major threads. But the arcing story is the whole mystery of the Mirage/Mirage Makers/Ravage/Shiver Barrens and that will be solved only at the end of bk 3.

  18. Even Tolkien’s publisher knew that LOTR was one book. The technology just wasn’t up to printing it as a single bound volume.

    And in one of those ‘we have the technology’ moments I’m happy to say I have a single volume TPB of LOTR.

    I just went and pulled it off the shelf, and the very first line of ‘Notes on the Text’ is:

    “The Lord of the Rings is often erroneously called a trilogy, when it is in fact a single novel, consisting of six books plus appendices, sometimes published in three volumes.”

  19. True, Simon; and while Tolkien aficianados know this, the general public regard LOTR as a trilogy nonetheless. If Tolkien’s isn’t a trilogy, then neither is mine, nor are most others. I repeat my question: if Tolkien’s isn’t, whose is? And why?

  20. I don’t think I persist in cutting Martin any kind of slack. I love his work, I’m loving the series, I don’t think he’s lost the plot, I don’t think he’s clueless. I do think we’re partway through a very long and complicated story. So while I think anyone can walk away from Ice and Fire mid-stream because it no longer engages them, to say when it isn’t finished yet that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, in terms of the overall story, is premature, imo.

    I give everyone I read the same benefit of the doubt on that score. They might lose me because of storytelling choices, they might lose me because the work has become clumsy, whatever, but until it’s finished I won’t say — it didn’t work, overall.

    If that makes any sense.

    Of course, other readers might decide they’ve lost faith in Martin as a storyteller and give up on the series mid-stream, and that’s fine. I’m not saying that’s not a viable choice for any reader to make. I am saying it’s not viable for me. You, Russell, seem to have reached the conclusion that the work no longer engages you. That’s valid. But I do think it’s premature to say the entire series is a failure when it hasn’t been finished. Maybe that will be the valid conclusion when it’s finally done. I’m witholding judgement till then.

    And I think any reader who picks up a book in mid-series, be it trilogy or longer, is just asking to get themselves confused.

  21. Martin’s series is wonderful. Well written, with convincing characters and superior world building. But I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who, after a long wait, read ‘A Feast For Crows’ with a growing sense of unease, even desperation.

    Here’s why. The only two main plot threads I can see that tie the whole series together, that lift it above Peyton Place, are the Others coming south (Ice) and Daenerys heading west (Fire). We were delivered a fifth book where neither thread featured. The book felt like an interlude. Jordanesque. The wrong choice if his book is in fact a song of ice and fire. So either he’s made an error of judgment in leaving ice and fire out of this latest book, or he’s abandoned his story arc. I hope it’s the first and not the second.

    This is germane to Glenda’s questions about trilogies. Martin has failed to stick to his original story scale. He’s either seriously underestimated the space needed to tell his story, or he’s been seduced by the sales and is squeezing his readers. The former, I hope.

    Having said that, I enjoyed ‘A Feast For Crows’. Just not anywhere near as much as the first few books. I fear Martin has fallen over at the same hurdle that tripped Jordan. Yes, we will find out for sure some time in the future, assuming he lives to complete it.

  22. Personally, i just see a trilogy as a group of three books that interconnect, whether it be one big story or a bunch of three that have a small thing in common. I think you worry too much….but that’s me and i’m definately no expert…And i thought LOTR was divided into “technically” 6 books, but in 3 parts…

  23. Hi Glenda

    I’ve read your blog for a while, haven’t posted before but this is a topic I and my friends discuss a lot.

    One of my biggest bugbears with trilogies is the ‘single book split into three’, that other commenters mention. Many of my reading friends don’t mind this as much as I do, but I really get frustrated when I get to the end of book one (and book two) and nothing is finalised. You’re being asked to stop reading mid-story, and wait twelve months before you get the next instalment. Very frustrating.

    Some of the things I expect in a trilogy over and above a stand-alone novel are:

    – The story follows the same main character(s) all the way through

    – Secondary characters can differ between each book

    – The overall story of the trilogy follows a plot point that starts early in book one, and continues through all three books. This is not the only plot in the books, but is the main driver for the characters (during the course of the trilogy) from start to finish

    – Plots and worlds can be more complex, but they don’t have to be.

    Things that make me stop reading trilogies:

    – When the author kills off a main character even though they have no logical reason for doing this except to take the story in a different arc, or because they obviously got sick of them

    – When there are so many characters I continually have to re-read sections to find out who people are

    – I start reading one story, and by book three the story is so different—different main characters, different plot—that I don’t even recognise it as the same story.

  24. Personally, i just see a trilogy as a group of three books that interconnect, whether it be one big story or a bunch of three that have a small thing in common. I think you worry too much….but that’s me and i’m definately no expert…And i thought LOTR was divided into “technically” 6 books, but in 3 parts…

    NOTE: this could possibly have been posted twice

  25. I wonder if the underlying point of agreement is related to number of volumes at all. The shape of a work sets up expectations. We’re not talking about trilogies – we’re talking about basic plot development and how the reader interacts with it to enter into the world of the novel more deeply.

    Whether the opening be be the first 3 chapters of a one volume novel or the first volume of a multivolume work (with a cool subplot which may or may not allow a given section to stand alone) it sets up stuff for the reader to use later on.

    Set-up is like Karen’s description of a play in so many acts – no matter how long or short the play is, the reader has to be lured in and taught addiction (OK, so I need coffee and it’s too late at night for any so I am resorting to drug metaphors). The reader *needs* an establishment phase. The dire wolves and the children in Martin are part of that establishment phase and so (uh oh, I am agreeing with Russell) they are crucial to providing the thread to enable the reader to trace a path through various volumes. Hansel and Gretel’s trail in the forest – the stones need to be white and shine in the darkness, not bread and get eaten by birds. They’re not the whole tale, but they are a definite security for most readers. (all these lovely metaphors! I may not be making sense but I am having a great time stringing them together 🙂 )

    The stuff that brings the reader in may not be the crucial plots for the novel or group of novels. Glenda, this is what happens in your work. They have to be echoed in the final volume or closing chapters, though, if the reader is to feel a sense of closure. Karen, you do this in your 2 books by referring your hero back to the sea and showing the distance between where he is in relationship to his beginning. It can be an hearking back or it can be a thumping return full circle.

    Martin and Jordan both have a focus problem which causes havoc with the thread-following and potential closure for some readers and not for others. Russell can’t see white stones in the forest (no Ice and Fire in the recent volume) so his relationship with Martin’s setup is weakened.

    Have I annoyed everyone yet?

  26. Hi again guys.
    Just wondering what you all think of the inclusion of text in books other than the first in a trilogy/series that summarizes what happened in previous books. I know Martin doesn’t do it a whole lot, unless a character specifically refers to a past event, but I’ve read a few authors who include quite a bit of information about what has happened in previous books. Are they doing this to remind the not-so-attentive reader, or to cater for those who pick up a trilogy/series half way through?

  27. Welcome Cabsav…I agree trilogies can go overboard on the number of characters.

    Interesting that the two booksellers have different views on the Jordan sales.

    Lynton – this sometimes depends on the editor. My copy editor is forever asking me to sprinkle the back story in the present book to refresh the memory of readers of previous ones. Other authors prefer to deal with this problem in a synopsis or prologue, so that people who don’t need it can skip it.

    I was recently reminded how important it is to do something. Two of my beta readers forgot the motivation of one of my characters as portrayed in the first book, and both said – what’s going on with this fellow? He’s not credible! I had taken it for granted they would remember, forgetting that not everyone remembers a book as well as the author does! Lol…

    Trouble with backstory is that it can slow the novel down, not to mention be really tedious for people who are reading one volume immediately after the preceding one.

  28. Interesting thoughts, cabsav. You’re right, I don’t like reading a partially completed long story. I’m waiting for closure on series by Jordan, Martin, May, Sean Williams, Glenda Larke and Tad Williams.

    But what can an author do? Publishers won’t release all the volumes at once, and they’d be hard to sell anyway. People who pay twenty bucks once every two years for the latest Jordan probably wouldn’t pay $250 for all the volumes published together. Even a trilogy costs $60.

    The other choice is to make each book self-contained, but to my mind this limits the scale of the overall story.

    There are many readers who wait until all the volumes of a series/trilogy/whatever are published before they read the first.

  29. i must confess as a reader who mostly reads literary fiction i am greatly put off fantasy by the trilogyness of it. i have limited time to read. i want to spread my attention among as many writers as possible. i would like to read some fantasy but am unwilling to commit so much time effor and money to it …

    is the trilogy necessary and are you limiting your work and missing out on wider markets because of this? (being devil’s advocate … you can shoot me if you like!)

  30. First thing, bibliobibuli, is that you need not read a trilogy to read fantasy. There are plenty of shorter works you might enjoy. Try Mieville’s Perdido St Station, or Glenda Larke’s (Noramly’s) Havenstar – if you can find it.

    I write 500,000 word stories because that’s the length needed to get the effect I want to produce. They are split into three parts so the publishers can afford to publish them.

    I don’t think there’s any special virtue in reading widely. I think real satisfaction is to be found in reading deeply. I write long stories to immerse people in my stories. Some (but by no means all) people like the effect created.

  31. Well, a larger work is often necessary in fantasy, because you have to build a world (place/culture/ religion/society/ the whole shebang)as well as tell a story. Whereas in mainstream, you can say something like this: “He was a Muslim convert, a pharmacist from London with a Lebanese wife who worked as a fashion consultant in France” – and you have in very few words told a whole story. In a fantasy I can say something similar that won’t tell you anything at all without filling in the background first. e.g. “He was Banma convert, a stroveworker from Odslon with a…” You get the picture.

    Actually my first published book was a stand-alone, and left to my own devices, I would prefer to write stand-alones. I now write trilogies because single books, of the kind of fantasy I write, are very difficult to sell – well nigh impossible in Australia. Publishers say they don’t sell on the street.

    There are sub-genres which do quite well in single volumes, eg vampire stories, or stories set on earth, urban fantasy type.

  32. Sara Douglass has also written two stand alone fantasy novels. “Beyond the Hanging Wall” and “Threshold”
    In case your interested bibliobibuli

  33. bibliobibuli, I’m the opposite to you! I love trilogyness. I get put off by completely stand alone fantasy novels- I tend to look at them and think “Is this it?” Since I know chances are I’ll invest heaps of emotion in the main characters, and their world, I don’t like the thought of I won’t ever be able to visit them again outside that one novel. That by the time I reach the last page, That’s It. Finished.

    A series of books with different plots but are in the same world- I like that. Best of all are a few trilogies each with their own story but in the same world, set within a decade or less of each other even. I just like really getting to know a world and its people and being able to visit it on many different occasions, even if all the main characters change between 2 different trilogies (though it’s great if a character from the other trilogy makes an appearance/is talked about in the other. Us readers get to see what our old friends are up to.)

    Yet I don’t think this sticking-to-one-world thing is some sort of ideal trait in a reader. It’s just me (and sounds like tastes like mine are the reason why stand alones ‘don’t sell well on the street’, sorry Glenda Larke, I do think it’s a shame you don’t have the freedom to do what you really want because of predicted sales). Thinking over what I’ve written, perhaps I’m not adventurous enough in my reading. Russell, I love reading deeply (and it sounds like I will enjoy your books!), although if ‘reading widely’ means reading books by lots of different authors- I think that’s very important, since it exposes you to many different points of view and ways of writing. Though of course, reading deeply is the priority- otherwise you wouldn’t get much out of books no matter how many you read.

  34. Vanessa – there must be loads of people like you, and to tell the truth I am one of them too, although I do reach a limit – when one world becomes boring and I want to move on. Loved Robin Hobb’s 3 trilogies, for example, but wouldn’t want to go back there yet again.

    And there’s no need to feel sorry for me – I like writing trilogies too! But I think I would prefer the closure of stand alones in a series. They suit the mindset of me as a writer better, even though I love reading trilogies.

  35. To me a trilogy is typically three separate books.

    Now, all together that have a single story arc and are connected as a single story, but the three individual books (as opposed to volumes) are also an individual story in their own right.

    A single story over three volumes is just that, one story divided, but a trilogy is like three of these that together create another larger story.

  36. This is just a side comment on LOTR. I read a bio a while back on Tolkien. And the story goes thus… Tolkien sent the story in to the Publisher and the publisher then gave it to his 10/11yr old son. The son’s book report on LOTR was that it should be broken into three parts to make it easier on the reader.

  37. Very rarely do I read the ‘reminder of whats gone before’ text at the start of a book in a series (unless it’s been years since the last book, and only then if I haven’t re-read it in the meantime).

    To my mind it smacks of lazy writing.

    A writer should have enough of a handle on their craft (if they’re being published) to be able to drop plot-point reminds throughout the story that the reader’s memory is refreshed and they understand what’s going on.

    Frankly if I couldn’t recall the last book of a trilogy I’d been reading I wouldn’t be bothering picking up the next volume… and if the plot of book 3 is related to the plot of book 1 as opposed to the following the last one I’d read, book 2, is it any wonder the reader might be confused?

  38. I agree with all those points, Mark. I skip introductory recaps too, and much prefer – as a reader – to find the info scattered subtly throughout.

    Problem is slightly different for a writer though. We tend to know our books pretty well as we write them, so it is sometimes hard to judge just how much a reader will have have retained and what they need to be reminded of – which is one reason why beta readers are such a valuable group of people.

  39. Unless there’s been a humongous (‘scues any bad spelling) i find it boring and difficult if they have what happened in first book in the second book, unless it is scattered A LOT!

    I personally prefer trilogies that are one long story cut into three…i guess i like big adventures *grin* and if there’s another story for the same one, why not a second trilogy.

  40. A trilogy is three books (or films, i.e the Matrix). One long interconnected story told over three

    Enough said.

    Tolkien himself considered Lord of the Rings one book, but it was only feasible for the publishers to do it in three, thus starting this whole dreadful trilogy business that seems to somehow define a genre. LOTR is not a trilogy, just one long tale split into three books. I don’t care if the there are forty three books in the series(a Jordanology perhaps?); if they follow on from one another, like LOTR, then its just one book really. The whole trilogy thing is just publishing at work.

    As for the whole George Martin argument; while I think that Feast for Crows lagged a little at times, I do not think that he has “abandoned” his story arc. Given that he has been in the writing game for so many years, and done TV, editing, and explored fantasy, science fiction and horror in his fiction, I’m pretty sure he knows what he’s doing. I think it might be a case of doing something a little ambitious with the genre rather than abandoning the poor Stark children in a literary cul-de-sac.

    Just because he isn’t following the paint-by-numbers fantasy formula doesn’t mean he’s lost the plot; it might just mean he’s using the fantasy genre to a full extent. By that i mean he’s doing what the fantastic is good for; pushing the boundaries.

    And getting back to the trilogies debacle:

    If you buy LOTR in one volume, does that mean its no longer a trilogy…?

  41. I’m confused by your post, david. You say that ‘A trilogy is three books (or films, i.e the Matrix). One long interconnected story told over three parts.’ But then you say ‘LOTR is not a trilogy, just one long tale split into three books.’ Isn’t LOTR one long interconnected story told over three parts? Can someone please clearly explain why some three-book stories are trilogies and some are not? With examples of each?

    Why is the trilogy business ‘dreadful’? Do you think publishers should publish 500,000 word stories in one volume? They can afford to do so for the biggest sellers, like LOTR or the Covenant omnibuses. But for the mid-list authors, the cost of printing and binding anythng over 250k is prohibitive per book. Many mid-list stories wouldn’t get published. That may or not be a bad thing, depending on one’s point of view.

    Or is it ‘dreadful’ because fantasy authors are jumping on a bandwagon? This thought (which may not be what you are thinking, david) puzzles me. Why is there more intrinsic merit in a story 150,000 words long than one 500,000 words long? Single-volume works are regularly published, along with duologies, trilogies and longer series. Fantasy authors write the length of story their stories demand. Anyone who pads out to trilogy length gets caught.

    You think Martin knows what he’s doing? He may well do. But some readers have lost confidence that THEY know what he’s doing. It strikes me that he’s not really breaking much original ground. He’s simply doing the usual more effectively due to his well-developed writing skills.

    And just what is the ‘paint-by-numbers fantasy formula’? If there’s a simple formula to writing fantasy, please share it. There are hundreds of writers who would like to know the secret to being published.

  42. Russell for someone who leads with his chin you make a very easy target.

    You ask:

    And just what is the ‘paint-by-numbers fantasy formula’? If there’s a simple formula to writing fantasy, please share it.

    Your work is an excellent example of this.

    Basically I’ve read the premise before and I’ve read it by authors who have written it in a less predictable way.

    Now please understand I have nothing against ‘rehashed’ plotting, and knowing that you were ‘cutting your teeth’ on FOH I am I am looking forward to seeing how you’ve grown as a writer in your next project.

  43. Bang! Right on the chin!

    Let’s see if I can pick myself up off the canvas.

    Gee, Mark, I wish it had been simple. Sounds like I could have saved myself a lot of effort. So the one single fantasy formula (whatever it is) is exemplified by my trilogy? I’m delighted to have stumbled across it on my first try!

    Let me see. Do you mean the ‘simple villager saves the world’ formula or the ‘christian allegory’ formula or the ‘quest for the talismanic object’ formula or the ‘war against the dark lord’ formula? I’ve been accused of them all. Perhaps there are four fantasy formulas. Drat – what am I going to do now? I’ve used them all!

  44. Bang! Right on the chin!

    Let’s see if I can pick myself up off the canvas.

    Gee, Mark, I wish it had been simple. Sounds like I could have saved myself a lot of effort. So the one single fantasy formula (whatever it is) is exemplified by my trilogy? I’m delighted to have stumbled across it on my first try!

    Let me see. Do you mean the ‘simple villager saves the world’ formula or the ‘christian allegory’ formula or the ‘quest for the talismanic object’ formula or the ‘war against the dark lord’ formula? I’ve been accused of them all. Perhaps there are four fantasy formulas. Drat – what am I going to do now? I’ve used them all!

  45. At least Fire of Heaven (which i enjoyed heaps) isn’t as intolerable as Christopher Paolini’s “Eragon”….i’m sorry, but that was TOO familiar.

  46. LOTR is one book that was written in 3 parts, and it was those 3 parts that got published as separate volumes. That is NOT the same as a trilogy.

    The key point is it was conceived of as ONE book, unlike subsequent fantasy novels which are clearly 3 books which combine into one very long story.

    Russel, I’m sorry, but it seems to me you’re being contrary for the sake of argumentativeness here.

  47. Examples of a trilogy:

    Harding, Traci. The Ancient Future Trilogy
    Zettel, Sarah. The Isavalta Trilogy
    Marillier, Juliet. The Sevenwaters Trilogy

    With these examples, you could read any one of the books, and the story, for that specific book would be complete in its own right. You do not have to read any other book in the trilogy, but if you do each of the three stories is a smal part of a larger one.

    It’s like three peaks making a mountain.

    I don’t agree that each book is an act. An act implies that it is an incomplete story where as each book should be complete in its own right and take the reader on a completed journey.

    Ideally, the author should also be able to leave the reader wanting to immerse themselves into the same world to find out what happens next.

  48. Wow. I had no idea that this topic would rouse so much interest…

    Mark, Russell’s new work, of which I have read the first book, is definitely not writing by numbers. I think it’s one of the best epics I’ve read this year, and full of new ideas and one character who is outstanding, even unique, in fiction.

    In a curious way, I wonder if sff fans and writers are often critical of their genre in a way that doesn’t happen in mainstream. After all, most novels are full of tropes or classic plot lines. Teenage coming of age / older man making fool of himself over younger woman / betrayed wife gaining backbone and making good / cain & abel, romeo & juliet etc etc. We’ve read them all. What counts is the new slant, the quality of the writing, the surprises and characterisation along the way. You don’t hear mainstream critics criticising a book for using a classic plot – unless it is done poorly.

  49. Thanks, skaldi. That clarifies things – or it would, had I read any of them. My wife has read Marillier; I’ll ask her. But thanks anyway, I did ask people if they could give me examples.

    I look at the three-book stories in my library and to me they all seem to be trilogies:

    Trudi Canavan: Black Magician Trilogy
    Jennifer Fallon: Demon Child Trilogy
    Jennifer Fallon: Second Sons Trilogy
    Tony Shillitoe: Ashuak Chronicles
    Glenda Larke: The Isles of Glory
    Fiona McIntosh: The Quickening
    Kim Stanley Robinson: The Future History of Mars
    J.V. Jones: The Book of Words
    Julian May: The Rampart Worlds
    Anne Bishop: The Black Jewels Trilogy
    Guy Gavriel Kay: The Fionavar Tapestry
    Robin Hobb: The Farseer Trilogy
    Robin Hobb: The Liveship Traders
    Robin Hobb: The Tawny Man
    Jennifer Fallon: The Hythrun Chronicles
    JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings
    Stephen Donaldson: Thomas Covenant (First Chronicles)
    Stephen Donaldson: Thomas Covenant (Second Chronicles)
    Cecilia Dart-Thornton: The Bitterbynde Trilogy
    Peter F. Hamilton: Night’s Dawn
    Isaac Asimov: Foundation
    Philip Pulman: His Dark Materials
    William Nicholson: The Wind on Fire
    Sara Douglass: The Axis Trilogy
    C.S. Lewis: Malacandra/Perelandra/Hideous Strength

    I think the only two which might fit Skaldi’s definition of a trilogy would be the Asimov and the Lewis. The rest are not, despite many being described as such on the cover. Is that what you meant, skaldi? If so, then is a ‘trilogy’ just another word for a three-book series? A series being sequential self-contained stories set in the same world? (eg Discworld, Malazan, Inhibitors, Thursday Next, Vorkosigan) But not the same as A Song of Ice and Fire, the Wheel of Time or the Dark Tower series, which aren’t self-contained or three volumes.

    Karen’s ‘play act’ analogy does have some substance, I think: the word itself originally came from three related tragedies performed one after the other. This seems to fit with skaldi’s definition.

    No, Karen, I am definitely not arguing for the sake of it. Life’s too short for that. I don’t agree, but I’m willing to learn. You see, I still don’t follow your argument. Do you mean that because people now know their long stories will be split up, they are in effect writing trilogies, even if (like Tolkien) they see the work as one long story with no convenient break points? How does that square with skaldi’s argument that we are NOT writing trilogies unless the story for each specific book is complete in its own right? Hey, I’m just asking! Sorry for being so obtuse!

    As for originality vs paint-by-numbers: we’ve been having an interesting discussion of this on my blog, which Glenda pointed to from this site (see her latest entry).

  50. I know a guy who reads trilogies and only trilogies, lol. I guess it’s one way of cutting down choices of the huge amount of books out there, and he knows he’ll only be investing a limited amount of money and time in that author.

    (everything following has probly been said before, but I’m not going to mention when something has been because it’ll just comfuse me!)

    I think that a trilogy is 3 books tied together by a plot line (not necessarily an important one until the final book) and a character (not necessarily a hero, I’d be perfectly happy with the hero, his son and finally the grandson all battling the same immortal evil necromancer).

    I definately prefer it when each book has a definate plot arch from begining to end, but I don’t think it’s necessary as long as something is laid to rest. (e.g. in the Wheel of Time (ignoring the fact it isn’t a trilogy) a couple of the books end on Rand winning duels.) On the other hand, although they aren’t to my taste some people love cliffhanger endings. So you could think about the books in a trilogy or series like chapters in a book and treat them accordingly.
    NB despite the fact that I prefer books where you can pick up book 2 or 3 and read it without being unable to understand all the references to past events, I make it a rule to read them in order.

    I like trilogies because when you finish the first book and it’s great, you know it’s 99% chance going to get better. You’re going to get to know the characters better (and often meet new ones), more exciting things are going to happen, the heroes are going to achieve some even greater goal. Basically, same thing as a standalone only richer and deeper.

    I don’t have a problem with authors killing off characters, in fact I prefer it to happen on occasion. It’s more realistic than them coming out completely unscathed every single time, and often brings out some fascinating new aspect of the characters. Grief, honest grief rather than guilt hasn’t been overused in any of the books that I have read.

    I don’t like it when books sold as a trilogy shift focus to something which wasn’t at least subtely foretold in previous books, or (unless done well) from a heroic coming of age fantasy to a heavily political fantasy. It’s fine shifting characters so long as ultimately their aim is the same, but I don’t think I’d like moving from a coming of age story where the boy becomes King in the first book, to his powerhungry son-King in the second book (unless his grandson made amends in the 3rd book actually, that has an agreeable symmatery). I think books like those should be counted as a series instead.

    I don’t care whether a trilogy starts with the hero young and covers his life, covers a part of his life, covers his life and those of his descendants as long as it’s written well. Being different is good 🙂

    It takes a lot for me to stop reading a trilogy without finishing it. I think the things that are most likely to annoy me are a completely unlikely turn of events, annoying characters and bad writing. (If it’s not unbearable I spent time and possibly money getting my hands on it, so I might as well continue reading and learn from the author’s mistakes). The only thing I have completely given up on and stopped reading in recent years is David and Leigh Eddings’ newest series, I forget what it’s called. Think one of the books was The Eldest Gods though. I bought the first book shortly after it came out and wasn’t terribly impressed, so I bought the second book when it came out off ebay cheaply to be safe and completely gave up 1/3 of the way through. I think the problem with the series was that (having read all of thier previous books) there was nothing new enough and not even a conflict interesting enough to hold my attention. Maybe if the prose and descriptions had been brilliant I wouldn’t have needed to be swept up into the story and have kept on in hope, but no.

    I definately couldn’t pin down the best trilogy I’ve ever read – they’re all good in different ways, but these are some of the best:

    The Edge Chronicles (currently a series consisting of 3 trilogies) Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell.

    Mercedes Lackey (have only read the “Winds of -” and “Magic’s -” trilogies, but they were very good)

    Anne McCaffrey’s The Crystal Singer

    Tracey and Laura Hickman’s “Mystic -“

    William Nickolson’s The Wind On Fire

    Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

    Tanith Lee’s Claidi books (although strictly speaking there are four, but the fourth wasn’t published until years after and I think the books are better off without it)

    Robin Hobb’s Assassin trilogy.

    which is most of those I have read, alas. Ones I haven’t included are:

    Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician Trilogy – even though I really enjoyed these books there is a definate bad distribution of plot and action in them. The first especially has lost out, which is a pity because more people will forgive you such a mistake in the last book than the first, while they might not even notice it in the second.

    Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s trilogy (The Outstretched Shadow, To Light A Candle, etc – sorry, couldn’t be bothered to pull them out from under the pile they’re in, lol) – hmm, I think it’s the elves that bug me in this. It’s like they’re trying to tell you more about Tolkien’s elves when he told you as much as you should ever know. Is a pity, there are some very good original ideas, but they spend so much time with the elves…

    Paolini’s Eragon books… probably because he obviously wrote the plot at an age when he was extremely heavily influenced by everything he read. Dunno why he didn’t rewrite the plan, I did, but perhaps that’s why I’m not published yet and he is. Paolini’s great strength (in my humble opinion) is his clear vision and description. And if he does use elves and dwarfs, he concentrates more on the commonly neglected dwarf kingdom, which I hugely enjoyed.

    David Edding’s two Sparhawk trilogies… now, why didn’t I include these? Sure they were gritty, but I enjoyed them at the time. Possibly because I can’t remember more than a few scenes and they never pop into my head when I’m wondering what to read? I don’t know, maybe they were just spoilt by realising how he reused things again and again.

  51. Well first of all, due respect to Skaldi, I think the list of authors you cited (well done!!!) illustrates that he isn’t correct in his definition of a trilogy. Honestly, I think his definition is dead wrong, and I can’t think of publisher who’d agree with it.

    I also think it’s quite clear, from talking to readers, that they enjoy the extended story that stretches across three books because it gives them more time inside that story, more time with the characters and the events. Relating it to tv, it’s the difference between black box episodes where the characters/world is reset at the end of every ep (common before the late 80s, iirc) and more arc-centric storytelling which started with Wiseguy and Hill Street Blues (prior to those shows, the only arc story telling was in soap operas). Arc-centric tv shows build up large and loyal followings because they invite emotional investment in the deeper and more complex storytelling available. I think that’s what happens in trilogies or longer connected series. Of course, as far as I can tell, even the standalone series in sf and fantasy now have ongoing character continuity, so they’re not truly black box in that sense. But while some elements continue, each adventure is self-contained, mostly. (See, there’s always that exception to get in the way! *ggg*)

    As for how that all came about in the post-Tolkien landscape … I think publishers came to realise the advantages of the large, multi-volume story arc in terms of reader investment. They got feedback from readers saying how much they loved being in that world for so long, following a big story on a big canvas with lots of characters to get involved with.

    Everyone talks about Tolkien starting it, but I’m not certain that’s true because he didn’t write a trilogy, he wrote a very big single book. I suspect it was Terry Brooks who got the ball rolling with the Shannara trilogy, which soon grew when it hit a chord with the public, and David Eddings, with his Belgariad trilogy, which also expanded beyond the original parameters.

    Brooks and Eddings were deliberate in their 3 book story arcs, and that’s when the true explosion in fantasy publishing began, I believe.

    I think that because authors know that the overwhelming current trend is for trilogies/multi-book connected series (as opposed to standalone series like Discworld) they are automatically setting their sights on building bigger stories, with more characters and wider canvases, and so forth. The story ideas are expanding to fit the available/desired storytelling space.

    Now, harking aaaaaall the way back to Glenda’s original question — what we could be seeing is an expansion of the original and — I admit it — quite restrictive definition of trilogy which I posed and which I believe still holds true, in a traditional sense. And what we’re waiting for is the reading public to catch up so they can expand their expectations as well. Or perhaps what we need is a different label for the non-traditional trilogy so the reading public doesn’t pick up what it thinks is an apple, and then gets pissy because it tastes like an orange.

  52. Ink paw prints – that was very interesting. Thanks for posting.

    Not sure that I agree with the bit about a good start usually means it will only get better, though. I have read an awful lot of trilogies where the second book is a whole lot worse, although they often get better with the third.

    I don’t think that happened with my Isles of Glory. The first book was definitely not as good as the second, which I still have a real soft spot for. The judges for Aurealis thought the third book was even better though…but I still like that second one best!

    The second book is always the hardest to write, because starting something and ending are always easier than a middle. Which is why I will always aim to end my second book on a massive non-cliff-hanging climax. Maybe I am silly to do that because it feels like an ending, even though there are loads of unfinished threads and unfinished mysteries for the third book – where there will be an even larger climax.

  53. Gee I think some of this ‘what is a trilogy stuff ‘is ‘ verbal wanking.

    Some authors wrote bloody long stories, Tolkien and Donaldson. Their publishers divided them up and there was born the trilogy. Publishers can market three books (4 and 2) better than one. (plain and simple). Fanstasy lends itself into longer stories for all the reasons quotedby you erudite mob. Whether it is a book divided into three or connected stories they are still marketed as trilogies etc.

    Whether the autor resolves things and leaves things hanging or resovles everything but brings the characters back to thrill us again it is still a trilogy etc.

    What is a good trilogy– a bloody good story. What is a good story and what sells well are highly subjective? And not necessarily the same thing. A mystery that was solvable cause I could make a killing.

    What is story by numbers? If there is such a thing please send it to me and I’ll start now, particularly if it also includes sales and marketing by numbers and the million dollar advance kit.

    Going on to other things discussed. Jordan. Loved his work but gave up on him because he is spinning the books out for $ (no other bones about it). I have Martin on the shelf but haven’t started it yet. If you can’t finish the trilogy in 3 or 6 books you aren’t writing one. You are writing ‘the paint by number cash cow’. Evenutally the public wakes up to that except the die hards (like trekkies they keep hanging out for more)(I know this because I was one).

    I’m back for five minutes and flinging crap into the fan. I’m probably going to regret this too.

  54. This is Donna again.

    I thought I’d say what I like as a reader…

    big picture. I like stuff that captures my imagination. And it doesn’t have to be indepth world building it can be hints of it. Recently I went back to read the first Jordan Wheel of Time because I remembered how it fascinated me. It really wasn’t a lot of world building it was the hints about the back story that did it.

    Julian May’s Galactic Milleau kept me fascinated to the end. It was the big picture scope and the paranormal powers and the aliens that did it for me in that. There were a few characters that I liked but they changed around a bit.

    Character. I like reading characters that I find interesting and quirky. Obviously everybody bonds to characters differently. I liked Blaze because of her questioning and her guts. I liked Gilfeather because he was a feeling man and often forced to act out of circumstance. I liked Thomas Covenant too because he was very real to me.

    Pace. I like a story that moves mostly and doesn’t bog down. Having said that I did like some more sprawling novels too. LIke Tad Williams and Susana Clarke.

    Plot. I like plots with a twist but not ones that tie me up in knots or that double back over themselves so that they rely on general confusion to win through. I don’t have examples of this except maybe Harding’s second series with the past lives stuff that tied itself in knots. I really liked Donaldson’s Through the Mirror of her Dreams. That had a good mix of plot, character and pace to keep it going.

    I like the synopsis at the beginning thing and I don’t think it is an example of sloppy writing. It just brings people up to speed. Sometimes I read them when it has been awhile since reading the previous volumne. However if I’m reading a set one after another I don’t bother with them because it is fresh in my mind. Sometimes I find it interesting. I remember reading one synopsis and thinking ‘so that’s what the author sees as happening?’ Completely different to what I remembered.

    Personally I like a bit of grit in my stories, stark realities or a bit of personal pain. I’m over the happy holiday fantasy. However, when I was a relatively new reader I did read Eddings and others that were familiar. Sometimes familiar sells well. There is a comfort zone and sometimes people move out of it. I think I moved out of it because I started to explore and started to get bored.

    Number of characters. Yes I’m not keen on too many. I get lost, confused and can’t contain all their characteristics. And I don’t want to go back and read them all again. Sometimes character glossaries help as a quick reminder.

    As for reminding people of what went before in the text, that does have issues. Boredom, bogging the story down etc. However, it can be done but there is always a measure of not enough or too much because it can be a matter of taste or memory. I found that Fiona McIntosh did it rather well in Blood and Memory. I found that I could pick up book two without reading book one and know what was going on.

  55. Just to add oil to the flames – the reason I don’ thnk number of volumes is terribly important is because historically it has been a random factor. Sometimes Dickens’ books were published in magazines as serials and sometimes as books. A bunch of early novels (late 18th early 19th century) had lots of little volumes – 2 to 5 seems kind of standard from the ones I have read. Number of volumes is a fashion. A reading fashion or a publishing fashion or a mixture of both. Like number of words.

    The only way to get beyond fashion is to focus on the underlying structure of the story or stories. What links, how integral one volume is to the other – things like that. Which we are doing, sort of. On and off.

    I think it would be easier to dump the notion of a ‘trilogy’ (entirely and just focus on the underlying, myself. The precise number of volumes in a work keeps obscuring the woods for the trees.

    For the record, if Glenda’s, Russell’s or Karen’s books had been published in the late eighteenth century they would take up a lot more than five volumes. Mine would make three volumes rather nicely. Five volumes in some presses, though – lots more tolerance for white space in some presses.

    Final presentation of a book all comes down to fashion. I keep reminding myself of this and that the length I write to was *wondrously* fashionable a while ago.

  56. OK Russell let me spell it out for you.

    I meant to say:

    a trilogy is three books. Is there a prize for answering this question? Three actual books, made of paper and glue, forming one story.

    LOTR, when printed as three books, makes a trilogy IN ACTUAL BOOK FORM ONLY. When its printed in one volume, as Tolkien intended, then its not a trilogy because its one book.

    I said the trilogy business is dread ful only because it seems that some writers use it as a yardstick to define the genre. I don’t particularly care if its a “Jordanology” only if the length suits the story. There is no more merit to a short story over a series. Just the quality of the writing.

    While Martin is basically not breaking much original ground, he’s providing a genre sorely in need of quality, precisly that.
    Along with R Scott Bakker and Steven Erikson, he’s giving fantasy a good boot up the bum. The stories may basically be “the king is dead and the land is in peril” templates, but
    its what lies between the lines that
    makes it special to me.

    And no, of course there isn’t a formula as such that I can give you for paint by numbers fantasy. Its like alchemy, alot of people are trying very hard, they’re just not getting any gold. I’m just frustrated that in a genre where the boundaries should be limitless, too many writers still want to sit on Tolkiens lap.

  57. Verbal wanking, eh? Well, I suppose that’s one way to describe a vigorous, fascinating, vibrant, stimulating and educational discussion.

  58. Thanks david. Kinda what I said in the first post. What Simon said in the second post. Three books. Yeah, we’re with you.

    I agree with most of your sentiments, but wouldn’t be as hard on the genre as you. I don’t particularly value originality – I find works touted as original to be sterile, head-stimulating but usually not heart-changing. I find myself thinking about the author’s cleverness rather than about the characters. Stross and Mieville do this to me. I do think there’s good quality work about, but as with any expanding genre there’s middle of the road stuff too.

    I agree about Erikson – I think he’s fabulous, streets ahead of Martin (who is very good) – but he’s either loved or loathed. He doesn’t suit everybody, or even most people. My favourite writer. I have two Bakker novels sitting on my tbr pile.

  59. I’m just sitting here enjoying this…

    I shall have to try Bakker. Absolutely agree about Erikson and Martin. I shall be interested to see if Kirkpatrick’s book 2 can match his book 1 in this new trilogy because I reckon he’s going to be a name on everyone’s lips soon, too.

    I wonder if one reason big fat fantasies tend to be less than brilliant stems from the time constraints we are under? The Booker-Man prize was announced today, and the writer apparently took 8 yrs to write it.

    Sheesh, I wish I had 8 yrs to write the Song of the Shiver Barrens. I reckon it would be brilliant too… Instead I have a year to write a volume three times the size of the Booker winner, a year from start to end of copy edit.

  60. Bakker lost me. I started off really liking the first book, he certainly knows how to put words together, but at some point in the narrative (for me) it stopped being story and turned into a philosophy dissertation. I lost all connection with the characters and felt I was being lectured.

    I do know many many people love his work, so my reaction is doubtless just me being me.

  61. Glenda – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that when something starts good, it’s only going to get better. I was trying to convey my hope as a reader.

    As for second books often not being as good… I find when reading a trilogy I often don’t consider the second book as a story on it’s own, I tend to think of it as part one of the third book, just because of how they are usually written without a firm and complete ending. I shall have to read your Isles of Glory, it would be interesting to see if I agree with your assessment of it as the strongest book in the trilogy.

    I definately don’t think you’re silly to always end your books on a “massive non cliffhanger climax”. Books without a climax at the end tend to leave me with a let down feeling, while as I mentioned in my previous post, I hate cliffhanger endings at the end of a book. With these I often feel like the author isn’t confident enough in their ability to write characters and settings that you will want to come back to, and instead tries to force you back with unanswered questions.

    glad you found my answers helpful.

    I definately agree with what Donna is saying about the story being important, not the carefully portioned out books. While it’s nice to have a similar amount of action in each book, trilogies where there are 3 battles, 2 duels, & 1 escape per book can subconciously grind on your mind.

  62. A late, possibly naive and cynical opinion…

    Isn’t the trilogy a publishing tool?

    It was my understanding that publishers prefer trilogies because they’re more likely to inspire sales than stand alones.

    Presented with a stand alone by a new author, a reader could decide not to pick up another, completely new story from that author because one or two elements in the initial stand alone didn’t live up to expectation, even though there was one or two elements they did enjoy.

    Presented with a trilogy from a new author, a reader is more likely to read a second and third volume from that author because of those one or two elements they enjoyed and in spite of the one or two elements they didn’t like – hence creating more revenue for the publisher.

    Russel says that the majority of fantasy requires a trilogy to tell the whole story, and while I do agree with this, a small, highly cynical part of me wonders if this trend only came about because of the demands of the publishers.

    Everyone’s argued over Tolkien in terms of authors who’s ‘single story’ was split in three by the publisher. What about David Eddings? The Belgariad was intended to be a trilogy, but the publisher decided to split the series into five volumes to bring the individual novel costs down so readers would be willing to spend a smaller amount of money over five books, than a larger amount over three. Hence, the second set of books featuring the world and characters of the Belgariad was intentionally written over five books. Demand creates supply.

    As wannabe writers, we’re told to head into any sort of dialogue with a publsiher/agent with a trilogy, not a stand alone, because this is what sells. As wannabe writers, trilogies are harder to construct and write well, but we do it, because this is what sells.

    I’m struggling to think of Australian authors that launched their career in the mainstream, fantasy genre with a stand alone and can only come up with Glenda, but I’m not sure Havenstar was an Australian publication.

    Cheers, Lisa.

  63. Havenstar was indeed published elsewhere (UK), and I think you certainly have a point Lisa. I think too we’ve got to the stage now in
    Australia where publishers can’t really be sure stand-alones won’t sell, because they never try – except with a very popular author like Sara Douglass.

    Mind you, I think many fantasy authors, me included, also like to continue to work in the same world – after all, you put a lot of effort into world building and it seems a waste to explore its byways with just the one work!

  64. Lisa – you’re saying that publishers would prefer to be presented with a trilogy by a first time author?

    >.< am three (soon to be four) chapters into a standalone because I was under the impression that they don't like the additional risk until they've seen if you will sell. I guess the thing to do is to be able to expand into more books if they like it enough… But thinking about it, not sure I can come up with any authors who I know launched with a single book eiher =/ Tanith Lee
    hmm.. Anne McCaffrey, tho it was a scifi.

    but they were both years and years ago.

  65. Glenda, I completely agree with the stand alone issue. How do they know it won’t work if they don’t try?

    I might be wrong, but I believe Isobelle Carmody’s first book, Obernewton (still one of my favs) was a single volume originally, but expanded into a series when it proved so popular (still waiting for the final volume…). But that was years and years ago. The Etched City is a stand alone for a debute author (I think), but it’s more ‘new weird’ or whatever it’s called.

    I certainly have stand alone novel ideas that I would hate to abandon just because they’re not trilogies.

    Ink Paw Prints, I think the US market is more geared toward stand alones for debute authors. Though, they always say be prepared to continue the story into a trilogy or series. Look at The Sword of Truth. The first book was stand alone (again, I think) but became popular enough to expand into a never ending seeming series.

    Don’t worry about your story being a stand alone. Write what you have to write, what you want to write and worry about selling it after it’s done and as good as you can get it. Who knows, after finishing this book, you might realise there is a bigger story happening that can be expanded into more novels.

    Cheers, Lisa.

  66. Rather than saying that the dominance of the trilogy came about because of publisher avarice, it might be more meaningful to say it happened because of the desire of readers. Hard to blame publishers for supplying demand. I believe Sara Douglass’ standalones didn’t do nearly as well as her series (I may be wrong).

    Of course the dominance of the trilogy/series benefits publishers. It allows them to spread risk. But I do think publishers are meeting the market more than the other way around.

    K.J. Bishop’s ‘The Etched City’ was indeed a debut standalone, and an excellent read it is too. But she couldn’t get it accepted by a mainstream publisher – it was only after it did well with a small publisher that it was picked up by a larger one.

    Readers like to be immersed.

  67. I’ve been thinking about this and what keeps coming back to me is my scriptwriting stuff from uni, which I think might be a better way to clarify this and get to the heart of what this is all about.

    There are three key types and they are based on what the authors intention and conception is, not what or how they are finally published.

    The Stand Alone
    A single novel set in a world that is never revisited.
    Example: Guy Gavriel Kay. Tigana.

    The Series
    Two or more novels (duology, trilogy, quartet etc) that are set in the same world. The stories may not be sequential and are usually not continous.
    Example: Terry Pratchett. Discworld.

    The Serial
    Two or more sequential and continuous novels/stories that are set in the same world.
    Example: Sara Douglass. The axis Trilogy.


  68. thank you very much I spell colour with a “u”! ;p I’m from England. I’ve emailed one of my tutors asking if she knows what the market is like here, but she hasn’t replied yet. I have a tutorial with her on tuesday, so maybe I’ll find out then 🙂

  69. I’m a bit late into this thread, but I just wanted to add something.

    Strictly from a readers POV, I don’t really care if the book is a trilogy or not. Sometimes a book that is only one book ends in such a satisfactory and nice manner that you don’t want further books to embellish that feeling.

    OTHER books, like Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, make you wish there were more books in the series because you want to find out more about that world, and you want to read more about those characters.

    One thing I love about Hobb’s books (before the current Soldier Son trilogy) is that she made the Assassin, Liveship Traders and Farseer trilogies seem like one TRILOGY of TRILOGIES, and thus the whole series (despite being set in the same world and involving the same characters) did not seem as though Hobb was losing the plot, like Jordan does in WOT. PLUS she manages to wrap everything up nicely in the end.

    HOWEVER, from a REVIEWER’S point of viewer, and one who regularly reviews fantasy series’, I can tell you it’s a HEADACHE reviewing trilogies.

    REviewing the first is easy enough, but when the second and third ones come out, it gets really hard to review the book WITHOUT revealing any spoilers.

    So, I’m always stuck wondering whether I should review the second book individually, or just bloody wait for the third book a year later and review them as a TRILOGY instead. HEHE.

  70. That’s a good point, eyeris. I must admit I hadn’t given any thought to problems of a reviewer – but you are right, of course. How on earth do you review a middle/last book without saying something about the one(s) before?

  71. I’ve been reading this thread with interest, but the only way I can think of the difference between trilogies and series is by comparing them to tv shows and movies.

    A standalone book is a movie.

    A trilogy is a mini-series.

    A series is just that: the same core characters in each book but with a different story each week.

    Yes, it’s a simplistic view but I prefer not to complicate my reading pleasures with over-analysis and deep-thinking – I leave that to my own writing.

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