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Three’s a Crowd? The Future of Trilogies in YA Literature

2014 April 24
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by Chelsea Condren
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The ubiquity of trilogies (particularly if they are dystopian or otherwise fantastical) in young adult literature has been a topic of frequent discussion in the past few years. And for good reason. It seems like just yesterday I read the first in the epic The Hunger Divergent Mortal Legends trilogy. All joking aside, these books have all sold countless copies, sparked film adaptions (or rumored films) and had an incredible amount of crossover appeal. And I want to make it clear that I don’t consider myself immune to the hype surrounding dystopian trilogies, or trilogies in general. I was there opening weekend for Divergent and Catching Fire just like you, and I love those worlds.

But I also suspect that some of us are burnt out. It’s become commonplace to read a YA novel cover to cover with the understanding that all of this will be explained in the second or third installment. I’d argue that while most novels are judged like films for their ability to stand alone as a piece of media, trilogies work more like watching a miniseries. You know there’s more coming later, so it’s okay if you miss something the first time around. I’m not sure why three is the exact magic number, either. I think we can speculate–personally, I think one sequel is often one too few but by the fourth book one starts to wonder if the author gets paid by the word. Or perhaps there’s an inherent literary quality about trilogies that a full series lacks. The Lord of the Rings does tend to have a more erudite quality than, say, the Fear Street Saga. (Which, by the way, I love. You should all re-read the Fear Street Books. Trust me on this.) 

While I don’t have the answers, I’m very interested in thinking about whether trilogies are here to stay, or whether they have plateaued and slowly losing popularity. A semi-recent Publishers Weekly article that discusses general trends in YA asserts very plainly that there is a current anti-trilogy backlash in the market (whether it’s from readers, publishers, or both is debatable). Apparently agents are particularly excited when stand-alone novels hold the promise of another unrelated or companion novel–not a sequel, but a way to get a sense of an author’s voice. I know I read Rainbow Rowell’s 2014 Printz Honor book Eleanor and Park and 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection Fangirl within a few months of one another, and this experience felt just as gratifying as reading a series– without the irritation at knowing you’ll just have to wait for the next one.

On the other hand, trilogies, like television, mean we don’t have to say goodbye to beloved characters or worlds just yet. I know a lot of people would argue that saying goodbye to these words is part of the reading experience, that there is a danger in relying on sequels and trilogies. And part of me agrees with this camp too– a good trilogy is a good trilogy, but not all trilogies are good trilogies, you know? I think it makes a difference if the author has actively planned sequels or if they come as a surprise after the success of the first.

We don’t know, exactly, whether trilogies are a trend that are probably on their way out, or whether Publishers Weekly was overly zealous in its predictions. One thing we do know is that trilogy mania has, in a lot of ways, put YA literature on the map for teens and adults alike, and I think that’s something to celebrate.

What do you think, readers? Are you sick of trilogies? Do you think they’re here to stay? Sound off in the comments below!

-Chelsea Condren, currently reading She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not by Julie Anne Peters

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. April 24, 2014

    As a middle school librarian, I have seen both sides of this issue. I have students who insist on picking up books that are part of a series because they want something to be hooked on for a while, but most of my stronger readers are tired of everything being a trilogy. A lot of books that are touted as the first in a trilogy or series would do well if they were written to just stand alone.

    For example, yesterday I finished reading Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. The plot was interesting and inventive and fits well the with the fractured fairy tale genre. But instead of having the story end at the last page, this book is clearly the first in a series. I enjoyed this story until it didn’t end. I probably won’t pick up the next one – it’s just too complicated to remember which series I want to keep reading or what happened in the previous book, etc. etc.

    It’s similar to when we were all waiting for the rest of Paolini’s series to come out – it takes so long to get into the world he’s created and get used to the language, etc., that I found myself re-reading Eragon every time a new book came out, just so I could understand the new book. In some cases, this work is absolutely worth it. Most of the time, though, it’s just not.

  2. Tara Kehoe permalink
    April 24, 2014

    This is a very interesting post. I love reading series YA myself, but get very aggravated reading a book that seems to have no ending just a break off with a “wait for the next one” feel. On the flip side in my opinion the best series are those that are in and of themselves a great book with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The book doesn’t leave us wanting more, but we would love to know what the characters gets up to next. This is easily done when characters live in an unstable world (like many fantasy titles) where they are bound to have further adventures. I think Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina exemplifies this well. Perhaps too, the mere fact that many protagonists in YA fiction are themselves young adults, there is a sense that we want to see how they grow, age, and mature.

  3. Carla Land permalink
    April 24, 2014

    I am a great starter of trilogies and series, but a poor finisher. I have too many books I want to read and not nearly enough time to do it, and if I have to wait another year to find out what happens next I’m not likely to care once book two comes out unless I am *really* excited for it. This isn’t just true of YA lit for me, either- it’s true of adult and juvenile fiction, too. I agree with Jenni wholeheartedly about billing books as “the first in a new trilogy”- nothing will make me not want to read a book faster than those words.

    My real problem usually comes with book 2, actually. That’s where you discover if the story warrants three or more books, or if there is going to be a lot of filler in order to drag things out to that length. If it’s the latter, I always feel let down.

    A really good series is something I don’t often come across anymore, which is why I appreciate them so much when I do find them!

  4. Alissa permalink
    April 24, 2014

    While I can see the appeal of the trilogy (or even the quartet) from a commercial standpoint, I, personally, am tired of them. Although I make a few rare exceptions for certain series, for example Harry Potter, I’m getting to the point where I’ll NOT read a book if I find out it’s part of a trilogy or series. Sure, there’s the frustration with reading and loving Book One only to find out Book Two won’t be released for another year or two. In that time, you can forget a lot of the essential plot details. Also, trends and tastes change quickly, particularly among the YA age group, so there’s the chance the audience will lose interest by the time the sequel comes out. And who’s to say Zombie Vampires will even still be popular anymore. But the simple truth is this: My favorite books are stand-alones. I subscribe to the school that a good story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end…and that should all exist in one volume. I like having a resolution by the final page.

  5. April 25, 2014

    Yes! So tired of them. When the trend started, more books were written as books, and then they just happened to have sequels. Now, it seems so much like what was a good book is being forced to have extra stuff thrown in, and the ending is cut off and pushed into another book, just for commercial reasons. So many books that are immediately billed as the first in a trilogy are of markedly poorer literary quality than other books, and I feel like it’s dragging all of YA down when all people see are these manufactured series that probably started out as compelling single novels. I’m much more into companion novels or standalone books that just happen to all take place in the same world (while I’m not that much of a fan of hers, Sarah Dessen is interesting because characters make little appearances, even though everything is a standalone) – or, you know, just books that are good.

  6. April 25, 2014

    I run a book club in the library where I work and we read mostly YA titles. Every time I bring out a book that’s the first in the series, an immediate groan echoes throughout the group. But that’s what the market is selling these days! We read The Maze Runner and loved the first book. A couple of us continued in the series and ended up so disappointed by the last book. It’s difficult to reconcile your time and energy in a series, especially when the end isn’t satisfying to you. That said, I still get super excited when I read a book and find out there’s more to the story. But it does make me wonder if that’s the exception now rather than the norm.

  7. April 25, 2014

    I used to love series and trilogies, but I have noticed that most authors now write a book with an ending that sets up for the next one and doesn’t even partially resolve the plot that individual book was focusing on. Harry Potter, for example, resolved the major conflict in each book but kept a central conflict going until the end. I read The Selection, and the first and second books were short and had almost no ending. I had to double check I wasn’t missing another section of the books!

  8. Lucie permalink
    April 26, 2014

    As a reader, I could go either way, but some series do pose a particular problem in my library. If the first (or any) of the books in a series (for instance the Delirium or Matched series) go missing, my teens are less inclined to read the others and the series languishes on the shelf. I would love to have more either standalones, or series books that still each have a certain completeness. I agree that Harry Potter does that well.

  9. Sarah permalink
    May 21, 2014

    Excellent post overall. I do get quite a few patrons groaning when I tell them that it is the first in a trilogy or series. Most of the groaning though seems to be about the series not being finished rather than it not being a stand-alone book. For me, I love a well-written series because I hate letting good characters go, but I also like stand-alone novels like Fangirl which you mentioned.

    P.S. One minor bone to pick: While it is usually published as three books, the Lord of the Rings is actually 6 books (two books in each published book) not three. Could just be a quirk of the author running against his publisher, but he did intend them as 6 books instead of a trilogy. It could also have something to do with the sheer amount of stuff he had written about the world in addition to the published works. Just a thought.

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