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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Beauty of Trilogies

This past weekend I finished the final book in a long beloved series. The first book of the series was one of the Original Five -- those initial books that hooked me on the young adult genre when I was a wee little sixth grader. If you have decent math skills, you can deduce that I have been reading this particular series for six years. Six years of my life! The series followed me through middle school and high school, three moves, and four years of blogging. 

After all that time, it was finally coming to a close, and…I just wanted it to end. While the other five books had intrigued me, this one had me rushing to finish. I skimmed pages, flipped past boring filler, and jumped from dialogue to dialogue. I was not at all absorbed in the character’s life. 

Sadly, this is the second time this has happened this year. Another conclusion to a beloved series, this one having entertained me for about four years, left me unimpressed.

After these two dismal series conclusions, I have reached a conclusion of my own: trilogies are far superior to series.

Case in point: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. I read (and loved) this novel the summer before my sophomore year of high school. The final novel, Forever, was released this past summer, the summer before my senior year of high school. One book a summer, spread over three years – it’s perfect. The year-long wait was just enough to build my excitement for the next book, while the three year time span was just long enough to keep me interested and invested in the characters’ lives. Had the series spanned four years, following me into my freshman year of college, I may have been far less spellbound by that last novel.

The best example of stretching things out far too long is the Warriors series by Erin Hunter and Guardians of Ga’Hoole series by Kathryn Lasky. Both series were major parts of my childhood, and I owe their respective authors my undying gratitude for creating the foundation upon which I built my love of reading. I will always look back on the series and smile at the fond memories I have of them. But my memories will be slightly tainted, because the series machines are still cranking out books, none of which I have read or plan to read. Why would I? I am a senior in high school now, and I started those series when I was a fourth grader. Even if the content was age-appropriate and gripping to current me, I still would not pick one up. Those books are my past. I’ve outgrown them.

I tried to continue reading the books through my freshman year of high school, but their story lines were getting dry and I could feel the authors trying to squeeze out more books. It felt forced and unnatural. All of that initial joy and love faded as the books stretched into third and fourth story arcs (Warriors) and prequels (Guardians).

Three books just seems to be the magic number. Even Stephanie Meyers’ wildly popular Twilight series grew stale with book four. It is just too difficult to keep carrying on a story in a quality manner after three books. Readers’ expectations rise as the available plot material declines. Any economist can tell you that is recipe for disaster.

I can count on one hand the number of series I have read to completion. And, of those, only one series was able to successfully vanquish the Series Slump: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. But, let’s be honest here, not everyone can be J.K. Rowling. There’s a reason why those books are so wildly popular: they are the exception, not the rule.

Now, if I was to count the number of trilogies I have read to completion, I would probably need both hands, both feet, and a few other people’s hands and feet. And, of those trilogies, I could confidently say I enjoyed a large majority of them.

Trilogies tell the reader, “I love these characters and this story. I love them so much that I cannot just tell their story in one book. They deserve to have the breadth to tell their entire story, every gory detail and overcoming emotion. BUT I also respect you and them. I am not going to drag this out for ages. I love the characters, and I will tell their story, but when it’s done, it’s done.”

Of course, an author can renege on this statement. Look at how many trilogies have surprise! become a series. “Yes, I know we told you this was going to be the last book. But we just could not say goodbye, so here is one more. Or maybe two. Or maybe three. We really love these characters.” Who are they kidding? When this happens, we all know what the publisher is really saying: we love the money.

Even if the author does have a wildly genius new idea, I firmly believe he/she should stick with their original commitment to the reader and to the characters. Once an author makes a promise to his/her readers, he/she needs to stick to it.

 Just look at Sarah Dessen: she has little flashes about her past characters frequently, but she has yet to come out with a sequel. Instead, she works those flashes into her other novels, briefly intertwining the characters’ worlds. And if she does have huge glimpses of her characters’ futures, ones too large to be hidden in other books, then those are hers to keep. The rest of the world does not need to know about them. Think of them as a gift for spending all that time with those characters and telling their story so authentically.

In essence, trilogies are the series equivalent of unhappy endings. And, if you remember my post a few months ago, you know how much I love an unhappy ending. As I said in that post, an unhappy ending shows an author’s commitment to being true to his/her characters, even if it means doing something as difficult as breaking one of their hearts or killing one of them off. Trilogies are similar in that an author cuts things off after book three. Even if there are some loose ends and other story arcs he/she could work in, he/she finds a way to bring the story to a close after three books, because he/she has made a commitment to do so, because it is what feels right.

Now, of course, there are bad trilogies. Trilogies where the story is dragged out far too long and you can tell the author really did not have enough material for three books. Trilogies where you wish you could tell the author it is okay to write a standalone (really, readers love them just as much). However, that is a subject for another rant – I mean, post.

Looking broadly at the face of publishing, trilogies are generally a great thing. They are the happy median between a lengthy series and a highly satisfying standalone. What could be better?


  1. Lovely post, well thought-out and written. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Personally, I've read a lot of YA, especially dystopia, where I felt the story could have been wrapped up a lot quicker.

    A lot of my favorite series growing up, The Saddle Club and Thoroughbred, were still going on long after I lost interest, so I understand what you mean.

  3. I agree. Could you please reply with the link of the blog in which you said that you loved unhappy endings. I would really love to read it!


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