I’ve just fined reading Amy Ewing’s Lone City trilogy (The Jewel, The White Rose and the newly-released The Black Key). The series is basically a mash-up of Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s solid if unexceptional. But what I found most interesting is, although it’s billed as a trilogy, the series is in fact a three-volume novel. Despite the conflation of the terms in recent years, the two are actually quite different.
A three-volume novel is exactly what it sounds like – a single story broken into three parts. In the case of the Lone City series, each volume ends quite abruptly, and the next one starts immediately where the previous one left off – essentially a continuation of the same scene (albeit with some rather clunky recapping to remind readers who’s who). The individual volumes don’t really have their own story arcs – they just continue on with the overarching series story arc. In contrast, a trilogy is three self-contained stories that are also part of an overarching arc. In a trilogy, time may pass in the space between volumes in which unseen events occur, or the characters may undergo other ‘offscreen’ changes.
The three-volume novel was an especially popular form in the nineteenth century, often driven by commercial imperatives (sales of Part 1 often funded the printing of Parts 2 and 3). They were often distributed through commercial circulating libraries, which differed from today’s public libraries in that people were charged for borrowing books. For this reason, the libraries loved three-volume novels, because they hooked readers in and kept them coming back for more. The format was sometimes sneered at (in much the same way that Mills and Boon novels are today), as plots where all was resolved through marriage and the distribution of property in the final pages were quite common, and they were often seen as overly romantic or sentimental. Oscar Wilde references this in The Importance of Being Earnest (Mudie’s was one of the most popular circulating libraries):
Cecily: I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.
Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
The most famous three-volume novel of recent years is probably The Lord of the Rings, which is another that’s mistakenly billed as a trilogy. If you think about it, the series breaks are quite arbitrary – apart from length, there’s no real reason why The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers need to end exactly where they do. The story could just as easily be broken in different places without losing anything, because the individual volumes don’t have their own story arcs. In fact, Tolkien originally intended for LOTR to be published as a duet with The Silmarillion, but for economic reasons his publisher insisted on breaking up the work. The danger with doing this, especially if you’re working off a standard three-act structure, is that the second book basically corresponds with the long act two, and can end up suffering from ‘saggy middle syndrome’ and being very boring (The Two Towers is, in my opinion, a case in point).
Does the three-volume novel/trilogy distinction really matter? Maybe not to general readers, but if you’re a writer or a reader who’s interested in the craft of writing, it’s important to understand the differences. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot lately because my next major fiction project will probably be a YA steampunk trilogy, which I’m slowly starting to outline. It will be the first time I’ve written a series, and getting the multiple story arcs right will probably be one of the biggest challenges. So watch this space.