We Love Trilogies
But the question is, should we love trilogies. It’s really easy to think of a lot of them that at least started out as trilogies. Lord of the Rings is an obvious example, Star Wars x3, Hunger Games, Pirates of the Caribbean, Back to the Future, The Matrix, etc. There are tons of examples trilogies out there, some of them better than others, but it’s a really popular format for telling a story, and when done well it can work really well, but it’s not always done well.
Let’s talk about how fairly often a trilogy happens, and we can delve into some of the issues based off of that. The creator of the story has an idea for one story, maybe more, but one that they know they can get published or produced. So they go to the publisher or producer and sell them on this story and they get it made. Now, it’s a huge success and the publisher or producer comes back to them and asks for more and not just one more, two more of the story or film or whatever it might be. So the creator creates another story picking a spot in the middle for a cliffhanger between both stories and then those are published or produced. However, the second and third don’t do as well. What went wrong?
Now, it could be that there just wasn’t anymore story to tell surrounding certain characters or ideas or even worlds. That can happen, but probably isn’t going to be the biggest issue. Probably as often it happens that the creator didn’t have any more stories to put in that setting and to get something a little bit more out there published or produced, they agree to a multi-thing deal which includes what they are actually interested in creating as well as two things that will be more successful for the company that they signed the deal with. Both of those examples, there really shouldn’t have been a second thing created at all, because there really wasn’t anywhere to go.
But, I think there’s another issue that often befalls trilogies, and that’s their ability to tell a complete story. Pirates of the Caribbean is a great example of this. In the first movie, we get a complete story, we get Jack going from being a pirate down on his luck, getting what he thought he wanted, realizing it wasn’t what he wanted, and overcoming everything in the end. Same with Star Wars: A New Hope, we get a complete story including third act metal ceremony. Then comes along the second film, in particular in Pirates of the Caribbean, less so in the original trilogy (Star Wars). You get the creators knowing that there will be a third film, so they tell part of a story. You get some build, maybe even some change, but in the end, the biggest issue still hasn’t be resolved. Instead, you have to wait for the third film. And that’s fine, if you can watch both films back to back, but most of the time if it’s something you’re really excited about, you’re seeing the film or reading the book when it comes out, not when both are out. So you get the second part which is the start of a story and ends with a small resolution, and the third part which is the continuation of the second part and then the final resolution. So combined you are telling a single story, but both parts are going to leave you feeling a little wanting, unless they are masterfully crafted.
So, how can you get around this in a trilogy? Sometimes you just plan on it being a trilogy. Lord of the Rings is a prime example of this, Fellowship of the Ring doesn’t tell a complete story, Frodo is still going to Mordor, the same with The Two Towers, Frodo is still going to Mordor, and that’s the end of the story (kind of, there are a lot of third acts) when he throws the ring into Mount Doom in Return of the King. However, in each of those, we know there’s the through story line going on with Frodo getting the ring to Mount Doom in Mordor, but we also have other characters getting a story as well and there’s story, especially in Return of the King and The Two Towers that gets told apart from Frodo’s journey that has groundwork laid in earlier books, but finishes up and tells a story there. We have the massive battle between the forces of good and evil in Return of the King which sees Aragorn become King. We have in The Two Towers multiple stories that are told and wrap with Merry, Pippin, and the Ents and the battle of Helms Deep.
Lord of the Rings does two things that should be pointed out. It has a through line so it doesn’t feel like the parts of the trilogy are disconnected. This is the Frodo and Sam story line that they need to get the ring to Mordor and Mount Doom. It’s the key piece of the story and in fact, if they fail, the whole thing fails and that runs throughout all of the books. At the same time with have Gandalf, Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, Gimli, and Legolas doing there own things, making a difference in another part of the world. And even though they aren’t carrying the end game thing, the ring, they still have an important part to play. So we get complete story arcs, from beginning to end, for them in the books and not across all the books, but in each book there is a beginning and ending point.
This varies from my Pirates of the Caribbean example because it has a through line throughout the whole thing, Pirates has characters who repeat but the first movie stands separate from the last two of the original Pirates trilogy. And Lord of the Rings has a beginning, middle and end to each book, versus Pirates 2 & 3 where you have a beginning and middle and a middle and end split respectively.
What does this mean as a creator?
First, a trilogy isn’t the end all for writing, you don’t need it to be a trilogy. The Dresden Files, a series that I love, is on book 17. So you can clearly go longer if you have more story to tell, so don’t let a trilogy limit you. And don’t let the idea of it needing to be a trilogy or anything like that force over complexity and bloat into your stories.
However, if you are going to write a trilogy, or even if you are writing something that you have a bigger idea for, but you just need to get one written and published first, think about through line and think about a complete story. Now, it’s hard if you think that you are only going to get a single shot at creating your idea, but give yourself room. Don’t bloat your idea to fit everything in to a single thing, instead, tell a nice complete story and leave room in the world for there to be even more story. Star Wars, the original trilogy, does this well. You have them blow up the Death Star, that by itself could end the story in A New Hope, however, Vader isn’t killed, so the villain is still out there. If nothing ever came after A New Hope, it wouldn’t feel like it’s missing anything, but it’s natural that we pick back up again with Darth Vader and the Empire. So create a first story, even if you don’t know that you’ll get more like that. Give the main characters a big win but leave a villain out there defeated but not destroyed. That way, you can come back and pick up with the same characters and continue a story.
Also leave plenty of your world unexplored after your first story, especially if you don’t know if there will be more. Lord of the Rings, we get through some mountains, but we know that Mordor is still out there, but we’re not there yet, and there are other lands to explore as well that we haven’t seen or gone to. Star Wars: A New Hope, they really aren’t that many locations and then they have a ton of other planets that they can create and use in future films because they didn’t have them hop from planet to planet all the time. This gives you room to create more mystery and more adventures in which to tell your complete adventure. Pirates of the Caribbean really feels like it hits up so many locations in the first film, even though it’s somewhat limited, so you don’t feel like there are a lot of players left to join the story in this small world they’ve created, as compare to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars where who knows what new enemies or allies might be out there.
Now, I’m sure there are more things out there that you can do when creating a trilogy. I do want to wrap up with that I’m not trying to bash on trilogies. I think fairly often they can work. The original Star Wars trilogy and Lord of the Rings are great examples of this. Even The Hunger Games, which I didn’t talk about much, does a good job of making the 1st and the 3rd stand separate as their own stories. But don’t limit yourself to that if you want to create an epic, and tell a complete story each time, those are just my rules for writing a series or trilogy.
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