Deity of Choice, Not Another Bloody Fantasy Trilogy!

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a writer is going to conventions and visiting SF groups. Different places, different people, but one topic guaranteed to get fans mumbling into their beer is the whole vexed question of the Fantasy Trilogy – Good or Bad? Everyone has an opinion and quite often it’s all fantasy trilogies are crap written because greedy publishers won’t accept anything else. Quite a few cite umpteen rejection letters for their own masterwork as incontrovertible proof. I decided to investigate this and thanks to the wonders of email, I’ve contacted authors writing both SF and Fantasy as well as a range of booksellers, agents and editors, here and in the US. I’ll be citing various authors but most of the editors and booksellers have preferred to remain anonymous, probably with an eye to their longer-term career prospects.

Why? That’s the first question – why the fantasy trilogy? Is it just because of Tolkien? Why did Tolkien do it? Well, he was writing when novels in series were not particularly unusual. Tolkien arguably started the sword and sorcery genre but Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour was as a trilogy as well. Anthony Powell did A Dance to the Music of Time long before Robert Jordan started turning The Wheel of Time. Just because Tolkien did it first, doesn’t mean he’s responsible for everything that came after. But why do the trilogy and series forms persist in Fantasy, having largely vanished from general literature? One SF writer told me bluntly a trilogy is the fantasy writer’s fashion statement. “Look at me, I’ve arrived, I’ve got a trilogy – and a cover quote saying ‘comparable to Tolkien at this best’.” Well, that’s a generalisation and pretty harsh but unfortunately, we can all think of cases where it applies. But I can list plenty of exceptions, so that can’t be the whole story.

Is it really down to publishers? Do editors look at manuscripts thinking ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’? Back in the real world, it’s undeniable that publishing in a series has definite advantages for everyone concerned. A writer with a contract for a trilogy is guaranteed work and a minimum level of payment for the next few years and the publisher has key slots in his list filled. Not romantic but neither is paying the mortgage and authors do need to keep a roof over their heads. The publisher’s marketing spend on a series gets far better value for money than boosting a standalone because promoting book 3 boosts sales of books 1 and 2. This almost certainly relates to the way novelists writing series or just in a repetitive format develop much higher profiles that ones who write single, often very different books. That’s as true for John Grisham as it is for Terry Pratchett. Booksellers like to stock these books because they can be more certain of respectable sales. In the cold hard world of retailing, literary merit often plays second fiddle to meeting weekly targets.

This has a bearing on the other recurring debate about why is there so much fantasy when SF seems in decline. I don’t want to go into that now; you can look out for Stan Nicholl’s article about it but I suspect the way SF tends to standalones while fantasy has this tradition of series, is a factor here, simply in terms of the practicalities of sales and marketing and the business of growing an author’s profile.

Since we’re talking practicalities, let’s talk paper and glue. People recommending Mary Gentle’s Ash all warned me it’s an unwieldy book for all that it’s a splendid read and to watch I didn’t crack the spine. Philip Pullman’s on record as saying in an ideal world His Dark Materials would have been one book but no publisher could countenance putting out such a big book in one volume. It would have cost so much for one thing. How many people would have risked their money, or the time to read it, especially when Philip wouldn’t have published anything else for the previous however many years? But a lot of people picked up Northern Lights out of curiosity, risking their five quid or so and got hooked, happy to shell out for the hardback, when The Amber Spyglass came out. They knew they were going to get value for their money. That’s surely playing fairer by the reader than putting out one huge tome on an all or nothing basis.

I don’t subscribe to Sturgeon’s Law that 90% of everything is crap but I think it’s fair to say 90% of fantasy readers, may be even 95%, won’t ever go to a convention, don’t read genre magazines or reviews but they know what they like and they stick with it. These people buy books in series and trilogies because they know they’re going to get more of the same and that’s exactly what they want. That goes for fans of Tom Clancy just as much as for fans of Anne McCaffrey. It doesn’t necessarily mean these are bad books, even if they’re not the kind of books fans who want challenging, cutting edge stuff want to read. I don’t think you can blame these books for the oft-lamented lack of those cutting edge challenges. I’ve never seen anything as a bookseller or a writer to support the theory that mediocre trilogies keeps the real geniuses out of print. Quite the contrary; I find editors prepared to admit off the record that a reliable cash cow like a long established series or a TV tie-in gives them the flexibility in their balance sheet to fund new writers and to support authors with a limited readership despite their literary merit or indeed possibly because of it. Booksellers balance shelves full of sharecrop fiction to pay the rent against space claimed for esoteric titles for the devoted fan.

Much of this applies equally well to crime; the series detective is pretty much de rigueur these days. But the fact remains that the series format in big thick books is still more prevalent in fantasy then in any other genre. So what is it about fantasy writing that tends towards long books in sequences of threes, fives or however many? Three’s an interesting number. How many fairy tales are variations on the woodcutter’s three sons? How many riddles imprisoning damsels in distress come in sets of three? Fantasy is the modern inheritor of that folk tradition and not only because so much material comes from myth. Chaz Brenchley, author of the Outremer series described fantasy as being fundamentally about change, citing those mythic elements where the final battle is not in fact the end, where the king is restored, but under a new dispensation. The thing about change is it keeps on happening and that’s another engine driving fantasy towards sequels. John Whitbourn also touched on the mythic element as one of his concerns in writing The Downs Lord Triptych. He’s convinced a big book needs a big theme to justify it, to repay the reader for their commitment. Several other people came back to me with variations on the idea that a trilogy should be greater than the sum of its parts. A lot of trilogies fall short of this but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth an author trying. Where it does work, the reader gets something special.

Fantasy serves many of the same purposes as traditional story telling; holding up that magic mirror to real life, exploring questions of character and moral choice. Character takes time to develop in real life and so does describing the process in a book. Series give an author room to develop ideas, individuals and settings. The best fantasy worlds have a depth of culture, geography, society and getting all that across to the reader takes a lot of pages. Once you’ve established a world, you want to explore your creation and writing in a series means you can try out new ideas and consequences without reinventing the wheel at the start of each book. By contrast, the consensus was that SF is primarily about ideas. Pursuing a single idea or variations on one central theme makes for far more linear narratives and shorter books. I find the questioning element of SF is always looking to the next step and the next, prompting a firm conclusion at the end of the story. In Justina Robson’s Silver Screen questions woven around the central thread of Artificial Intelligence drive the plot. Having said that, I enjoyed Silver Screen so much because well-drawn characters were handling those ideas. SF can’t survive on fascinating ideas and paper-thin characterisation any more than fantasy can sustain richly developed individuals wandering round a cardboard set.

John Whitbourn set out to write a trilogy with the Downs Lord books. Many writers have no intention of writing a series but perpetrate trilogy by accident. I had no master plan for any series when I wrote The Thief’s Gamble. As far as I was concerned, that was a book complete in itself and finding a publisher for it was the summit of my ambition. When Orbit picked up Thief and offered me a two-book deal, the plot for The Swordsman’s Oath grew naturally out of the central unanswered question from the first book. That was as far as I developed those ideas until that manuscript showed my editor I wasn’t a one-book wonder. Offered a second contract, the obvious thing to do was pick up the most urgent issues outstanding from the stories I’d written so far. It so happened that gave me three clear plot outlines. I was entirely surprised to realise I now had a five volume sequence, inadvertently tying myself into the five act narrative structure you’ll find anywhere from Shakespeare to Star Trek.

It’s not only fantasy writers who feel this pull. Ben Jeapes wrote His Majesty’s Starship as a standalone novel showing humanity moving from a 2001 Clarkian milieu to a warp drive ‘n’ phasers. Finding himself with such an interesting scenario, he wants to write more books about it, enjoying the added fun of returning to established characters. Readers can be just as responsible as writers. It wasn’t Colin Greenland’s idea to write a trilogy about Tabitha Jute and it wasn’t his publisher’s or his agent’s. He did it for all the readers who convinced him that Take Back Plenty was just a beginning that needed a middle and an end. The trilogy takes us back to that most basic of story forms.

So why do fantasy trilogies get so many people groaning? It’s undeniable that even excellent stories can suffer when volumes come out at yearly intervals. I’m a huge fan of Robin Hobb but found the sea serpents in the first book of The Liveship Traders a real distraction. They served little function in that part of the story, plainly just there to prefigure later events. That’s a purely subjective view and I can’t see how she could have done it differently but every reader probably finds things like that in any trilogy. As far as Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time goes, the law of diminishing returns kicked in for me personally a couple of volumes ago. I felt as if I was essentially reading three novels in parallel and struggling to recall characters and incidents from earlier books. My life’s simply too busy to give the work the concentration it demands but that’s my problem, not the genre’s.

There are other undeniable factors why fantasy trilogies can be just plain bad. A supportive editor showing faith in an author with a three-book contract is on the side of the angels but the dark side still claims idle publishers less interested in the content of the book than the content of the tills, happy to accept the same old stuff with only the names changed to protect the guilty. One writer’s space to explore is another lazy author’s license to pad and ramble because it’s far easier to overwrite than to keep a tight focus. The conscientious author striving to give a trilogy that added depth suffers by being shadowed by someone else wringing five volumes out of a threadbare tale that could be told in 100,000 words and then laughing all the way to the bank. Even diligent authors get stale if they can’t resist temptation and publishers’ blandishments and go back to the same well time and again until one day they find all that’s left is mud. Always being asked to return to the same thing is horribly limiting for an author. Anne Gay passed on a wonderful quote where LM Montgomery who wrote the Anne of Green Gables books, complains about being ‘chained to Anne’s chariot wheels’.

Conan Doyle threw Sherlock Holmes off the Reichenbach Falls but brought him back and the fans were responsible. The publisher persuaded Conan Doyle he had to do what people wanted and that’s the flip side of the commercial considerations outlined earlier. Nowadays SF and Fantasy fans have unparalleled opportunities to make their voices heard. There are newsgroups, chat rooms, forums. Eos, my US publisher runs an annual on-line convention and the British Fantasy Society have floated the possibility on-line events via their web site. There are awards and polls that anyone can vote in and fans shouldn’t let the fact they can’t hope to read all the not-so-very-short lists put them off. You can have your say on Amazon but don’t waste your time posting snide comments about what you don’t like. Say why you enjoyed something, encourage other people to give something new a try. If you have the chance to review in print, taking a positive rather than a negative stance is even more important, given how limited the column inches for genre fiction are.

Get involved and if you think too many bloody trilogies is a problem, you can be part of the solution. When readers start voting with their pocket books for standalones rather than the latest recycled Interminibiliad, to borrow Terry Brooks’s memorable coinage, then the bean counters will take notice. SF publishers launched websites far earlier than any other genre, knowing fans tend to be technically minded and booksellers are doing the same. Yes it’s about advertising but it’s about market research as well and they take notice of intelligent feedback. Some badly thought out rant will only prompt an editor to wonder why only jerks know how to lick a stamp, or these days, send an email but a positive response tells the publisher what they’re doing right and encourages more of the same.

Make yourselves heard and you’ll accelerate a trend that everyone I contacted identified, on all sides of the business. The sun is setting on the day of the trilogy, it seems. Part of this is fashion, the trilogy is so last century, been there, done that. Agents and writers who reckon pretty much any story could be sold as a trilogy ten or even five years ago, tell me that really doesn’t apply any more. Editors protest they’ve always valued a good story first and foremost and some overblown turgid trilogy never stood a better chance of publication that a mediocre standalone. These days, I’m inclined to believe them, on the strength of things like Mary Gentle’s Ash. What got that published was the quality of the work, rising well above whatever commercial reasons saw it published as 4 parts in the US and as one volume here.

The hefty three volume novels of the 18th century flourished when reading was the privilege of the leisured classes and they sank beneath the populist fiction of Charles Dickens and his pals when busy people in the 19th century wanted their entertainment in manageable chunks. Not a lot has changed. Market research is telling publishers and booksellers how hectic our modern lives are and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we’re seeing a rise in series of related books linked by an ongoing chronology, where each story has a beginning, a middle and an end inside the same set of covers. These days, that’s what people want rather than a hero hanging off a cliff and waiting a year for the next volume to rescue him. That’s what I aim to write and while I’d like to claim it’s due to my astute market analysis and innate genius, it’s got rather more to do with the fact that I grew up reading Larry Niven’s Tales of Known Space, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books, and later on writers like David Gemmell. There’s always been that strand within the fantasy genre and the pendulum’s coming back again, after swinging so far towards the trilogy.

This piece started as a talk I gave at Imperial College’s Picocon one-day convention (highly recommended). That was revised and published as an article in the BSFA’s Focus magazine in 2001.

4 thoughts on “Deity of Choice, Not Another Bloody Fantasy Trilogy!

  1. I’m very happy to read someone write so cogently about the tyranny of the trilogy. I’ve read my fair share of fantasy trilogies and have never found one that improved as it went on, although I’m sure it is possible. For this reason more than any other I explicitly exclude trilogies from the reading list of the which I am lucky enough to organise. What is amazing is how difficult our members find it to name a single volume fantasy novel. We have just read Tigana and the issue of the dreaded trilogy was constantly on everyone’s lips. Mores the pity.

    Bring on the single volume fantasies. I love good stories, not trilogies.

    1. I can see arguments on both sides, as you will have just read, obviously – but yes, when there’s no good reason for a story to be spread over multiple volumes, I really do find that tiresome, as a reader and as a writer these days. I do think it’s a potential barrier to entry for our genre, so a list of single-volume fantasies to recommend to people is an excellent resource. Particularly for non-genre book groups, to show otherwise keen readers what they’re missing. A couple of pals are in local mums-get-together once-a-month book groups and while they read fantasy, they can never get the group to try one precisely because of the ‘oh but that’ll be some endless saga’ hurdle.

  2. Good discussion. My main issue with the trilogy is that perhaps I have read TOO MANY over the years now and frankly, I just get bored with it all. Same old, same old. Very few authors seem to be able to hold my interest over three, six or whatever zillion in the series the publisher’s want. I just want a GOOD READ between the covers of one book, a book that has an intriguing start, well developed middle and satisfying conclusion. I dislike intensely getting halfway through a book and realizing that I am being ‘set up’ for the next 2 installments.

    If the book is good, it should stand on its own, no matter if it is 2nd, 3rd or 25th in a world ‘series’.

    That being said Juliet, I have read many of your books out of order, and yes, yours stand up! 🙂

    1. Yes, if a trilogy is a story in several parts, each complete in themselves, that’s fine. Where it’s all lead-in to something you can’t get hold of for however many months still the next book’s published? Grrrr.

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