Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Problem With Trilogies? a Response

Blogger Kristopher Denby, of The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby, has recently posted his review on Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself.  In short, he didn't like the book, seeing it as just another overused copycat of Tolkien.  He muses,

"Seriously. What’s wrong with one book that tells an engrossing, solid, character driven story? Oh, right. Those other books are for world building. Setting up the environment, while introducing the audience to the various characters that will inevitably wander some lonely, barren part of a fantasy world on a quest for some holy trinket (sprechen sie ring?). If you’re lucky (not so in the case of The Blade Itself ) the author might get ‘round to telling you just exactly what these characters are going to be getting into in the other two books, and why you should even give one crap about them, their plight, or their silly quest. Unfortunately, by the time Abercrombie begins to explain some of these little details in The Blade Itself, I was too bored to really care one way or the other."

Now I’m all for personal opinions.  Not everyone is going to agree on whether or not a book or movie is good.  That’s understood.  Heck, that’s desired even.  But the part I’m concerned with is the problem with a story that spills outside the bounds of one book.  True, many SFF stories span multiple volumes, telling sprawling epics that take thousands of pages to complete.  The rare standalones, such as Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker or Elantris, are unheard of.

I think a problem people have with multiple-book series is that they don’t have the time to sit down and read them.  In our busy world, we have so many things to do, reading time is not a priority for most.  People get it when they can, but more often than not, reading is cast off until we have time for it.  Personally, I carry a book with me almost everywhere I go.  I read when I take the dogs out.  I read in the bathroom.  I read while my wife shops.  And every night before bed, I usually put in an hour or two.  Books have always been a part of my life, and I’ve always wanted to progress in the story whenever I could.

And therein is my problem with trilogies.  I don’t see a trilogy as three separate stories.  No, a trilogy is one long story spread out over three volumes.  While each individual piece will have its own sub-plot, these sub-plots alone don’t tell the story, only when they come together is everything made clear.  Think of STAR WARS.  A New Hope introduces the characters and the main plot: the Empire is bad, the Rebels need to overthrow it.  By the end of Episode IV, the Rebels had made a huge dent in the Empire, but had they overthrown it?  No.  Empire Strikes Back adds virtually nothing to the main plot (Empire still strong, Rebels still struggling), but it remains one of the strongest pieces of the trilogy, expounding on the Force and the characters more.  Finally, Return of the Jedi brings about closure to the plot, eliminating that pesky Palpatine and his evil side-kick Vader for good, ushering in a new era of peace and pie for everyone.

I read (and watch movies, etc.) for the story.  If the plot and characters are strong, and I can connect somehow, then I’ll usually progress until I’m finished with the story.  That means if it’s a trilogy, I’ll read three books.  I don’t feel right about making my opinion based only on part of a story.  That is why I struggle to give up a book if it’s not working for me, or why I find individual books within a series more difficult to review as opposed to the entire story. 

The same argument can also be made with short fiction.  Some people don’t like short stories because they’re not long enough (i.e. Mom).  They want a thick novel that devotes the right amount of time to character, setting, plot, and the like, and a short story is confined to only a few thousand words, scads less than needed.  You can go back and re-read the quote above and substitute short-story for “book” (and the same logic throughout) and you end up with something that points to our minimalistic, fast-paced society.

The point is, it doesn’t matter whether a story is 2000 or 200000 words, so long as it’s engrossing.  My recent delve in The Wheel of Time comes to mind.  I read The Eye of the World and thought it was merely okay.  Still, being only Book 1 of 13 or something, I pressed on with The Great Hunt.  And I could not finish.  The story is unresolved in my head, but it was not keeping me invested in it.  I felt bad giving up, but I had no desire to finish, either.

This brings me back to the beginning.  Not everyone will agree on whether or not a story is good.  I personally loved The Blade Itself (reviewed here), ranking it in my top favorite reads of last year.  It’s okay that Kristopher doesn’t like the book (who am I to say what people should like?), but I just feel like he’s not giving the story a chance by giving up after Book One.  There’s much more to be found, and I hope he picks up the last two books one of these days.


Angie said...

I don't mind trilogies or series, but I did hit a point last year where after three or four cliff-hanger endings and long waits for the next books, I found Warbreaker refreshing for being stand-alone. You have a good point about not judging a story based on just part. Then again, I never have a problem putting down a book or giving up on a series if it just isn't working for me. How are you liking The Way of Kings? I'm patiently awaiting my turn to read it. (Too many readers in my house!)

Anonymous said...

You do have a good point about not judging a trilogy by just one part, though I struggle with the idea just the same. why not publish it in a singular tome if smaller story arcs cannot be created and resolved? Especially when setting up a Trilogy. Sci-fi and Fantasy both are infamous for their many paged, small print tomes. a level of catharsis needs to be met, doesn't it?

I mean, I see your point that perhaps a shift in perspective may be required.

I understand that if it is understood that a book is one in a trilogy, expectations can be adjusted and we can brace ourselves for 7/8th world build and 1/8 introduction to book 2 (if that is the formula in use). It is refreshing, however, to find an author that can world-build While story-telling, though, whether in one book or a series.

Perhaps along with a shift in perspective, an occasional shift in genres or forms is required as well. too much of one thing and all that...


Jay Belt said...

My, my, my... This certainly strikes home hard for me. Being that I'm a writer who wrote book one of his trilogy, but then I cut my manuscript in half, changing it to a point that it'll no longer be a trilogy but a book series of 5 or 6 books. Yeah. This very discussion, it's pertinent.

First of all, to sit on Kristopher Denby's fence for just a moment. I can feel him in some respect. See, here's the thing about Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi. They did tell an epic story. But you could watch Star Wars: A New Hope and be done. Story's done. You could actually do that. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can't do that with Empire, because you have the whole Han cliffhanger ending. And Jedi starts off in the middle of a story arc.

The Blade Itself, most certainly isn't a one-off story. While Jezal and Glokta do have full story arcs, Logan's doesn't really arc at all. In fact, with Logan, you're pretty much reading his stuff for setup of book 2.

So I can see a bit of complaint. As much as I loved The First Law trilogy myself, I can see why this guy is upset with the first book's story.

Now, with that said. If he doesn't like that style of book, why waste time reading it? Epic Fantasy is laced with world evolution and setup material that characters prod through... but... that's... kind of the point of EPIC Fantasy. Ranting about trilogies not having a fast enough pace is almost like ranting that McDonald's food tastes greasy and cheap. Honestly, what did he expect when he picked up the book? It says, right there on the cover "The First Law: Book One."

But an overused copycat of Tolkien? Always wandering the world for some lonely, barren...world on a quest for some holy trinket.

That just hurts. And that hits too close to home for me.

logankstewart said...

@Angie: Yes, it's somewhat frustrating to keep hitting cliff-hangers, but as long as the end's worth it, I don't mind.

Sadly, I've not actually begun The Way of Kings yet. I've got it, just too many other books going on at the moment.

@L: Yes, exactly. I think a shift in perspective may very well be needed, but the question is whether or not the shift is necessary? I'm all with the occasional genre change, though.

Kristopher A. Denby said...

Trying to comment again. I'll try halving the comment, and see what that does.

Judging by people's reactions, I probably should have taken a little more time to elaborate on why I didn't enjoy the book.

I didn't hate the book. The negative tone of my review is simply the culmination of several attempts to read trilogies that failed to hold my interest.

Notice that I said interest. Not attention. There is a difference. I'm quite sure you didn't mean it to be insulting, but there are a few remarks above that I might have interpreted as insinuations that I don't have the capacity to focus my attention long enough to get through a trilogy.

What it boils down to is the simple idea (and the whole point of story telling) that a story (regardless of whether it's part 1 of 3 or a stand alone novel or short story) should be interesting enough to attract the reader to continue to read (or listen) to the end. I found 'The Blade Itself' to have fallen short in that capacity.

And in this regard, the author has failed his duty as a story teller. If you hadn't given me the other books, I would never have waited for them to be published, sought them out, and bought them. I would have lamented the fact that I bought into a trilogy of books that failed to tell self contained stories, and that I wasted my time reading a book that required me to buy the others to "get it", or to understand what about the larger story arc is interesting enough to continue.

To me, that's asking a bit too much.

Kristopher A. Denby said...


And I'm glad you took the time to respond, because you more or less made my point for me with some seriously common ground for the two of us. The original Star Wars trilogy (and even the dreadful prequels) are self contained stories.

In Star Wars we are introduced to our hero and a cast of characters that are interesting, despite the fact that we didn't have 3 hours of exposition to explain to us what each character is about. The hero encounters conflict and has to make a decision. He makes his choice, has a battle against the evil villain, and saves the day. The End.

You could watch that movie by itself, and never watch Empire or Jedi, and still be fulfilled and entertained.

The other two movies are the same. Even though Empire ends on a bitter note, it is still a self contained story. Is the tragedy or second act of the play, but still tells a story that can be enjoyed on its own.

In all three Star Wars films, characters are introduced, shortly thereafter they are presented with a problem, and then the action unfolds as the characters attempt to solve the problem or conflict.

In 'The Blade Itself' there simply weren't enough carrots and sticks to keep me wanting to follow. If I have to read the rest of the books simply to understand what there is to be entertained about, then to me the author has failed.

Again, I didn't HATE the book. In the larger context, I'm simply irritated with the proliferation of trilogies just for the sake of having another trilogy. If your trilogy can be distilled into 1 book without losing any merit, why bother turning it into 3? It's no different than a barman cutting his whiskey with water. Don't give me filler. Just give it to me straight.

Thanks again, Logan, for sending me the books. More than likely, despite my unfavorable review, I will try the second volume before I give up on Abercrombie. Because I value your opinion. If it weren't for that, I'd be done.

Peace, brother.

logankstewart said...

@Jay: Good point. Epic Fantasy is, by and large, a very long story, broken over multiple books.

As far as a trilogy morphing into 5 or 6 books, think about GRRM. Initially, ASOIAF was to be only 4 books or something, but the tale grew. It frustrates many fans to no end to have to wait for the next piece, but to that I say poo poo. There's plenty of other stuff to read out there. So long as your story is good and engaging, you'll have readers, regardless of how many books it is.

Sadly, the Tolkien copycats are aplenty. There's nothing wrong with it, provided that there is some creativity behind it (I, for one, am a Terry Brooks fan, and that man hits the copycat nail on the head), but some are just too similar to LOTR for my liking.

logankstewart said...

@Kris: Eek. No, I definitely wasn't insinuating anything, as I believe you are a reader that sits down and actually reads a book, not just look at the words and sentences. Sorry if I came across as accusatory.

With that aside, let's continue. Back with Star Wars, you write that you can watch and enjoy A New Hope, without ever watching Empire or Jedi, and still be fulfilled and entertained. You may certainly be entertained, but I'd argue against being fulfilled. Sure, EP4 is self-contained, but is in no way conclusive. We're given a small glimmer of the Force, and the last we see of Vader is him spinning out into space. The Death Star may be destroyed, but the Empire still exists. And to me, that necessitates the need for a sequel.

Now I'm not saying that there should be sequels (and trilogies, etc.) just for the sake of writing and making more money. A story should be no longer than needed, and some book series could easily eliminate extraneous books from their cannon. But this is murky waters at best, for who determines what is extraneous?

Yet, I completely agree that a story should be "interesting enough to attract the reader to continue to read (or listen) to the end." I suppose the term "story" is what's being differentiated here. As I mentioned, the story of The Blade Itself was simply a sub-plot to me, a piece of the puzzle to the greater story of The First Law. Was The Blade Itself completely self-contained? No way. Is that a problem? Again, this is just another difference of opinions, but to me, that's not really a problem. For many, though, it is.

If each book (or movie) of a trilogy is to be self-contained, then I think it reasons to say that any one of them can be read (or viewed) in any order. Someone unfamiliar with Star Wars could jump in the series with Empire and enjoy the film, but fail to see the significance of what's really going on with the Alliance. Is it recommended? But maybe that's a bad example.

I don't see each book as a separate entity within a series, but as the first group of pages published. Just like The Lord of the Rings is not three different volumes, but one large epic that happens to span three volumes. Blame it on greedy publishers. Blame it on people scared of 2000+ page books. I just can't blame it on the author. Is Abercrombie's desire to tell the story of The Blade Itself or The First Law? Depending on how you look at it, it's both.

Ultimately, though, you said it best. If a book's not keeping you interested enough to keep you reading, then the author's failed. Stories are to be entertaining*, and if you're not entertained, then why bother?

(Y'know, my quarrel isn't with The Blade Itself review, but with the argument of trilogies verses standalones. TBI is just the vessel.)

*This isn't the only purpose of stories, of course, but is the largest purpose for pleasure reading, I think.

Jay Belt said...

@Kristopher - If you want to use a book example instead of Star Wars, Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy is a perfect example of three books, one trilogy, but three completely separate stories.

Anonymous said...

there does seem to be a surfeit of trilogies out there, not to mention series of greater length. it is hard not to wonder if this kind of normalcy perpetuates lazy writing.
i don't think that a trilogy or series need have every volume stand alone, nor do I think they should be easily read out of order (for no other reason than to witness the author progress in their craft). you challenge me in this, because while i believe that and get your point, i really want that first book to satisfy me in the way a stand alone might...I want more (books 2+) because book one is delicious, not because I've been extorted.

anyway, As a Newbie to the grown-up world of Fantasy genre (read, trying to get over a fear of 2000 page tomes and years long series) and as someone who is becoming cynical about all of the series' popping up in every genre: I would like to see more like Andreas Eschbach's 'The Carpet Makers'...a series of short stories that create the greater story in a powerful and slim 300 pages {world building included}. --if a short story is good, it can occupy/distract you for much longer than a novel of superfluous word-logging can.

I like this post and I like the conversation. thanks.


and if you know of more writing like Eschbach (if you know of him) would love recommendations.

Kristopher A. Denby said...

I'll write a longer response later, but I'm in a hurry right now.

For a great standalone that is part of a larger story arc, check out Lamentation by Ken Scholes.

The Name of the Wind isn't much of a standalone story at all, but (like Tolkien's LOTR) the writing exceeded my expectations such that I want to read more despite it not being a standalone.

In the long run this all adds up to one undeniably inconclusive thing: opinion.

logankstewart said...

@L: I've never heard of Eschbach; I'll have to check the library! But if you're wanting some fast, excellent self-contained books within a trilogy, I second Jay's recommendation. Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn is simply awesome.

It's also a challenge to me, one that I struggle with from time to time. If the first book does not satisfy me and pique my curiosity, I'll have a hard time justifying jumping on with the second book. But I hate to judge something based on a "first impression" or something, too, which leads to the point of how far should one go before abandoning ship?

A matter of preference, that is, and rightly so.

logankstewart said...

@Kris: I've got Lamentation sitting on my shelf just waiting to be read. One of these days...

Aye, absolutely right. Opinion trumps all.

Jay Belt said...

The Name of the Wind isn't much of a standalone story at all, but (like Tolkien's LOTR) the writing exceeded my expectations such that I want to read more despite it not being a standalone.

Oh heavens yes. And to caveat, I think Pat Rothfuss is the bomb, but one day I got to thinking about the actual plot presented in The Name of the Wind and realized... There wasn't much of a stand-alone story told in that book. Some amazing writing, don't get me wrong, I couldn't put the book down. But what happens? A guy starves, then goes to school, then plays a lute in a bar...and then a strange side-bar ending with him and a fire-breathing lizard.

But the writing, dear Lord, the writing was amazing. I just wanted to dip dinner rolls into his words like gravy and consume them. I swear, Pat could just write a book about a guy using the bathroom and I would read it, 1000 pages and all. His prose is unbelievably delicious.

logankstewart said...

@Jay: Hahahahahaha. That cracked me up, but I'm right there with ya.

Kristopher A. Denby said...

Note to self:

Always remember to copy comment before hitting publish.

I just lost a long comment I had typed out because blogger sucks! I guess my voice shall never be heard.


logankstewart said...

@Kris: I hear ya there. I've found that out too many times, and still forget to Ctrl+C comments (or posts, even). Blogger sure does have its problems.

Too bad, mate.

Take care.

ibeeeg said...

Interesting post, and great conversation in your comment section.

Ultimately, I see what you are saying, but I also have a need for the first book of any series to give me something...a connection, a concern, a desire to know more. It cannot be solely focused on world building. I actually love reading well written series because you can see the growth in the story arc, as well as with the characters. But with that said, your point is well made in that a series does tend to be one big story so it is hard to distinguish between the books. I am not a believer that a series needs to contain stand alone book. Matter of fact, when that happens, I tend to not like the series as much because I think they start to lack growth. My two favorite series do give growth, and maturity in the story line as well as with the characters....the books are not stagnant nor seem like a filler book waiting for the next release.

logankstewart said...

@ibeeeg: I don't think a series needs to have a standalone, but I also don't think a standalone hurts a "series" either. In fact, a trilogy of 3 separate standalones is like 3 individual episodes that are in no way related to anything other than that they share a common world and the governing mechanics (plus characters, but not necessarily). If done correctly, then you won't need to read any other book related to the standalone, which I think is an incredibly difficult task to do if writing within a series.

(Sorry if this doesn't make sense. I'm trying to respond on a very tight schedule.)

ibeeeg said...

You made sense. I agree that a series could have standalone books, but I think they are very rare. Also, when they are done, it seems that the story does not tend to mature, or that they books in the series starts to become formulated. I get what you say about "episodes" but I just have not experience that...yet.

Don't you think this really all boils down to whether or not the author made a connection with the reader right from the start? If a connection of some sort is made the reader will then move on to the next book. I think your original point is that within a series a reader should read beyond book one to grasp a fuller understanding of the world, the characters before deciding the book is not for them? If I am correct, I get what you are saying, but do not totally agree because for me it all comes down to some sort of connection. Although, i will admit, the first book in Wheel of Time series did not appeal to me all that great. I liked it, but not enough to go on if not for a friend. I am now on book four, and like the series far better than book one.

Now, do I make sense? :)

logankstewart said...

@ibeeeg: Absolutely, and a great point. If a reader does not feel connected to the story the author is telling, then who can blame someone for not wanting to progress to another volume (or chapter, for that matter)? The question, though, is how far should someone go in order to give an author a chance at making that connection? To me, one book in a series is not far enough, but that's just my personal feelings. I hate putting down unfinished books and I'm willing to give the author a lot of slack before I abandon a read. So, if a connection is made, I do think it's easier to continue with a series, but I'm just not sure how far one should go before they decide whether or not a connection has been made.

Personal opinions will definitely vary, as I know many people who have no problems with putting down books they're not "feeling."

ibeeeg said...

Good question, and one that I always ponder for myself. How far should I go with a book to give the author a chance to connect with me? Hmmm...not a straight forth answer. Some books, soon into the read. Other books, I give many chapters. Still with other books, I have read reviews where it has been said that it takes a bit, so I go with it. Yep...all comes down to personal opinion, and probably mood at the time of the read. Fair to the author? Maybe not, but that is how it is...for some folks.

I am okay with not finishing a book if it is not connecting in some way. I have sooo many books on my list that I do want to read and soooo little time. Believe it or not though, just as recent as last year, I would finish every single book I started regardless if it connected or not. Anyhow, fantastic post; great conversation. Thanks.

By the way: I am curious, when replying back in the comments why the @ mark before the name? I know there must be a reason, but I don't know it. Thanks.

logankstewart said...

@ibeeeg: You've hit another point I forgot about, but it's definitely true. Our mood when reading definitely affects whether or not a book is connecting. I'd go on to say that the book read previously does, too. If it was a slow, long, and boring tome, then the next book will likely seem shinier, slicker, and better. Likewise, if we read an awesome book and then try something else, it may come across as dull. That's why if I do abandon a book, I don't necessarily give it up forever, but push it to the back burner for a while and pull it out some time later, especially if the book has some acclaim to it.

As for the @mark, I generally use it if there is more than one commenter, that way each person knows that I'm replying to them and any other readers can follow the discussion between persons easier. That's just my preference, though apparently the @ symbol is also used on Twitter for something, too, but I'm not sure about that.