[GUEST POST] John R. Fultz on The Power of a Trilogy (+ Giveaway!)

John R. Fultz lives in the Bay Area, California, but is originally from Kentucky. His fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Weird Tales, Space & Time, Lightspeed, Way of the Wizard, and Cthulhu’s Reign. His comic book work includes Primordia, Zombie Tales, and Cthulhu Tales. John’s literary heroes include Tanith Lee, Thomas Ligotti, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, William Gibson, Robert Silverberg, and Darrell Schweitzer, not to mention Howard, Poe, and Shakespeare. When not writing novels, stories, or comics, John teaches English Literature at the high school level and plays a mean guitar. His short-story collection is titled The Revelations Of Zang. His Books of the Shaper trilogy (published by Orbit Books) includes the novels Seven Princes, Seven Kings, and the just-released Seven Sorcerers.

The Power of a Trilogy

by John R. Fultz

Three is a magic number.

Since epic fantasies usually involve a lot of magic, 3 is also the perfect number of books for a fantasy series. Of course it was the Great Tolkien who established this paradigm with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, the epic fantasy that set the mold for all those that came after it. The publishing industry adopted Tolkien’s pattern of three books wholeheartedly, but in the last couple of decades there have been plenty of series that rage on well past the third volume. These days fantasy series of 5 to 10 books are fairly common. Yet still trilogies persist. In fact the epic fantasy genre achieves its greatest effect with the one-two-three “punch” of a trilogy.

Ever since Aristotle quantified storytelling the basic three-act structure has been the most prevalent story structure in fiction because it works. Put simply, Act 1 introduces characters, setting, and conflict; Act 2 complicates the conflict and raises the stakes; and Act 3 brings the conflict to a climax and provides a resolution. There are endless variations on this basic structure. Sure, you can stretch Act 2 into as many chapters/episodes as you want, but this underlying three-part structure still plays itself out in most stories–regardless of how many subplots and tangents the author introduces.

Yet is a longer story necessarily a better story? Is a 5- to 10-book series innately superior to a three-book series? The notion seems absurd. It really depends on how tightly woven the overarching “mega-plot” is in regard to the series. If each single book stands alone as a complete three-act structure, then the series lends itself to any number of installments. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian Tales are a great example of this: Each entry in the 11-book series stands on its own, independently of the others, and some don’t even feature John Carter at all. There are numerous other examples of this technique.

On the other hand, if each book in a series is itself only one act, and if the series culminates with a major resolution found in the third installment, then any further books are superfluous. The writer will simply have to begin the three-act pattern anew, starting in the fourth book. Stories that do feature a one-act-per-book (i.e. a tightly woven plotline running across multiple volumes) can suffer from extending the series too far. These types of ongoing series can create a sensation of “dragging out the story.” Some readers can and do get frustrated. However, a really good writer can make this work to his advantage since great writing overcomes all failings. In the case of George R. R. Martin’s brilliant Song of Ice and Fire series–already five books long with two more coming eventually–each book delivers its own sub-conclusion. The over-arching “mega-plot” is far less important than the individual journeys of the characters who are swept along by the great Game of Thrones.

In the Books of the Shaper trilogy the “big story” is told in three distinct parts consisting of one book each: Seven Princes, Seven Kings, and Seven Sorcerers. The story was conceived in this way from the very beginning. Three books, three acts, all building to one epic conclusion. So what advantages does a “three-and-done” trilogy have over a 5- to 10-book series? Let’s take a quick look at the Power of Three…

The number 3 is associated with the triangle, which symbolizes concepts like Spirit/Mind/Body and Past/Present/Future. Many world religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, and Taoism, acknowledge a Holy Trinity or Triple Deity. Three evokes synchronicity, as in “counting to three” before acting as one. In numerology the number 3 represents communication and/or interaction. In number theory 3 is the first unique prime. Captive genies reportedly grant three wishes to those who set them free. As fans of Christopher Nolan movies all know, magic tricks are composed of three parts: The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige. Writing a novel is its own kind of magic trick, and a great ending has a prestige all its own.

All of these numerical qualities aside, the greatest benefit to a trilogy is that readers get a sense of completion when the third book is finished. The story is done, the characters have succeeded or failed (or both), the fundamental story situation has changed, and there is an immense satisfaction in a well-crafted ending. As human beings we tend to crave endings.

One might compare reading a trilogy to a watching a lengthy movie, but longer book series are more like television shows. The movie gives you an entire experience with a sense of finality, while the TV show keeps you coming back for more with no end in sight. (This becomes ironic now that many book series are now being made into movie series.) The same effect applies: The endless/ongoing series runs the risk of never delivering the ultimate satisfaction of The Ending. Quite often well-regarded TV series are condemned for their less-than-successful endings because they have built up expectations for years until it becomes impossible to end things gracefully. Similarly, fans waiting on the next long-delayed installment of a book series often get restless and abandon or forget it. With a story that is complete in three volumes, that problem doesn’t exist.

Another risk in writing an ongoing/endless series is that a sub-set of readers will say: “I’ll just wait until ALL the books are out before I read any of them.” There’s a segment of the reading public that may never read the series because they’re waiting for the “final book.” Here the trilogy has the ongoing series beat hands-down. When all three books are published, they become a “set” that not only looks good on a shelf but also can be read in its entirety at anytime.

I’m thrilled that Seven Sorcerers is finally hitting the bookstores. In a very real way the entire Shaper Trilogy is getting a relaunch. Readers can buy and enjoy the books one-at-a-time with no delays between volumes or pick up the whole set at once and dive right in.

A lot of new fans will discover the trilogy now that it is complete. The journey they will take is far too epic for any single volume, yet it delivers a grand finale that would never happen in an ongoing series. It picks you up, carries you away, and drops you breathless and amazed into a gratifying conclusion.

And that’s the real power of a trilogy.


GIVEAWAY (US/Canada): Win Signed Copies of the BOOKS OF THE SHAPER trilogy by John R. Fultz

Cortesy of the Orbit Books, SF Signal has 1 set of John R. Fultz’s Books Of The Shaper , signed by the author, to give away to 1 lucky SF Signal reader!

Here are the book synopses…

Seven Princes

It is an Age of Legends.

Under the watchful eye of the Giants, the kingdoms of Men rose to power. Now, the Giant-King has slain the last of the Serpents and ushered in an era of untold peace and prosperity. Where a fire-blackened desert once stood, golden cities flourish in verdant fields.

It is an Age of Heroes.

But the realms of Man face a new threat– an ancient sorcerer slaughters the rightful King of Yaskatha before the unbelieving eyes of his son, young Prince D’zan. With the Giant-King lost to a mysterious doom, it seems that no one has the power to stop the coming storm.

It is an Age of War.

The fugitive Prince seeks allies across the realms of Men and Giants to liberate his father’s stolen kingdom. Six foreign Princes are tied to his fate. Only one thing is certain: War is coming.

SEVEN PRINCES.

Some will seek glory.

Some will seek vengeance.

All will be legends.

Seven Kings

In the jungles of Khyrei, an escaped slave seeks vengeance and finds the key to a savage revolution.

In the drought-stricken Stormlands, the Twin Kings argue the destiny of their kingdom: one walks the path of knowledge, the other treads the road to war.

Beyond the haunted mountains King Vireon confronts a plague of demons bent on destroying his family.

With intrigue, sorcery, and war, Seven Kings continues the towering fantasy epic that began with Seven Princes.

Seven Sorcerers

The stunning conclusion to the Books of the Shaper series that began with Seven Princes and Seven Kings

The Almighty Zyung drives his massive armies across the world to invade the Land of the Five Cities. So begins the final struggle between freedom and tyranny.

The Southern Kings D’zan and Undutu lead a fleet of warships to meet Zyung’s aerial armada. Vireon the Slayer and Tyro the Sword King lead Men and Giants to defend the free world. So begins the great slaughter of the age…

lardu the Shaper and Sharadza Vodsdaughter must awaken the Old Breed to face Zyung’s legion of sorcerers. So begins a desperate quest beyond the material world into strange realms of magic and mystery.

Yet already it may be too late…

  1. Send an email to contest at sfsignal dot com. (That’s us).
  2. In the subject line, enter ‘Books Of The Shaper
  3. In the email, please provide your mailing address so the books can be mailed as soon as possible. (The winning address is used only to mail the prize and, like all other address info, will be purged once the giveaway ends.)
  4. Geographic restrictions: This giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada.
  5. The giveaway will end Tuesday, December 17th, 2013 (9:00 PM U.S. Central time). The winners will be selected at random, notified, and announced shortly thereafter.

Good luck!