Why Trilogies are More Satisfying Than Series or Mere Sequels
This post was inspired by Rebecca’s one about her general wariness of books that continue their stories (read here).
I too, am notoriously fickle in continuing to read novels in series even when I loved the first one or two I read. A case in point is the excellent Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch – I read the first two (see here and here) and I do want to read more having four on the shelf, but I just don’t feel the pressure to get through them. I know what to expect broadly, and I have too many other single books calling out to me! Long-running series are particularly prevalent in crime, SF and fantasy genres, and most have an underlying story arc alongside the episodes in each book.
There are many series I have loved getting into and hope to carry on with eventually – e.g. Michael Connelly – Harry Bosch books, Lawrence Block – Matt Scudder series and Charlaine Harris – True Blood. However, I feel no need to read any more Patricia Cornwell (should have stopped sooner with Scarpetta) or to go further with Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake vampire killer books or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books for instance.
In fact, the only lengthy adult series I’ve read in its entirety in recent years is the 4000+ pages of Stephen King’s Dark Tower set. And why was that? Why did I persevere with this particular series over others (plus Harry Potter)?
The answer is because it had an end!
All these other series just go on and on and on! I like the finality of a series with an ending. And that is why I seem to have read a lot of trilogies (or parts of with the rest still to come). Trilogies just seem the perfect length for a series – we have the exposition of all the themes in the first book, they’re developed in the second, and then reviewed in the third with a coda – just like symphonic form.
The daddy of all the trilogies has to be The Lord of the Rings which I read (plus The Hobbit) for a third time back in 2010. Maybe my love of LOTR is why I’ve never been able to get into Game of Thrones – neither on page nor TV, I just don’t feel the need – although you can try to persuade me if you want.
Apart from LOTR, I have two particular favourite trilogies I wanted to highlight:
First: Jeff Vandermeer’s amazing Southern Reach Trilogy – which blends SF and horror with a bit of dark fantasy into a twisted mind-bending eco-thriller. Although the first book is the strongest, you do get (some) answers in the third! I was amazed by Vandermeer’s scope of imagination in these books, something he’s not short on as I loved his latest book Borne too.
Second: Pierre Lemaitre’s Verhœven Trilogy (translated by Frank Wynne). A trilogy of crime novels is a very rare thing and Lemaitre’s protagonist, Commandant Camille Verhœven of the Paris Brigade Criminelle is a wonderful creation. It all gets very personal in the final volume, which echoes the first. Incidentally, these three novels were first published out of order in the UK with the second, Alex, first. I’d recommend reading them in order: Irene – Alex – Camille.
Others I also loved include:
- Alan Garner’s Weirdstone trilogy – in which Garner added a later adult conclusion to the pair of classic children’s novels he wrote in the 1960s.
- G W Dahlquist’s Glass Books trilogy – a completely bonkers and slightly racy steampunk adventure.
- Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy – the final part, The Van is my favourite, but all three books (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van) are brilliant.
- William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy. I re-read the first part Rites of Passage for our Bookerthon at Shiny last year, I must re-read the other two.
- Now, not one but three different trilogies by Robertson Davies: The Deptford, Cornish and Salteron trilogies. I read all of these pre-blog. Lori of The Emerald City Book Review was planning to host a reading week in August – if it happens, I’m definitely in. I’ve been wanting to re-read Davies for years.
- The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy – by Douglas Adams – a trilogy in five parts!
- Then there is the wonderful SF world-building in Becky Chambers’ three volumes (see here 1, 2, 3) in her Wayfarers series – thus currently a trilogy (but I do hope she writes more!).
- (Edited to include) – and how could I forget Olivia Manning’s marvellous 6 books series, written as two trilogies, The Balkan and Levant, known together as The Fortunes of War!
Trilogies are also popular in older children’s literature, notably Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – and its trilogy sequel, The Book of Dust – part two due this October. Also Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking, I read the first two parts (here and here), and must finish this one! There was also Sally Green’s Half Bad trilogy, which got quite adult by the end of the third volume, having started off rather Harry Potterish.
The one I’m really looking forward to for the final installment though is Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes – (see my reviews of 1 & 2). Sadly it’s not due until March next year!
28 thoughts on “Doing Things in Threes…”
A very interesting post. I’ve heard great things about the Southern Reach series in particular. (The film adaptation of Annihilation is nearing the top of my DVD rental list as we speak.)
Looking back at my recent reading, the trilogy that springs to mind is Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided), a big sweeping epic of politics, romance and family tensions. If you haven’t read it, I can thoroughly recommend it!
Ooh – I found the film of Annihilation rather different to how I’d envisaged things – but interesting. I will look into the Banffy – thanks for the recommendation.
I’ve never really thought about trilogies, although I share Rebecca’s wariness of sequels, but you’ve reminded me of Robertson Davies’ novels which I loved. Like you, I read them some time ago. Perhaps it was their three-part nature that made them so immersive.
I’m really keen to re-read one of his sets this summer – but which one? It’ll have to be one of the shorter two though.
I wholeheartedly agree with you – I too like a complete story arc and a sense of an ending. Too many current TV series forget that and leave things in a mess for… next season. Grrr… I’d also recommend the Marseille trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo and the Ripley trilogy or even quincology by Patricia Highsmith. And I do still like Lawrence Durrell’s Avignon quintet and Alecandria Quartet.
I have one of the Izzo books – but it’s the second! Should I read them in order? Ripley’s another that I read so long ago, I couldn’t get on with Durrell though when I tried.
As someone whose research work is on the shaping of narrative I applaud your reasoning about why the trilogy form is so satisfying. That need to be moving towards a definite ending is so strong in readers and as you say, the three book series works very well in this respect. I have friends who won’t begin an advertised trilogy until all three books are out just because they want to be able to get to the end in one sitting. I don’t know The Dark Tower series, but I can tell you why Harry Potter works, despite there being seven books. In part it is because right from the beginning we can predict how long the series is going to be: this is a school story and we know that Harry has seven years to complete at Hogwarts. However, beyond this, consciously or otherwise, Rowling has recognised that the Development section has a shape of its own and books two to five reflect this, especially the second with its introduction of the horcrux prefiguring the Dénouement which is book seven. The series has a recognisable and satisfying narrative arc.
Exactly! The Dark Tower books were similar in a way to HP structurally – except for the unique twist at the end. My favourite HP has always been HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban – the last of the slim ones, but deep in plot!
Spot on. The seeries went downhill after at. The novels became too long and sprawling, yhe publishers afraid to edit her.
I think you may well get on with Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden series (sci-fi) and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy (fantasy) — although in both cases my enjoyment dropped with each volume: 4 or 4.5 stars for the first; 3 by the last. I’ve seen the LOTR films (of course) but never read the books, though they were childhood favourites for both my dad and my husband. I have one of the Davies trilogies on the shelf so might think about joining in for that in the summer.
I have the first Dark Eden book – as usual with me, I’ve been meaning to read it ever since I got it – ditto the Harkness of which I have the first two. I think LOTR is best read first when young, then on every re-visit it feels like coming home, but new bits pique your interest which didn’t register the first time. I liked the films well enough, but loved the books.
I do fear I may have missed my moment with LOTR. I read The Hobbit as a child, but never continued with Tolkien. Likewise with Harry Potter and His Dark Materials — I tried both series as an adult and couldn’t get past the first book.
You’re never too late – of course HP and HDM weren’t published until the 1990s, so I was your age now or older still then! I was totally steeped in fantasy (and SF) though having read little else in my 20s.
Ah, I feel the opposite! I find that trilogies often sag in the middle and wrap everything up too neatly for me, though obviously there are exceptions. (I love Becky Chambers’ books because they don’t follow a traditional trilogy structure). I grew up with long running YA series, rather than the now dominant trilogy model, and still prefer them, although I agree that it’s annoying when a single plot thread is dragged out over a series – I prefer the books to be more loosely linked.
Are trilogies becoming dominant now? I do love series of books that are set in a world like Banks’s Culture novels, but only loosely if at all linked like Chambers of course. I haven’t noticed many sagging middles in the ones I’ve read luckily.
I think in YA they are. I’m not sure about adult fiction.
I have two German trilogies to recommend. Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart Trilogy, magical bookwormish fantasy and Cay Rademacher’s Inspector Stave series, set amid a post-WWII bombed out Hamburg. Rademacher’s is a trilogy that’s far too short in my opinion.
In so doing, I remind myself that I’d better get to the 2nd in Funke’s trilogy. It will tide me over until it is time to read Davos book #2. Ah, but that’s a quartet. Talking of which, have you read Allan Massie’s quartet set in Vichy France? That was supposed to be a trilogy, but he found he simply had too much material ….
I read Funke’s The Thief Lord some years ago, and liked it a lot. I’ll look up the Rademacher though – great setting. A proof of Dabos #2 is sitting on my shelf crying out read me, read me! Soon! I sort of fell out of love with Massie’s style after all the Roman novels, but if I see one of his Vichy France ones ever in a charity shop…
I’ve only read the Vichy novels. They’re much shorter than the Roman ones ….
As for Dabos #2, I’m forcing myself to wait until July 1st ….
I tend to agree. You can’t really better The Lord of the Rings or Douglas Adams, and I’ve lost count of the number of series I’ve abandoned because the quality drops off. Better to cut and run after three books and think up something new! 😀
You need a good ending though – something LOTR certainly has!
I love the Barrytown trilogy and I’m due a re-read of the two Robertson Davies trilogies I haven’t read all together for a while. I did the Saltertons in 2016 so really I need to crack on with the TBR then do some re-reading!
Even if the Robertson Davies reading week doesn’t happen, I’ll try to re-read one set this summer.
What a satisfying discussion post! And conclusions that I can agree with, too! 🙂 As a musician I love the way classical compositions often come in threes: ternary form, concerto form, even symphonies which have four movements but the third (yes!) is usually a minuet and trio (yes!) with the minuet repeated at the end of the trio to make a ternary structure—and they’re in three time (yes!).
So, ditto with trilogies: exposition, development section, then recapitulation ending in the home key. Not all trilogies work thus, though: Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy had a corresponding second ‘trilogy’ to even up the gender imbalance, and her lesser known fantasy trilogy Annals of the Western Shore had a set of novels that worked well enough as standalones.
Apart from LOTR and the other fantasy trios you mention can I put a word in for Alison Croggon’s Pellinor series? I suspect she planned this initially as a trilogy, but having two protagonists who collectively have to provide the resolution my guess is that she split and expanded the middle volume into two to make the series a quartet. Does it work? Mostly, I think, but not unreservedly.
Oh, and before I forget, there’s E Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers series: initially this was one volume of magazine instalments, then The Wouldbegoods joined them soon after. But not till several years later did The New Treasure Seekers did the young and unintentionally humorous narrator Oswald Bastable call it a day. Can’t praise Nesbit highly enough.
I’m also looking forward to completing Davies’ Deptford Trilogy before the summer!
I can’t tell you how much I adored Nesbit as a child – she and Noel Streatfeild were my absolute favourites. Thanks for reminding me of them.
I’m reading Becky Chambers now and loving it. Overall, like you, I’ve been fickle about finishing series. A few years ago I started a project to reread and finish a number of the long-neglected and unfinished series and I’m still making slow progress. As for other trilogies, I’ve always meant to read Gormenghast. And as a girl I loved the first two Madeline L’Engle books – ignoring the third for years – in what later grew to be the Time Quartet, when a fourth book was published in the later ’80s – which began with A Wrinkle in Time. (But L’Engle eventually interconnected her books, so I’m not sure one can properly call any part of them a trilogy with that in mind.)
I’d forgotten the wonderful Gormenghast! I’m glad you’re enjoying the Chambers.