This post first appeared on David Tallerman’s blog.
As humans we look for patterns. Three is the smallest number of elements that can form a pattern. Superstition suggests that three is the magic number, or that both bad things and good things come in threes (depending on who you ask). Storytellers, orators and writers employ the rule of three. If you want something to stick in your reader/listener/audience’s mind, use the rule of three.
- Friends, Romans, countrymen…
- Blood, sweat and tears
- Father, Son and Holy Spirit
- Faith, hope and charity
Is it any wonder that stories rely on threes. We have Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three Wise Men, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Three Musketeers, The Book of Three, Three Men and a Baby, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. It’s no coincidence that when you rub the magic lamp, wishes come in threes, or that Macbeth encounters witches in threes, as indeed do Terry Pratchett’s readers when they meet Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat.
Plays have three acts. Stories have beginnings middles and ends… and trilogies have three times beginnings middles and ends – firstly in each book, and then an overarching beginning middle and end for the whole trilogy.
Confession: I have committed trilogy – twice! And both times by accident.
Once upon a time, as a very novice writer, I set out to write a trilogy. I found myself an agent (I think it was beginner’s luck) and she shopped around my Book One. In the meantime I continued to write Book Two. Unfortunately Book One didn’t sell, though I still have the we-nearly-bought-this letter from HarperCollins. At that point I realised I’d spent two years writing a second book which would never sell if the first one didn’t. Rookie mistake. Bummer.
So after that I determined to write standalones that had potential for follow up books.
Skip forward a number of years, and a couple of agents…. I’d submitted Winterwood to DAW‘s slushpile after an introduction from a writer friend. In July 2013 I got the email I’d been waiting for all my life. Sheila Gilbert said, “I want to buy your book.” And just like that all my birthdays and Christmasses came at once. And then she uttered those miraculous words, “What else have you got?”
By that time I had seven completed novels sitting on my hard drive. Sheila bought Empire of Dust and Winterwood, the two that were destined to become the first books in the Psi-Tech Trilogy and the Rowankind Trilogy. And on a one page synopsis I’d hastily cobbled together, she ordered a sequel to Empire – as yet unnamed. (That one became Crossways.) Sure I’d thought about the possibility of writing sequels, and I had ideas, but I hadn’t committed anything to paper – it was all mush and fluff in my head.
I’m a neither a complete pantser nor a meticulous plotter. I fall somewhere between the two. I start out with a solid beginning, and I have a good idea of how I want the story to finish, but in between my vague plot often simply says ‘stuff happens’. Anyhow, as my relationship with DAW developed I ended up with a further two book deal – for the third Psi-Tech book, Nimbus, and the second Rowankind book, Silverwolf – and then a single deal for the final book in the Rowankind trilogy – this time simply titled, Rowankind. In each case I knew – even before contracts were signed – that I was going to get the opportunity to finish the whole trilogy, so I was able to shape the beginning, middle and end novels accordingly.
Cara and Ben are my main characters in the Psi-Tech books. She’s a highly skilled telepath, on the run because she knows too much. He’s a company man through and through until he has to choose between serving the company or saving a bunch of settlers. Expect megacorporations, dirty dealing, space battles and void dragons.
In Winterwood, my main character is Rossalinde (Ross) Tremayne, a cross-dressing privateer captain and unregistered witch, with a crew of barely reformed pirates, and the jealous ghost of her late husband. When she pays a deathbed visit to her estranged mother she ends up with a quest she doesn’t want, a half brother she didn’t know she had, and an implacable enemy who will stop at nothing to prevent her from completing the quest. (See what I did there – another set of three!) Enter Corwen. He’s handsome, sexy, and capable, and Ross really doesn’t like him; neither does Will’s ghost.
I’ve enjoyed spending time with my characters in both the fantasy and the science fiction trilogies, and I haven’t completely ruled out continuing some of the stories, or maybe revisiting some of the secondary characters, but not yet.
I suppose after writing two trilogies, that I should embark on a third, but I’ve broken the pattern. The next book, which I’ve just signed the contract for, is going to be a standalone called Amber Crown, set in an analogue of the Baltic States in the mid 1600s. It’s not going to turn into a trilogy, but it does have three main viewpoint characters who tell the story between them.
Yes, it’s all about threes.