Writing a book for the first time is a challenge we don’t really appreciate until we are neck-deep in the work. However, before writing those first few words, almost every new writer will consider making their story part of a book series.
This is a perfectly normal thing to consider, but it needs to be addressed fairly early on in the planning process.
But before we try to answer the question in the title, let’s take a look at the different qualities of a standalone novel, a book series, and those in between.
A standalone book contains one complete story arc, from start to finish. There are no loose ends, and every plot, sup-plot, and character arc is closed by the end of the book.
Writing a standalone book should be an uncomplicated process for an author.
When writing these, an author is free to plan a story from introduction to resolution without the need to project or anticipate possibilities from future storylines.
The author will only need to plan for one book, its story, and its sub-plots.
In doing so, the writer can give absolute focus to every detail of that book, its narrative, characters, and everything within the pages.
This is a story in its purest form.
And when the reader consumes the last word, the story and sub-plots should be completely wrapped up.
In a standalone novel, there should never be any unresolved storylines that allude to a future book. However, that is not say that you cannot leave a question for the reader to ponder on. But it must be written right.
One of my favourite endings did this extremely well. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the book or the author (it was more than twenty years ago, and I read it during my first tour of Iraq. Needless to say, I was a bit distracted).
The book was written as a personal journal of an eighteenth century serial killer who documented his deeds. The final words were something like:
“I yearn to tell you of what unfolds tonight, but I fear I could be walking to my demise. I will leave this diary here – hidden in this bookshelf. And if I am caught or killed, these will be my last words.”
In my opinion, this was well played and stuck with me for two decades (and I wish I could remember the book).
Writing a series
Writing a book series is far more complicated than writing a standalone novel.
Every detail must be weighed against possible future story lines, and must complement each other. If something is described or stated in book one, and is contradicted in book three, you can bet your readers will notice it.
Planning is key to writing a good series, and the plot to each book must be outlined before the first book is written.
Why? So you, the author, can understand where you are taking the characters.
Another reason why you need to plan each book is to identify overlapping storylines and sub-plots. This is where one book ends with unresolved threads, and the next begins with these threads still there.
Often, the overlap begins with a cliff hanger in the previous book, and is then addressed in the following book.
But it’s not always that cut and dry. There could be recurring elements that the author builds on from book to book.
These could be things like a family history slowly revealing itself, or the subtle reveal of a larger antagonist manipulating events. And as each book is released, the reader will be left wanting to know more.
That being said, I believe the most important thing about writing a series has nothing to do with the plot at all. It’s about the writer.
I have come across several good books that are part of a series. However, for reasons unknown, the series wasn’t finished.
Either the writer lost love for it, or they didn’t know where to go next. Maybe, they simply didn’t have the time to continue writing. Whatever the reason, they released some great work and left a bunch of readers with an incomplete story.
If you begin a series, you must be prepared to finish it.
Alternatives – single stories
In fiction, there are many ways to skin a cat, so to speak.
As the author, you don’t have to conform to standalone or series if you don’t want to. You can write single stories that use the same characters.
There are many books out there that focus on one character. However, each book is an individual story in its own right. This means that whatever happened in the previous book, holds no bearing on the next.
These are great for those readers who enjoy your writing and your characters, but don’t want to be tied into a long story over several books.
Each new book is a fresh story but written with characters and a world that the reader is familiar with.
What suits you?
As a new writer, I would recommend writing a standalone novel for a debut novel.
In doing so, you will experience the writing, editing and publishing process in its entirety, before committing yourself to additional books.
This removes any additional pressure that can come from the knowledge that after completing your eighty-thousand-word novel, you have to start all over again. And again. And possibly, again.
That being said, there is no shame in getting to the end of your debut and deciding that one book is enough. After all, it is a very long and time-consuming process. And as an indie-author, you’ll have to do it all yourself.
The down-side of writing a standalone is that you will need to come up with an entirely new plot, and new characters for your next novel. But if your readers connect with your characters, you might consider recycling them and writing single story novels.
However, if you have a whole world full of characters in your head, and you have the time and resources to commit to a series, then I encourage you to go for it.
But be warned, this takes a lot of planning.
It’s also a huge commitment in terms of time and money. And you also invite readers to invest their time in following your characters.
You must be confident that your characters can stand the test of time. Are they deep enough and likeable enough to return book after book?
Also, you must be sure that you can finish the series and tie up all the story lines.
There are pros and cons to each type of book, and it’s up to the author to weigh them all up before deciding on a direction in which to travel.
Standalone novels are perfect for new writers. They let you experience the whole process of writing, editing and publishing, as well as helping you develop as a writer.
They are also a great way to begin building your platform and introducing yourself to the reading world.
However, if you believe you have the capacity to write a series, I encourage you to go for it. But remember, you’ll be inviting an audience to follow you and your characters on the same journey.
If you write a series, you must be committed to writing it, and you must also be confident that your characters will be welcomed back by your readers.