Monday, December 6, 2010

The Power of Three

Recently a reader asked me for my opinion on why there are so many trilogies being published lately -- I have two answers, one short, one longer. You know me...

The first is financial. If an author’s books sell well, there’s nothing a publisher likes better than to have another book waiting in the wings to move onto shelves as soon as the initial sales of their first subside. The strategy seems to be to have new books come out within six months of each other, as my second did, which means that the old paradigm of taking a year to finish a novel is slowly being thrown out the window. That’s right, kids, your competition is now time -- the novelist who can produce good work faster -- i.e., readable and saleable, which doesn’t always mean the best writing -- is more appealing to a major publisher than a brilliant first novel with no guarantee of more.

If a publisher buys a trilogy and promotes it as such, it theoretically means that anyone who enjoyed the first book is a built in audience for the second and third. Since most book contracts are structured in step payments, publishers have no problem writing off any money paid on signature and stopping the ball before it rolls too far down the hill if the first book tanks. For them it’s a win-win situation -- not so much for the author who told everybody about a three-book deal that then goes the way of all things.

The second reason is aesthetic.

There has always been an attraction to the power of three. Off the top of my head I can cite the Holy Trinity that I was raised with as a Catholic -- Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The three witches in Macbeth, the three sisters in Aaron Spelling’s “Charmed”, three-eyed and three legged aliens in “War of the Worlds”, “The Tripods” series -- I could Google and find far more and better examples, but you get the point.

Almost any writing course will tell you that a good story has three elements - a beginning, middle and end. We talk of the three-act structure of plays, even of screenplays. Life is divided into past, present and future, with no side trips into parallel time or alternate dimensions. Bottom line, there is a magic and mystery to the number three that recurs frequently in literature and myth.

There's also something almost irresistible to taking on the challenge of writing a story so big it requires three parts to tell. It is a lure that can be as lethal as Ulysses' desire to hear the Siren's song, with equal risk of crashing to you doom on the rocks. When I started my first novel, “BITE MARKS: A Vampire Testament”, I didn’t plan for it to become a trilogy. That happened in the course of rewriting the first book, as I realized it had generated a valid continuation of the story. Book one took place in 1986/87 and involved a vampire baby that is “cured” by the end of the first book. Once I had that ending, I saw a second story that brought the baby, now human and approaching 21, back to New York to find out what happened to him all those years ago.

I was lucky in that the editor who bought the book saw the same potential, and bought the second book based on a half page description of what it would be. In the course of writing book two of what had become the first two novels of “The Vampire Testaments” at my editor’s suggestion, I had a choice -- cram everything that was coming up into one book that felt rushed, or break the story I saw remaining into two books, turning my first publication into the opening volley of -- yeah, yet another trilogy.

In all good conscience, I couldn’t cheat the characters or the readers with the former, so I wrote up enough details to see where the third book would go, and plunged ahead, counting on my editor to tell me I was crazy if the second book didn’t satisfy. She didn’t, and I am now hard at work on book three, with no contract, driven only by my need to know what happens next.

I did something unusual (I think -- I haven’t read everything, after all) in that each book of the trilogy is separated by a generation -- the first takes place in 1986/87, the second twenty years later in 2007, and the third will be set twenty years from now in 2028. My hope is that no one will assume the third is science fiction and shy away from it, or that first readers of the third will be disappointed in the first two for not having futuristic aspects. For the purposes of the story I am trying to tell I had to move forward in time for certain events to build to a boil. The third is more speculative fiction if anything, in that I am more concerned with social and moral changes than in how technology or science may have changed to affect us.

It does make for an interesting marketing issue, which I will address in future blogs. Publishing today is still struggling to deal with the question of how to effectively sell a book in the 21st century, when more books than ever are available, in more forms, and in more markets. My hope is that I’ll attract readers who like my characters, the way I tell stories, and my themes, and that, if done well, where or when they are set will be accepted without question.

When I realized that I’d thrown myself into a trilogy, as opposed to a series, (also popular with publishers today, though the Testaments will continue with individual novels), I took on the responsibility to end the third novel well, in a way that wrapped up the lives of the characters while leaving them open to future stories. I didn’t want to pad out a successful first story into two more, as the Matrix trilogy did so poorly, for seemingly no other reason than to milk the market.

In my opinion they destroyed the integrity of the first movie by the middle of the second, when Neo arbitrarily discards saving the real world to save his lover (named Trinity, ironic in the context of this essay) and then lies about it. Then they gave us a third movie that essentially reprised and expanded the action sequences of the first two and cranked them up until there was no room left for anything but more digital copies of the villains in motion. Consistency of plot, character or story were thrown out the window in a virtual orgy of hi-tech destruction driven more by Joel Silver’s action movie mentality than the intelligence of the Wachowskis that instigated the original idea.

For me, a trilogy is justified when it’s driven by an epic story that can’t be contained in anything smaller. The “Lord of the Rings” was a faux trilogy in that it was written as a massive single book the publisher cut into three parts for publication. Nonetheless, except for the abrupt close of the first two portions (I feel each part of a good trilogy should have a satisfying ending, even as it sets you up for the next), it tells an epic tale that couldn’t be told in fewer words.

The future of the trilogy will be determined by two things -- their effectiveness, how well they are written -- but first and foremost, their sales. If people keep buying trilogies, writers will keep writing them, and publishers will keep putting them out there. I will think twice before I launch into another. My only regret is that I didn’t pitch the first as a trilogy so that the publisher could have promoted it as such, but I am making clear that the story continues -- and ends -- with another. After that I have at least two more tales to tell in my vampire lore, and a host of unrelated books to write, supernatural and otherwise.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I both love to read and write series, and the trilogy is kind of a natural set of cycles for a series to go through. Certainly, once I've created a character and a world, I want to explore all elements of it. And as a reader I want to see those elements explored.