Trilogies – Why Are They So Popular?

Image by Kendra Miller

If you are an avid reader or follow the movie adaptations of books, you will most probably have noticed a certain trend. No, it’s not about splitting a final book of a series into two movies – as has been the case with Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or Twilight. It’s about producing or writing a trilogy.


The term trilogy refers to three works of art, whether it may be books, movies, or another art form. These parts are all connected, and together, they form one big piece of art rather than three separate parts. The connection between all three works can either be merely by a recurring theme, or by the occurrence of the same characters and setting. Especially in science fiction and fantasy, Trilogies and whole series are quite common when it comes to books.


But why is that so? And why do many authors, nowadays and in the past, decide to write their stories in three parts?


Why are trilogies so popular?

Unfortunately, there is no real answer to the question. Neither is there one for the question of why so many authors, editors, or publishers want to publish books or rather stories in trilogies rather than in one book. There are several theories and ideas out there that try to explain this literary phenomenon, but none seems to be the top pic and explanation for it all.


Maybe it can all be brought back to Aristotle? The philosopher divided a story into three parts, a set up, a conflict, and the resolution aka the beginning, middle, and end. Could it be that trilogies work with such a structure, forming the three individual parts that make a good story?


Or is it simply because writers as well as publishers still follow what has been majorly shaped by J.R.R. Tolkien and the publishing of The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy? Back in Tolkien’s age, this publishing concept was more or less initiated by the lack of paper in post-war England, however it was a concept that worked: and sold. Most books published in trilogies (or series for that matter) can be found in the literary genres of science fiction and fantasy (with crime novels, nowadays and in the past, following suit), so it doesn’t sound too far fetched to assume that trilogies are published in honor of the “godfather of fantasy”.


Another, more juvenile attempt, however, is to blame the rule of three for this phenomenon. Third time lucky, people say, and overall, the number three seems to play a crucial part in our every day life. We lift heavy things on the count of three, shake our fists three times when playing rock-paper-scissor, and so on and so forth. Even in video games, in older ones at least, hitting your opponent three times was the way to beat him. Three, therefore, seems to be some kind of magical numbers, and trilogies may just be the literary equivalent of this rule of three.


From a Reader’s perspective

The initial reason for and behind the phenomenon of trilogies may not be easy to answer, however the success of a story published in three (or more) parts can not be doubted. The Hunger Games, Divergent, Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, and even 50 Shades of Grey have all been published in three parts – successfully. And series like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the so-called “Trilogy of five books”), Harry Potter, Star Wars, or A Song of Ice and Fire even went further than the “required” three books.


What they all (or most of them) have in common is that they belong to roughly the same genre, namely fantasy or sci-fi (with the exclusion of 50 Shades). This only comes natural, given the worlds these book take place in. A fantastical new world with many different creatures, customs, tribes, and so on can easily be explored in more than one book – and sometimes it has to in order to get the full concept or beauty of such a world across to the reader. Equally naturally, these worlds make us more curious than books taking place in our world or even a city we know too well by now. There are so many new and exciting things to discover.


And that’s most probably the biggest reason of why the reader feels so drawn to a series or trilogy of books – we want to know more, and always more about the fantastical worlds, the creatures in them, and of course about characters that grew on us while reading. Opinions are split, however, and for many waiting for a sequel or new book in a series is a nuisance – we hear you, ASOIAF fans – but recent publishing patterns show that more than enough people still are willing to wait for a new adventure with their favorite fictional characters.


And from a publisher’s or author’s perspective? The most obvious answer is a financial and marketing one. A great story, published in several books, brings more money. With every newly published part of the series, the sales figures of the former and especially the first issues, rise. Merchandise can be (re)produced, and nowadays the trend to produce movie or TV series adaptations of longer novel series and trilogies is a big financial success as well. A good story sells, and usually, the cow is milked until it is dry.

So, whether you personally like the trend of books published in trilogies or not, it is there, and many iconic and very highly recommended books come in threes. And, while you wait for the next book in a series to be published, you can still turn to an exciting one-shot novel meanwhile.