Trilogies; let's talk about trilogies.
This topic was inspired by two great trilogies I’ve recently consumed; the Mistborn novel series by Brandon Sanderson and the How To Train Your Dragon cinematic trilogy by Dean DeBlois (with Chris Sanders co-directing the first film).
Now, as my introduction already proclaimed, both these trilogies are amazing; and I loved them both. I saw How To Train Your Dragon: Hidden World just a few days ago, and haven't stopped thinking about it. And just finished the The Hero of Ages, the third and final book from the Mistborn [Era 1] series a couple of months ago.
Now, for the purposes of discussing trilogies, I’ll be ignoring supplementary works (like Sanderson’s other novels set in the same world, or in How To Train Your Dragon's case I'll ignore the television series and original book series by Cressida Cowell).
So what makes a great trilogy? Is it much different to what makes a good story? Can a trilogy be good, but each part...less than good?
I'll be deconstructing what I think makes a good trilogy, but ultimately the number one most important thing is that the story has to be good. Whether its each story, or the story as a whole, they need to be good. What I want to talk about is what can make a trilogy especially more than good, but GREAT!
To me, a good trilogy really needs to have three things, these are:
1. Each part of the series needs to be able to stand alone and tell its own good story.
2. Each part needs to form a part of a larger narrative, and together tell a fourth story.
3. Deepen the story world, but don’t contradict your own rules.
Obviously I’m grossly generalising, but I’ll break down these points a bit more and use the examples of Mistborn and How To Train Your Dragon.
Each part of a trilogy needs to tell a compelling story in spite of the other entries of that trilogy. Each part needs to have their own story arcs, introductions, problems, resolutions, and themes and all the other elements used to tell a story.
Looking at How To Train Your Dragon, each film tells a very specific story about Hiccup and his friends. The first film is about Hiccup who wouldn’t kill a dragon because he saw himself in it, then convinces his village (including his crush and chief father) that dragons are friendly. The second movie, follows Hiccup who is asked by his father to take over as village chief, as Hiccup uncovers that his mother is still alive. The third entry, follows Hiccup and his dragon Toothless, who are the village chief and dragon alpha respectively, as they attempt to escape their village in favour of a mythical dragon utopia because their friendly dragon ways is drawing too much dragon hunting attention.
Mistborn includes three novels; The Final Empire follows Vin as she learns she is an all powerful Mistborn as she joins a thieving crew in an attempt to overthrow the all powerful Dark Lord Ruler and his government. The second book, The Well of Ascension follows Vin as a now fabled hero, protecting her man (the new King) as they try to hold the capital city from the mass of invading forces that have surrounded it. The third book, The Hero of Ages follows Vin and her friends again as they try to hunt down these secret caches of the Dark Lord Ruler in an attempt to stop the world from literally falling apart.
In both examples, the stories create their own narratives, with a beginning, middle and end…and isn’t that all a story is?
Part of a whole
Beyond each part being able to exist independently of each other, each needs to also be able to form a whole story.
Looking at How To Train Your Dragon; it’s fundamentally a story of a boy growing up and learning to belief in himself. Each movie serves as a life challenge, and in each movie our protagonist Hiccup learns from Hiccup his worth, until he is able to belief in himself.
When focussed through the lens of a trilogy, Sazed seems to me to be the the real protagonist of Mistborn. As a character he starts out as someone who has literally absorbed all the knowledge of religion throughout the world’s history, unable to convince most characters to believe. Then, following the death of his love, Sazed loses his own faith only to ascend to the Heavens as a new God, using all the knowledge that he had stored to remake the broken world.
Rules are meant to be broken
What’s absolutely critical for the pieces totalling the whole, is that the story rules can’t be contradicted, but they must be expanded and built upon. This is a big one for me, and more than even the other points, is critical. I’ll include a separate example to really sell this point, an example where the story and lore of a story world deepens without contradicting itself.
Maybe I just wanted to talk about Harry Potter a bit, but I don’t care, I’m going to do it! Harry Potter is great lore building, from the illuminator that Dumbledore used in the opening chapter becoming a critical part in the final book, to Harry talking to the snake in the first book meaning he is a parseltongue, and to the basilisk venom that destroyed the diary being the way to kill the horcruxes. The book could have broken its lore in many ways; if it had made talking to snakes some sign of heroism, it would have contracted the symbolism of the snake as a sign of evil; or it could have ignored the basilisk venom destroyed a horcrux. Good world building deepens elements of a story with each subsequent release, Prisoner of Azkaban introduces us to Animagus, which applies more context to McGonagall’s transformation into a house cat in the first book. Always build your lore up, and explore it, but never contradict it.
Really I don’t know if I’ve introduced anything new to the conversation, but hopefully with some good examples you can see how a good trilogy is built.