To standalone or not to standalone

One of my New Year resolutions for this year was to read more female authors and I have done.  The book I have just finished is by a female fantasy writer, and a good one at that.  At least, she’s a bestseller and famous in fantasy circles.  This is actually the first time I’ve read her.  I won’t name the book and author, but if you’ve been paying attention to the boxes on the right you’ll know what I’m talking about.

I enjoyed it mostly, the characters were strong and the story is a good one.  One thing, however, has put me off continuing the series: book one is not a standalone story.  It ends in the middle of the action, but not exactly on a cliff hanger.  As I read the last page, I wondered if some pages had fallen out at the end.  It feels like is she wrote the book, found that it was far too long and so sliced it into manageable novels.

As someone who is about to embark on writing a series, and a fan of fantasy series’, this got me thinking: should all books in a series be standalone stories?

My immediate reaction is yes.  It allows the reader to enjoy a story and fall in love with the characters without being left hanging without closure and feeling pressurised to buy the next book.  And the next book.  And the one after that.  To be honest, reading the end of this first book has left me feeling a little cheated.  I don’t exactly have a lot of money right now, especially with Christmas round the corner, so I can’t think of spoiling myself with the next instalment yet.  Even if I did have the money, this feels like a cunning ploy, rather than a creative decision, to force me into buying books that I’m not utterly in love with just to get some closure.

The author is a bestseller.  This isn’t her first series.  For all I know, all of her series’ are like this one; ongoing, unending and without closure until the last book.  In which case, it works for her.  She must enjoy writing a series in this way and people out in the world must enjoy reading them.  Who am I to argue?

Standalone books don’t always work either.  It is very easy for a writer to fall into habits of formulaic writing, even when not writing a series.  I have already had to stop myself for using the same formula to plot each of my novels, and I’m still an unpublished writer.  Imagine being a published, successful writer with deadlines.  Yes…imagine…

Again, I won’t name the series, but there is one particular fantasy one I’m thinking of in which each book works the same way.  The stories are different of course, and each has a beginning, middle and end.  They follow on from one another, building the cast and developing characters with each book but you get closure at the end of each.  Anyone could pick up any of the books, read them and understand them.  Unfortunately this particular series uses the same formula for each book.  The small digressions at the beginning, the slow build of momentum, the false leads and then suddenly the climax in only the last few pages.  It’s great for book one, maybe for book two.  By book four I’m becoming a little bored.

Supernatural is a good visual example of both ways of creating a series.  Watch season one and compare it to season eight.  We start off with Sam and Dean fighting a new monster every episode.  We get closure at the end of every episode but there is also the story arc of finding their father running throughout the series.

Dean and Sam in Supernatural

Dean and Sam in Supernatural

Season eight is all about the story arc.  Maybe one or two episodes reflects the programme’s roots with a monster that lasts just the one episode, but the story arc is so big and with such a big cast that it mostly takes over.  In season eight it is much more difficult to watch a random episode and understand what is going on.

As with all writing, the way a series is written is subjective.  It will mostly depend on the writer, what they want to create, how they think the story needs to be told and what they enjoy doing.  Whether it is a success will depend on the reader and what they enjoy.  Personally, I prefer reading standalones and this is what I enjoy creating.  My series and my trilogy will both be made up of books that are connected, with ongoing characterisations, casts and story arcs but each book will have it’s own beginning, middle and end.  A reader won’t feel forced to pick up the next book just to find out what happens, although I hope they will want to.

2 responses to “To standalone or not to standalone

  1. I don’t love reading books that end in cliffhangers so much, but I do because I love the writing. The Lord of the Rings definitely had a major arc or two keeping me interested. Do cliffhangers turn readers off? Yes, especially if the series remains unfinished. That’s why I waited to read all seven of the Harry Potter books at once. What I loved about them is that each book had a major storyline that often fit into the major conflict. Nowadays, authors are writing much shorter work, ending them with a cliffhanger, and expecting readers to buy the next short installment in the series, which will also end in a cliffhanger. I don’t love that new paradigm at all. Having said this, I began writing a “series” story on my blog, and it’s freed up my stuck-in-the-mud thinking. Bring on cool cliffhangers and the excitement should entice readers to read the next section! Nice thinking here!

    • Thanks for the comment Justin!
      You’re so right. Cliffhangers are great, as long as they’re done right. Since writing this post I’ve read Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch which is brilliant and ends on a type of cliffhanger. The book still has closure, but I’m left desperate to read the next instalment, whereas the book I mentioned in this post just cut off half way through an action scene (a bit like the final episode of Angel although because that was the last ever after five seasons, it was quite ingenius!).

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