Why stop at a trilogy?

by M.J. Hearle

Coming up with material for this blog isn’t always easy. There’s only so much I have to say on the topic of writing (some might suggest I didn’t have that much to begin with) and occasionally I feel like I’m draining the dregs of my admittedly shallow reservoir of knowledge. Which is why, Welcome Reader, I love receiving questions in the comments section. Not only do they offer a chance for a bit of dialogue but they also serve as much needed grist for the blog mill.

For example, Paula asked the question under my previous post, is it difficult to extend a book series past a trilogy? Paula’s a fan of serialised storytelling and was curious as to why there weren’t more continuing series. As I’ve only written two novels, I’m not exactly qualified to answer her question, but I figured I’d use this post to have a stab at it. If nothing else, it’s given me something to ponder.

There’s no hard and fast rule about how many entries a book series should contain – Harry Potter went to nine, Sookie Sackhouse is sitting at seven books, Game of Thrones is up to five, and these are only some of the popular examples. There’s plenty of lesser known books, fantasy novels mainly, that are in the double digits with their entries. It seems a series can extend for as many entries as an author is inspired to write. Or as many entries as readers will buy. That said, there does seem to be a lot of trilogies out there. Why is this? What attracts so many writers to the trilogy?

When I pitched Winter’s Shadow to Pan Macmillan, part of my pitch included an idea for a sequel and a potential third book. A fourth book was never suggested and even now I can’t imagine writing one. Of course, I could reach the end of the third Winter novel and discover the story doesn’t wrap itself up nicely, but I don’t think this will happen. A trilogy feels right, so that’s what I’m aiming for. Part of the reason for this – this feeling of rightness – can probably be traced to my background in screenwriting.

I spent about ten years trying to write movies, before I decided to become a novelist. Ten long, frustrating years. During that time, I must have read dozens of screenwriting books, all of which expounded the virtues of following the ‘three-act structure‘. For those averse to Wiki, let me summarise: the three-act structure is a model used in writing which divides a story into three parts called the setup, the confrontation and the resolution. Pretty self explanatory. It’s also completely disposable. There’s plenty of good books and screenplays which don’t follow the three-act paradigm, but there’s a reason why it exists and why writing teachers preach it. It works. Following the three-act structure won’t necessarily make you a better writer, but it will at the very least ensure your story reads cohesively.

The reason I bring up all this three-act structure stuff is because I suspect this might be one of the reasons why authors are drawn to trilogies. Instead of three acts contained in one novel, they treat each book in a trilogy as a separate act. It’s a neat and terribly attractive way of framing an overarching story. Writers – despite all protests to the contrary – thrive within structure and discipline. Have you ever tried to create something with no parameters? It’s bloody difficult.

So that’s one reason why authors might be hesitant to venture past the confines of the trilogy. I’m sure there’s lots of fourth entries that work, but there’s probably even more that feel a little tacked on. A little unnecessary. Of course, if you’re not telling a larger story – if you’re merely carrying over a set characters from one book to the next, each book serving as a self-contained tale, then there probably isn’t any reason why you couldn’t keep writing your series forever. I suspect the reason why this doesn’t happen more often is boredom. By their very nature, writers are creative individuals, and there is nothing that drains the inspiration out of creativity quicker than repetition.

When I see a series has stretched past three books and the author is preparing more to come, I’m always slightly mystified. If you possess a gift for storytelling why restrict yourself to writing about the same characters over and over again? Why not branch out into unfamiliar territory? Challenge yourself. Create new characters, new stories. Explore other genres. Pressure from the publisher probably plays a part (you can bet your biscuits J.K. Rowling gets daily emails from her publisher tactfully asking if she’s changed her mind and decided to write a tenth Harry Potter after all), but I suspect pressure from readers is even stronger.

A cursory glance at any large cultish fan group – Twilighters, Lord of the Rings’ers, Potterheads – reveals an almost scary level of entitlement. Some fans develop a sense of ownership over an author’s fictional creation and thus, feel completely entitled to aggressively demand more novels featuring their favourite characters. While I understand and appreciate falling in love with a book series, why would you want to read the same books, featuring the same kind of stories and characters over and over again? Especially, when there’s so much great undiscovered stuff out there? I suppose reading is sometimes like comfort food, and returning to familiar characters/plots has a certain cozy appeal. Nevertheless, I don’t think I could bring myself to keep churning Winter novels just to appease a passionate fanbase, unless there were (he guiltily admits) financial motivations.

Which brings me to my final suspicion on why some authors stop at a trilogy (or one or two books) and others keep churning out entry after entry, even when the initial story has run its course, and the characters have long ago lost their freshness. Cash. After you’ve written a couple of successful novels featuring recurring characters its relatively easy to keep doing so, especially when your publisher is throwing buckets of money at you, and fans are gobbling up the books like they were pop tarts fresh from the toaster. Why take a risk writing something new when it might not be received as well as your old stuff? Who cares about professional pride when there are financial considerations at stake? We all have bills to pay.

Which is to say, please don’t be surprised if a fourth Winter novel is published in 2013. I now have a mortgage and all my highfaluting talk of creative integrity won’t hold much water with the bank when they come a calling.

M. J.