Thursday, November 1, 2012

Series or Stand alone book?

by Stephanie Morrill

I've had a few questions in the last week about writing series versus writing a stand alone book. The first writer asked, "How do you decide when to confine a story line to one book, or to have it span over a series?"

Well. I think sometimes it's just a feel. Some stories just seem to demand a series - like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Those are stories that just wouldn't be the same in a single volume. They are also series where each book (in my opinion) is wonderful and stands on its own merits. (I'm writing this with my husband sitting next to me, and he has pointed out to me that I've not read all three Lord of the Rings books. This is true. I've read the first and seen all three movies. Thanks, honey, for keeping me real.)

Some genres seem to be more series friendly. Fantasy, sci-fi, and historicals are the ones coming to mind right now. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it's the intense world building required? The author has done extra work creating a world that the readers want to stay in?

And some writers seem more drawn to writing series. My critique partner, Roseanna, always seems to have her book ideas come to her as triplets, whereas my tendency is toward stand alone books. (Though it just struck me that currently the books Roseanna has out are all stand-alones, and my published books are a 3-book series...)

All that to say, there's no black and white answer on this. It'll depend on you, the size of your story idea, your genre, and your future publisher. Some editors absolutely love series and ask authors to always throw series ideas on their proposals. And other editors request that unpublished authors only pitch them single books since it can be easier to get the financial people to sign off on it.

Another writer asked, "My story idea has gotten so large that it's going to have to be a trilogy instead of a stand alone, which I don't mind at all, but it does make it hard to know where to end each book. If the story concept doesn't have logical finalizing breaks in it already how do I create or recognize them?"

Hmm, that's an interesting question. Each book will need to have its own beginning, middle, and end, but of course you'll also be working toward the resolution of the big issue as well. Like in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we're working toward Frodo getting the ring in Mordor.

The show Veronica Mars, which was about a teenage girl private investigator, did this really well. In a season, Veronica always had a big mystery she was trying to solve, but within each episode she had smaller mysteries she was solving as well. Like in the first episode of season two, there was a horrible bus crash. Veronica spent the entire season trying to figure out who caused that bus crash. But in episode four, she might also be helping someone find their lost dog.

And the same thing should happen within your series. There should be a big plot arc that encompasses all the books. There should also be an arc for each individual book as well. And ideally each book is going to grow in intensity as we move toward the climax of the big plot arc. The Harry Potter series is a phenomenal example of this. With each book, the stakes are raised and Harry's battles with Voldemort grow more intense.

It might be easier to figure out the series arc first - what the big final battle and resolution will involve - and then decide where you could split it up from there.

Anyone else have questions about stand-alone books versus series? What do you like to read better, or do you have a preference?

We have some teen writer friends who are celebrating book birthdays this month - sisters Abigail J. Hartman and Jennifer Frietag are having a blog party throughout November to celebrate that each of their books (The Soldier's Cross by Abigail and The Shadow Things by Jennifer) are turning 2 this year. For the month of November they're doing giveaways, Q&A sessions, and other writerly type things. You'll find more details at their blogs:

Abigail's Blog: Scribbles and Ink Stains
Jennifer's Blog: The Penslayer

Best of luck to everyone who started NaNo today!


  1. Loved this post, Stephanie. Especially your "keepin' it real" part. It made me chuckle. I've yet to read the Lord of the Rings series, though I did read the Hobbit. It wasn't so bad, but it didn't grab enough to *gasp* want to read the rest.

    But I digress.

    As a reader, I almost always prefer reading series, just because I get addicted to the plot lines and characters. I'm in the middle of Jill Williamson's Blood of Kings and Shannon Dittemore's Angel Eyes Trilogy, and I'm DYING to read the next ones! Yet as a writer, I always write stories that will stand alone. For some reason that's just how my mind works.

    1. Lol, Clare. I read half the Hobbit twice, but never made it all the way through. And then I read the first LOTR, While I liked it ... it just wasn't my thing. *Stephanie ducks head in shame.*

    2. "Clarebear"? I LOVE IT! lol can we say, Heroes fan?

      That happened to me with the LOTR series, too. I LOVE the movies, liked reading the Hobbit (and will DEFINITELY see it when it's released in theaters), but couldn't get into reading the trilogy for the life of me. I think it had something to do with the fact that in the movies, Frodo in say, in his 20's, while in the book, he's in his 40's. That just threw me off. X)

    3. Oh, Dakota, that threw me off too! Plus it just seemed like it was taking forever for Frodo to get going on his journey. I'm sure it's because my expectations had been skewed by the movies.

    4. Okay, as a huge LOTR and Hobbit fan, I just have to say - hobbit years aren't like human years.
      Which is why Bilbo reached eleventy-one.
      So when Frodo's 40, that's the equivalent of 20-ish human years.

    5. From Amo Libros:
      Slight correction, Kate. Hobbits come of age at 33 (instead of, say, 21) so they are off a bit, but the One Ring extends the life of the bearer (which is why Gollum is, like, 500 years old). So, even though Frodo is technically 40 or 50 when he starts on his quest, it is also mentioned that he had hardly aged from the moment he took possession of the ring, even when he never wore it. Same with Bilbo.
      And the books do take patience. I'd recommend getting the audio book so you can listen in the car and stuff. That makes it easier. And if you never manage to get through Fellowship or Two Towers, you're probably alright, because for those the books and movies are close, but you absolutely MUST read Return of the King, because they took all the best parts out of the movie (we're talking a Ranger contingent, Eowyn falling in love, heroes saving the Shire...yeah. Good stuff)

  2. Amazing post! (As always.) And lol (!!!) about keepin' it real!
    I have to say I am more of a stand alone girl. I mean don't get me wrong, I love series. I adore series! I think stand alones get on that upper notch with me though because they always give me more of that happily ever after feel. They are complete and whole in themselves and if my house was on fire, I would be able to save more books because I won't have to worry about getting all these - just joking! I just think I like stand alones better because they truly do feel more whole and complete to me. They give me that safe cozy feeling. The happy and content feeling of wanting more but knowing I have to use my imagination to get more. And loving that fact. Cliff hangers are well, cliff hangers and as needed as they are, the pain I'v gone through over these cliff hangers!

    1. Leorah, I tend to be more of a stand-alone girl for that reason as well. I like the completeness of them. And because in so many series, the quality and creativity seems to fade with each book. Not all, of course.

    2. As a book reviewer, I found a seven-book series that was sent to me became redundant before the series came to an end. There was no growth in the characters and instead of being a series it probably should have been one stand-alone.
      It was unfortunate. The series covered several years, yet the main characters never grew.
      So, it put a sour taste in my own writing for series.
      I had a much closer read for the future books that were sent to me for reviewing that were part of a series.

  3. This is such a helpful post Stephanie. Seriously! I need this info so much! Thanks again!

  4. Thanks so much, Stephanie!
    I've often wondered about this myself!
    Very Helpful!! :)

  5. I'm working on the second book of my first trilogy for NaNoWriMo. I had a hard time deciding whether to keep the story as a stand alone book, or make it into a trilogy. I determined that it should be a series when there were 57k and the storyline was still only in its earlier stages. So, having been in that precarious position only months ago, I know this is going to help people a lot! :D
    And as for LOTR... my friend (who wishes she could be Mrs. Baggins. ;) lent me her copy of the "Fellowship of the Ring"... in February of 2010. I feel bad that I still have it and that I still haven't read it. Aww man. Tolkien is, like, phenomenal ... but I can't ever seem to get past the first few pages. I'll try again.
    Anyway, I love this blog more than I love my spinny chair. And that's a lot. Keep up the good work! :)

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  7. I'm writing a 7-book dark fantasy series. I want to *finish* them before I attempt publishing (just me). I have 1 left to write, and now I'm *cleaning them up*!! :)

    But 7 books? Should I try querying myself with a "7-book" series or is that something publishers steer away from?? (In case I'm terrible and they don't want to commit to 7-books?) I have ideas for breaking it down into TWO serieses, but is that an awkward notion??

  8. I'm glad you posted this! I have a tendency of getting excited about something I'm writing(kind of counting my chickens before they hatch) and I automatically decide that i'm going to make it either a series or a trilogy before I even begin it. So yeah, this was good :)
    And great example with Veronica Mars, it makes perfect sense. Plus I love veronica mars! My older sisters use to watch it when it was on television and then we recently found both seasons on Netflix and literally had a marathon until we'd finished them :)

  9. This post was really helpful!

    I don't really have a preference between stand-alones and books in a series. Though some great standalone books leave me wanting more!
    I also like books like Kristin Cashore's where there are multiple stories that aren't really a series, just in the same world possibly with some same characters.

  10. Nice post, Stephanie! You should include your husbands comments more often, because they’re pretty interesting. :-D
    For me, with reading at least, series are the best! Probably because I don’t want to ever have to give up on the characters. I just wish I could know them and grow with them forever… (And speaking of that, I really wish you would write more Skyler Holt books!)

    I just started NaNo for the first time, and yeah, things are going well. I got a good head start with 5,000 words. That way, my word count can be lower for the rest of the month. =) If anyone wants to be my writing buddy, my user name is: Aidyl Ewoh

  11. Hmmm...tough question. I like stand alones a little better because I don't have to wait for the next part of the story, but I like series better because I can get to know the characters for a longer period of time :) So I guess, really, they both have their pros and cons!

    Never even tried writing a series before...guess I was too sick of the horrid plot and didn't know the characters too well ;)

  12. I like series better, but lately some of them have gone on too long. I thought the Rangers Apprentice series would never end, and the Artemis Fowl books just kept going and going. I think an author should decide when to finish a series and then finish it there, unless the books are really self contained (like Nancy Drew books.)
    Trilogies seem especially popular in YA today, and I'm getting kind of board with them. I'm ready for more duets and stand alones that don't take as much effort to stay connected with.
    That being said, I am writing a trilogy, and I do think there's something special about three parts to a story. It is easier to have a good arc, I think. Although sometimes the second books get bogged down.

    Thanks for the post, Stephanie!

    ~Sarah Faulkner

  13. You can also make a distinction within "series"--there's a stand-alone series, and a continuation series. Stand-alone being what I write--multiple stories each with a new set of primary characters but in the same world and with some characters in common. Continuation being Harry Potter of LOTR, when each book features the same main character and (often) relies heavily on preceding books. Skylar, of course, was continuation. My Culper Ring Series is very much stand-alone, as each book skips a generation.

    But that totally made me laugh, that Stephanie tends toward stand-alones but has out a series, and I'm the exact opposite. So, so true. And so weird, LOL.

  14. Personally, I tend to enjoy reading both stand-alone AND series. While a well-written series or trilogy can get you extremely invested in the characters and the story over several books, I also like how a stand-alone novel doesn't need to lean on any other book in order to be good reading. And, as Amanda Fischer said above, with a stand-alone you don't have to wait for the follow-up books! But it's true that both kinds of books have their own merits and downsides.

    However, when it comes to my own work, I tend to automatically lean towards stand-alone; all of the novel/las I've written and completed have been solitary. I guess the ideas I have just don't really span more than one book; at least, not at this point!

    Great post!

  15. Great post! I've had the triplet thing going with each of my completed novels. The novel I wrote over the summer was *supposed* to stand alone, but I think I have a healthy idea for a series now.

    Can there be a combination of a stand-alone series and continuation series? The idea I have for the second book in this series would follow the same two main characters. The third book would be the story of the first hero's friend.

    I know M.L. Tyndall did it for her first series but I can't currently think of any others...

  16. I want to apologize to anyone who was offended by my comment regarding the seven-book series.

    I've been reviewing books for almost ten years, from children's books, YA books, to adult books. I've reviewed many books from Christian Library Journal, Children's Literature, and KSB Promotions.

    Over the years, there were very few authors/publishers who requested I publish NEGATIVE reviews. Of course, I followed their request.

    It has always been my desire to do my best for the readers. If you have any questions about my integrity or ethics on my reviews, please feel free to read some of my reviews. I started posting my reviews in 2009.

    Again, please forgive me for offending anyone who prefers to write series, or who is considering writing series. That experience of the SEVEN-book series with no character growth, for me was a negative experience.

    I have reviewed other series that were not so long, that showed character development. Perhaps I should have been more positive it that post.

    Please forgive me, and understand my tenure of writing book reviews. Most of them are very positive, whether they are for children's YA's, or adult's.

    I did not mean to offend anyone.

  17. I always plan to write standalones, but when it comes to sci-fi and dystopian the storyworld often grows so rapidly that I can no longer control the plot. At first I always found this very problematic, but I've decided to embrace it for my current WIP.