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Q&A

Are fantasy books expected to be trilogies?

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Lately, more and more fantasy books I've seen are part of a trilogy. Is this because readers like it, or is it a cynical plot by publishers to draw out the story longer, so they can make more money? :D

I'm worried if I follow the market, I may be forced to unnecessarily drag out the book, in the way many fantasy books are. On the other hand, by not doing so, I may be ignoring an important genre expectation.

My question is: As a writer, should I plot my book so it follows the trilogy structure?

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This is a bit like asking how long a piece of string should be.

A fantasy work should be as long as it needs to be, no more, no less. One book, three books, ten books, as long as that's how it should be, then great.

Trilogies are a classic in literature, going back to Greek plays. The reason they're so classic is because, at their simplest, they consist of "beginning", "middle", "end", which suits story telling.

Unfortunately, Fantasy is awash with trilogies, so in a sense they've become almost clichéd. This may be because authors think it shows their success in developing a fantasy trilogy like Tolkien and others who've gone before i.e. it makes them "established" in the genre. No doubt there's also an appeal from a marketing perspective, as well as appeal from the author's perspective (having payment/contract for three books). Certainly, from a publisher's point of view, they would be far happier to see three books being written and selling than just one. Readers may like it because, hey, who doesn't want to read more about great characters?

I do think things are changing though. I rarely invest time in trilogies and/or series these days unless reviews are exceptional (for example, The Malazan Book of the Fallen series). For the most part, what I expect are books well-written, and focused. My time is so limited that I simply can't invest the effort into every fantasy series that comes along.

If you feel your story warrants a trilogy, great, but always remember that it's easier to pad and bulk up a story than it is to wield a discerning scalpel and cut out the unnecessary. Ask yourself what is necessary to tell your story.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/4170. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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I think the reason for the popularity of the trilogy structure in the fantasy genre is compelling, but far from expected or mandatory.

It's simply that fantasy novels tend to be long, for many reasons, including:

  • Fantasy novels typically require lots of world-building exposition, explaining the setting, the mechanics of magic, central factions in the world, etc. etc.
  • Fantasy novels are often interested in exploration; showing off various fantastical elements (places, creatures, magic items...) is often a lot of the book's focus. So the narrative is designed with a lot of shifting from place to place, and introducing new elements very frequently.
  • Fantasy novels often have epic plots, about the rise and fall of kingdoms and dragons and deities. Epic plots tend naturally to be of greater length, because this gives both time and wordcount to properly build up this epic scope. Readers will probably not care much whether the Empire of Lime can defeat the Bespectacled Dragon unless they've gotten a sense of all these elements as being rich, intriguing, and with real substance.

Since fantasy tends to expand into great length, multi-book structures are necessary. The moment that's a given, trilogies are a natural choice -

  • it's a short, well-defined series;
  • that's a length fantasy readers will be willing to risk dipping into;
  • the three-book structure can, in many senses, duplicate the three-act structure;
  • it's a short as you can get besides a duo (which - maybe this is just me - feels like an awkward length, which needs to work harder to justify the split into multiple books, and is harder to structure a single narrative around).

In other words, trilogies are popular because they're "short" (compared to longer sagas), not because they're long (compared to stand-alones). I think you'll find that stand-alones are actually easier sells, both to publishers and to readers - they'd much rather buy/read something complete, self-contained, and non-risky. It's simply that such books are less common, particularly when a lot of genre fans are interested in fantasy specifically for the length-inducing elements I've mentioned (world-building, exploration, epic plots).

So, if you feel your novel works best without falling into the trilogy structure, in all probability you are correct. I would reconsider only if you yourself think there are some elements in your book that need expanding (an additional viewpoint; an important element in your fantasy setting that might be poorly understood; a character who merits more action and attention than you originally planned, etc.).

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Your story should be only as long as it needs to be, and not a word more.

If your protagonist has a lot to accomplish, then sure, write more than one book. But for FSM's sake don't pad it thinking that you must "commit trilogy." Just because CJ Cherryh gave that advice to Mercedes Lackey 25 years ago doesn't mean it holds for every writer. (Hell, it doesn't mean it holds for Lackey now. Her current trilogy is not getting good reviews; her Valedmar stories are running out of steam.)

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