This blog post was originally published for SC Writers Association, Cola II Chapter. You can see read it below or view the original, titled “Standalone or Series?“.
At some point, every author must decide if their book is going to be a standalone book or the beginning of a series. Either option has long-term consequences and rewards. You might be tempted to ask, “What do my readers want?” Some readers prefer a standalone book because they don’t want to commit to a series, and they like to explore various authors. But there are also readers who prefer a series and are extremely loyal to those writers. These readers become attached to the characters and anxiously await the next volume.
However, the standalone vs. series decision is more about the characters themselves than trying to anticipate reading habits. At the end of the first book, do the characters have more stories to tell? Are they interesting enough that readers want to know more about them? Is the main story, or any of the subplots, left unresolved at the end? If so, perhaps a series is the best choice.
Let’s say you decide to write a series that tells a “sweeping story” across multiple volumes. In doing so, you’re asking readers to commit to the entire series to learn the whole story. Not all readers want to read every book. And some readers may be upset when they realize the main plot isn’t resolved at the end. Another way to handle a series is to have the protagonist and some or all of the minor characters continue across multiple books, as Sue Grafton did in her twenty-five-volume alphabet series. With this approach, each book resolves its main plot, although some of the subplots may carry forward to the next volume. You must then decide how much backstory to give readers who may start in the middle or at the end of the series. What will readers need to know to understand what’s going on? How much information from the previous volumes are you willing to disclose? Whether you decide to write one big story across a series or a series of discrete stories with repeat characters, it’s wise to do your research and be aware of the pitfalls and rewards of each approach.
Consider also that while each book has a story arc, a series must also arc. J.K. Rowling plotted and wrote the entire seven-book Harry Potter series before she published the first book. I didn’t appreciate her wisdom until I was writing the second volume of my series and had to step back and plan the overall series.
Should you decide to write a series, I respectfully offer a word of caution. Don’t allow yourself to get lazy due to familiarity with the characters or to assume your readers will continue to be loyal no matter what. It’s inevitable that within a series, some volumes will be better than others. However, we’ve all read series that started out good but fizzled and should have ended earlier—or never been a series at all. But a well-done series is brilliant.
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