A Tip for Writing Trilogies

Here’s a quick look at one aspect of fashioning a trilogy: whether each individual installment is a tale or a story.

A tale is a linear progression that both makes sense logically, step by step, and also makes sense emotionally, mood to mood.  If any steps are missing or if it jumps from one mood to an inappropriate one that just doesn’t follow, then the tale ceases to function.  But, if all the steps and moods are progressive and consistent, then the tale will work and the meaning or message (as in a fairy tale) is whether the tales linear path is a good one or a bad one by comparing the beginning situation/feeling to the ending one.

A story is a more complex form, though not necessarily a more powerful one – different in structure, but equally effective in audience impact.  If a tale can be said to proclaim that a given path is independently a good or bad one, a story purports that a given path is either the best or the worst of all that might reasonably have been taken.  To do this, rather that just showing the one path and its outcome, all other paths of equal potential must also be fully illustrated to “prove” why the proffered path is the epitome.

While any individual “work” may be a tale or a story to equal effect, when combined in a trilogy, fashioning the three works as tales, stories, or some combination of the two has a fundamental impact on how well an audience will embrace the overarching collection.

Consider these five examples of trilogies with different combinations of tales and stories.  First, Lord of the Rings, each installment of which is a tale.  There is never the audience expectation that any of the individual tales is a complete story, but rather that each moves the overarching story along to its ultimate conclusion at the end of the final installment as if each separate work was an act in a three act play.

Second, examine the Men In Black trilogy of movies.  Each of these is a complete story and could stand alone as a message that a particular path is the best or the worst of all that might be taken in regard to each story’s individual central issue.  Collectively, they also function as acts in an overarching story in which each story installment in the trilogy broadens and deepens the understanding of structural and dynamic interrelationships within the subject matter.

So, in a sense, a trilogy of tales seems to move linearly through progressive subject matter, exposing new information, new issues, and new challenges, while a trilogy of stories seems to explore the same subject matter in greater depth and detail as the framework of the larger story gradually emerges and clarifies.

Our third example is the Matrix trilogy in which the first installment was a story, the second a tale, the third was also a tale, but the overarching form was also a tale rather than story.  This is not a problem structurally, but in this particular case, the audience was led to believe that the three parts would ultimately resolve into a single larger story. And so, audience expectations were violated.  In a sense, they invested emotionally in the anticipation of a grand scheme which was to be revealed, onto to discover at the end that there was no such deeper meaning.  This results in a feeling of being scammed, that we were promised one thing and delivered another, that the promoted size and scope of the overall work was left incomplete.

To remedy this, the filmmakers could either have completed an overarching story or been aware of the expectations they were building and clearly communicated that while the first episode was a story, all future installments do not contribute to a “greater” story, but are simply additional tales in the same world as the original story.

What is most unfortunate in this particular example is that they were so close to fulfilling  an overarching story and might have done so with just a few tiny changes, as follows: Neo becomes the first person so strong in the matrix that he can continue his consciousness int he Matrix even though his physical body has died.  He can still communicate with the real world through Trinity when she is in the matrix.

It is recognized that not everyone in the matrix wants to or even could transition to the real world.  Now that humans exist there, they must continue to exist there except for those who are ready to leave.  So, an alliance is formed between the Architect and the Oracle so that he maintains the system for those who will stay and she protects those who are becoming aware of the greater Truth of the outside real world.  Neo helps bring them to the point they can leave, and Trinity provides a familiar bridge to carry them from one world into the next.

This would have created a complete overarching story and left the audience feeling their investment had been returned with interest.  And, again, the alternative would have been to not have created the audience expectations of a larger story.  It should be noted that the filmmakers probably thought they had completed the story by arranging for machines to agree to leave the people alone.  But that is just a conclusion to the war – a plot issue that stemmed from the first story.  But true stories must wrap up both the logistic (plot) and emotional (character) issues, and in the overarching form, these character issues were left unresolved.

As our fourth example, consider the first released Star Wars trilogy – episodes IV, V and VI.  In this case, it follows the same formula as the Matrix trilogy – a story, followed by two tales that result in an overarching story, but in this case, the overarching story is completed when not only is the empire overcome at the end in the plot, but the father/son issues of Darth and Luke are resolved as well.

One may argue as to whether the storytelling of either of these two trilogies is better or worse, but structurally, the Star Wars trilogy is clearly better handled.

Finally, let us consider the Bourne Identity trilogy of films.  While each of the tree parts is a complete story, they fall within an overarching tale in which all three stories simply take place sequentially in the same narrative world of subject matter.  In this case, it works because the audience is not led to expect each episode of an overall story.

Having now examined five different trilogies, each with its own structure in terms of the relationships of tales and stories as episodes and overarching form, you can do a little preplanning for potential trilogies of your own.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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