I’ll Take Three

  • By Tara Laskowski
  • August 29, 2016

Why trilogies are the best

I’ll Take Three

I've always liked the number three. One is too few, two is too match-y, and once you get to five, you've got too much going on. Three is just right. As the amazing "Schoolhouse Rock" always said, three is, indeed, a magic number.

When we're talking books, trilogies have a magic of their own. They feel weighty and important. A perfect format for the person who tends to get really sad when a book she loves is over and she can't follow the characters anymore. With a trilogy, you've got more coming right at the moment you've really fallen in love and become immersed in the world (even if you sometimes have to wait a year between books).

The form is long enough that the writer can fully develop several storylines and adventures, but short enough that you don't feel like you're committing to an endless series. Trilogies are like a really good British miniseries — they have an arc, they have a purpose, and they do the work and get the hell out.

Readers aren't following a long series character 50-plus books along, where the storylines get tired or ridiculous, where the energy fizzles. (Although, Tana French, you can keep writing The Dublin Murder Squad series for eternity, and I'm with you. I'm totally with you.)

The job of the first book of a trilogy is to get you hooked. It sets up the world and the characters. It gives us a good story in its own right, but leaves some threads unanswered, some trouble unfixed. More times than not, if you ask people what their favorite book in a trilogy is, they're going to tell you the first one. The first book is the drug — it's the one with no expectations behind it, nothing yet to live up to.

Therefore, it often sucks to be the second book in a three-part series. It's the follow-up, the Wednesday of the workweek, the hump to get over. It's most likely going to be the least popular book in the trilogy. But that's okay, because it, too, does its job. It gives us more. It often riffs on the themes of the first book, but in a different way. It carries us across and keeps us committed. Once we've read the second book, we're in it for the whole ride.

And then there's the last book — oh, the last book. It's the pay-off. Its job is to wrap everything up, to give you a lingering hug before sending you home. The last book can feel just as devastating as reading a good standalone, but if it's a great trilogy, then it's been a satisfying journey.

Here are some trilogies I've recently read and loved. Please send me your favorites so I can add to my list:

The Last Policeman series: Ben Winters does trilogies right. The books are about a detective determined to continue doing his job despite the fact that a giant asteroid is set to hit Earth in sixth months. Each book is a delight, fulfilling that need for a contained mystery while keeping the threads of a larger story going. The books are exciting page-turners but also quite poignant. When I was reading them, I'd walk around Washington, DC, in a daze, imagining how different the city would feel if the world were ending. I was so enraptured one day that I completely missed my coworkers waving to me as I passed them on the street. Dazzling and epic.

The Magicians trilogy: These three books by Lev Grossman were dubbed "the adult Harry Potter," but that doesn't do them justice. Scads darker than Potter ever was, The Magicians is in a league of its own with unforgettable stories and the most loveable despicable characters I've ever encountered.

Miss Peregrine's series: The first book in this series, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, had me hooked. If you love young-adult books like I do, check these out. I whipped through The Hunger Games like everyone else, and although this trilogy seems quieter, it's got a charm about it that's not to be missed. Following misfit children living in a time warp, the stories were inspired by old photos the author found at an antique store.

Other favorite trilogies of mine include Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine. The latter is largely out of print now, but I was lucky to find all of them at a recent library sale. Other writers to watch who are working on a three-part series right now are E.A. Aymar, who's released two books in The Dead Trilogy series, and Laura Ellen Scott’s New Royal Mysteries, the first of which is called The Mean Bone in Her Body and should be on the shelves this fall.

So go forth and find your favorite trilogy. I triple-dog dare you.

Tara Laskowski's short-story collection, Bystanders, was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Since 2010, she has been the editor of the online flash-fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly.

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