Why do we have the ‘trilogy’?

We’re all so familiar with movie (and book) trilogies that we sort of accept them as the way stories are told. A story being told over 3 volumes is not difficult to accept, since we’ve all been told at school to write our reports and essays with a beginning, middle, and end – a trilogy, if you like.

But did you know who actually started the idea of a trilogy? Or why it was the format that’s widely accepted?

Let’s go back in time – way back. Further than Lord of the Rings, in fact. We’re talking about the time of Aristotle.

Greek philosopher Aristotle (c. 384-322 BC) defined the three unities (time, place, action), and the importance of a beginning, middle, and end in storytelling. According to this principle, a good play should have a story that only involves one set of events in one place and time in order to not confuse the audience; this encouraged splitting of larger stories into multiple plays.

Aristotle also wrote about the Rule of Three which includes story-telling as a three act structure, with a beginning, middle, and end – hence the word ‘trilogy’. But here’s the thing: each story within a trilogy has to be a complete story with its own beginning, middle, and end.

This means you can technically watch each story on its own – which is a completely different format from something like your modern-day dramas that drag on for 6, 12, or 24 episodes, leaving you with questions at the end of each episode. They’re also different from long-running series like James Bond, Fast and Furious, or all those horror flicks (ie. Final Destination) – you know there will be one coming round the corner, but you don’t really need to watch them to finish the bigger story.

Why the number three?

Apparently our brains work really well with the number three because of our ability to detect patterns which are distinguishable when there are three pieces of information. There is a cultural preference with the number three: Aladdin and three wishes from Genie, three little pigs, Goldilocks’ three bears, and so on.

Our brains are practically programmed to appreciate the trilogy. Whenever an action movie is released, you know to anticipate two more.

However, the key to a good trilogy is to ensure that each movie can stand on its own as a complete story. A good example is Star Wars – technically, it is a trilogy in three trilogies. You can watch episodes IV-VI without watching I-III.

Because the main impact is in the first and last stories, the middle story is often just used as a bridge and therefore tends to struggle in terms of storytelling. The latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, is a good example of this – the major complaint from fans was about its lack of a solid anchor story.

Now that our brains are programmed for trilogies, you know the next blockbuster won’t come in two or even four movies.