“We rise, we fall, we gather”–Hugh Howey on trilogies

My Reverse Blog Tour is designed to promote the release of the concluding volume of my trilogy, so I figured I’d start by asking someone to explain for us the enduring appeal of tripartite fictions—do trilogies make some inherent mystical sense, somehow, or do we just do it because it’s always been done?

Who better to meditate on the question of threedom than science-fiction author Hugh Howey, whose Wool novels were a genuine self-publishing phenomenon in 2011 and 2012 (so much so that they are now published by Simon & Schuster), and who is co-editor of The Apocalypse Triptycha super-cool series of end-of-the-world anthologies to which I am a proud contributor. 

Here’s Hugh:  

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First up on the Reverse Blog Tour:
Mr. Hugh Howey

Bad things and fiction have this in common: They both seem to come in threes. This is not a recent phenomenon. The superstition of threes dates back for centuries. And even two thousand years ago, theater often came in the form of trilogy. Classical music is fond of triplets as well. And both film and novels have displayed this tendency for as long as the mediums have been popular.

Stories are fractal in a way. Every proper novel has a beginning, middle, and end. But if you inspect just the middle of most books, you’ll see that it has a beginning, middle, and end of its own. As does each of those scenes, and so on. All of these embedded trilogies combine to form a single novel, which we often lump into larger trilogies of three distinct books. And it doesn’t stop there. If you are a fan of the Star Wars universe, you are eagerly awaiting a third set of trilogies. Each trilogy becomes its own single story, and one story just isn’t good enough.

Conflict, denouement, resolution. The rising action, the climax, the aftermath. Our brains are sensitive to patterns, even where they do not exist. When something bad happens, we brace for the next tragedy, and then claim the cycle is closed with the third. But it always starts again. We just keep counting in threes.

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Three furies.

Look at the Holy Trinity. Or Freud’s id, ego, and superego. You have the Three Furies and the Three Fates from ancient mythology. There is some speculation that three holds sway as the first prime number, the first number that isn’t easily distributed. It sits like a triangle in our minds, the sturdiest of shapes and also the first circular structure. Thinking on a set of three is like studying a well-balanced painting, your mind cannot rest and finds itself roaming, circulating, considering.

The Walpiri of Australia are said to count: One, two, many. And in that way, they are our kin. We refer to the entire alphabet as the ABCs. As Monty Python puts it, the Holy Number of Counting is Three. Thou shall not count to four. And Five is right out. (Don’t tell this to Douglas Adams or Isaac Asimov.)

As a reader and a writer, why am I drawn to trilogies? They don’t exist because of 3-book deals from publishers; it’s far more likely that those 3-book deals exist because of the innate allure of the number. When I finished my first novel, I immediately set out to write a sequel. Now that I had characters introduced, I could jump right into the action with them. And then a third book was needed for mopping up. A fourth book served as prelude, providing origin stories. This pattern of 3+1 has a long history, both in Greek Theater and classical music. Tolkien’s classic works followed this form. Or am I just looking for patterns in noise? Do we all tally the coincidental?

I tend to be a skeptic on these things. I don’t believe that bad things come in threes. We just group them that way. We strain to find that third bad thing so we can put a bow on our tragedy and seal it away, keep it from haunting us further. Until the next tragedy strikes and starts the counting again.

But with storytelling, I can’t help but see the rightness of the triptych. We rise, we fall, we gather. Stories are peaks and valleys, a sharp sine wave, the shape of the angry sea. And looking closely, the sets of three are made up of threes. This is as much as we care to hold of a story. Until we’re ready to start all over again.

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Thanks so much, Hugh, for kicking off my inverted tour, and thank you, dear readers, for playing along. Feel free to comment if you think Hugh hit the nail on its three-pointed head, or to tell him he’s off his rocker (Hugh is no stranger to controversial discussions)—and then drop back by on MONDAY JUNE 23 when Noah Berlatsky, a.ka. The Hooded Utilitarian,  will be stopping by to talk about the blending of genres.

And (what the hell, it’s my stupid website), don’t forget to PREORDER WORLD OF TROUBLE and win fabulous prizes. There, I said it.

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