(Originally published in Issue #1 of Cobalt Magazine at Warwick University, released in May 2014. Read that version here, on pages 69-71.)
Trilogies are bullshit. How many major film or game series have you seen go down the same path – a breakout hit that gathers massive attention, a follow up that expands on the ideas of the first and a third that has nothing to add except a wet fart and an apology? Seemingly every brand that has a (theoretical) story ending is put into this mass marketable format nowadays. The recent Batman: Arkham Knight was released as the fourth game of a trilogy, J K Rowling is expanding her empire with three fan-fiction offshoot ‘megamovies’ which have as much to do with Harry Potter as my arse does with a chicken sandwich, and the latest 7-hour New Zealand Walking Tours advertisement is taken from a book that takes about two hours to read. Also Legolas is back, because why the hell not.
One fairly major issue with trilogies is that they are inherently predictable, borrowing heavily from the traditional three-act structure of your standard plot. Typically, the first act is used to set up the characters and plot, the second is normally where things start to go wrong and the villains plan is revealed, and the third is where they start indiscriminately destroying buildings, saving orphans and filming footage for the release trailer, only with a trilogy they take each of these acts as a separate film. There should be three separate stories to tell, otherwise you’re just retreading old material, and so you’ll have a total of nine acts to do things with, three acts within each act. It’s a padded fractal headache, and by the time you’re setting the characters up for the third time it starts to feel like Groundhog Day only with slightly less suicide attempts and more boredom.
Because of this there are two roads you can go down when structuring a multi-part story – you can do something akin to Mass Effect and Star Wars, where the main plot thread is lightly sprinkled throughout and only comes together for a climax at the end, or follow the Batman route and totally ignore everything that came previously in favour of hollowing out football stadiums.
The problem is that both of these are very hard to get right; the first comes with the obvious flaw of the tension-payoff scenario, where the ridiculously long plot thread has to be wrapped up well or face the wrath of a thousand angry nerds on IGN forums. Of the above examples Star Wars did it best, if only because Mass Effect’s drunken self-circumcision of an ending actively hurt to watch. Yes the ewoks were kind of dumb, and Vader did sort of look like a bootlegged Faberge egg, but the finale was exciting and more importantly made sense in its own universe, unlike literally everything in the last ten minutes of Mass Effect 3. Getting the balance right of story cohesion, fan service, payoff and everything else is a tricky task indeed.
The second approach forgoes this, of course, since the plots are about as related to each other as an episode of Scooby Doo is to a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer, but this means it’s no longer a trilogy, it’s a series that just happens to have three parts. It could have seven for all we care.
Despite this, there are trilogies that worked, and the format isn’t worthless by any means. Lord of the Rings is one of the obvious choices, and other than the ‘Choose Your Explosion’ sequence at the end the Mass Effect series built tension well and had enough revelations spread across enough time to keep you invested. There have, however, been enough atrocities to make the overuse of trilogies questionable, such as Spiderman 3’s splurging emo confusion or The Matrix sequels generally being awful to the point where it becomes a bit concerning, like one of the Wachowskis must have had a stroke or something.
The problem almost always boils down to vision – do the creators have enough vision to see where the story is going, how it is going to end, and roughly what’s going to happen on the way? If not then there’s a large chance it’ll fall apart faster than your mum in the company of Cliff Richard. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings worked because the creators knew what they wanted to happen. George Lucas wrote three films at once but put enough closure into the first in case he couldn’t get funding for the sequels, suitably ending that story arc. Lord of the Rings was an adaptation of a classic work which already had a proper ending, and was well handled apart from some suspect bed jumping. The Matrix, on the other hand, seemed to be the result of a daydreaming office worker trying to avoid work without masturbating or Photoshopping Kanye West’s surprised face onto things, and somehow managed to get a budget for three films. The story blew its load halfway through the first film when Neo the naked mole rat wakes up in a H R Geiger birthing chamber, and the rest of that series is either a bunch of dirty, growly men shooting at robot squids or some overly pretentious shite that pretends to be much more than it is. For a series that devolved unnervingly quickly into nonsensical drivel, it quite appropriately ends with two men in sunglasses standing still, punching each other in a rainy sewer. Safe to say, it didn’t work.
Surprisingly it turns out that the best stories are ones that end. If one doesn’t it’s either because it was cancelled and you will never know the resolution, or because it’s an ongoing story, which is, generally speaking, massively boring. Most American TV shows stretch their plotlines to breaking point so they can make more seasons with the same characters doing their iconic thing of standing around arguing for 85% of the show, then taking drugs/killing people/solving crimes/having sex for the other 15, delete as appropriate. Comic books have it the worst, having lost the shock value of killing off main characters by continuing to do it, and Jesusing them back to life a few weeks later is as lazy as that time that a whole season of Dallas was a dream because the previous storyline was as well received as a genital wart. Basically if you don’t know how to end the story, you’re going to lose track of what made your initial project good, or simply run out of ideas and go for the shark jumping world record.
Essentially, if you want to make a trilogy, you should try and know what bloody well happens in it. If not, don’t be surprised if you get dismantled by sarcastic pricks on the internet who write articles for student magazines. You have been warned.