Series vs. Stand Alone Novels

Hollywood isn’t the only industry about to be scrutinized for its sequels.  Let’s take a look at how books deal with the standalone vs series approach to story telling in this week’s Sunday Versus.

Whether you feel it while you’re writing or not, there is a pressure when publishing to separate a long story into a series.  Famously JRR Tolkien never intended to publish The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy.   And we were lead to believe that the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini was to be a trilogy, but upon the announcement of the third book, it was also revealed that there would be a fourth.  (And to be honest, I only read the first book and a half of that series.)

But you know what? Fantasy isn’t the only genre taken over by series.  What about The Millennium Series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo & sequels for those unfamiliar with the formal series title), or Dan Brown’s novels with Robert Langdon?  Well, let’s not limit ourselves to fantasy and thrillers.  I for one have not forgotten the Little House on the Prairie series or Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

In fact, sometimes I feel like stand alone novels can be so short in comparison, that I hardly remember what happens in them.  They’re like a small blip on my reader’s radar when larger series take up the majority of my attention.  And most of the series, I admit, are deserved to be so.

However, I think there comes a point when even we have to set the books down and ask ourselves if it’s really a good story, or if we’re just attached to the characters at some point.  I like to think of it as the Jack Sparrow effect.  I’m not entirely sure the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie would have been made if Johnny Depp hadn’t been so in love with playing Jack Sparrow.

A prime example, for me personally, is the Anne of Green Gables series.  Now, the first two-three books were some of my favorites as a school-girl.  And I was in love with Anne Shirley!  But by the time I got to the fourth, fifth, and sixth, I was about done with her shenanigans.  And from what I hear, there’s a seventh, eighth, and ninth book as well.  I think, when one has literally written and chronicled a character from the ages of 10-50 or so, it’s about time to end it, unless you plan on doing it in one novel.

One factor that can weigh in on this, is whether or not a book is character or plot driven.  I realize there’s a huge grey area between the two, but for the sake of this topic I’m willing to find a split in them.  I tend to feel that character driven novels should be singular.  Mostly because the point of the story is watching the character grow and change, and although people are never done growing, if a character isn’t wrapped up by the end of the novel, then I’m not very likely to keep reading another.  However, with plot driven novels I’m more invested in the actual story and what happens.  I’m compelled to keep reading because I want to know how things are resolved, and I surely won’t be satisfied if they’re rushed through in one small novel!

Overall I’m not opposed to series, but I do think if a writer is considering a sequel, especially a previously unplanned sequel, they should ask themselves if it’s really necessary.  Do they really need to use the same characters?  Are there loose strings to tie up, and how can they develop the characters more?  Will people still care after an already resolved story line?  Just some things to consider before venturing past a novel.  Sometimes I feel like a stand alone novel can be a bit underrated, especially the shorter ones.  If someone can tell a compelling and powerful story in a 120 page book, then more power to them! Stories don’t have to be long to be good.

Have you guys ever read a series that should have stopped after the first book? Or perhaps there’s a standalone novel that would serve as a great beginning to a killer series?  Let me know what you think!

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About Aly Hughes
Unprofessional, unedited, unpublished. Aly is out to make a name for herself by blogging, twittering, facebooking, and general internet-ing. Be warned: She may not know what she's talking about.

39 Responses to Series vs. Stand Alone Novels

  1. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series is pretty good, but it dose not just focus on one character which I think works well. I agree with not writing lots of character driven books based on one character. I’ve read a series like that, but I wont name it lol.
    Mine and my writing partners big project is set for 4 books, so your post has given me some food for thought, again 🙂
    Aly, I’ve said it before but this it one of my favourite blogs 🙂

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Good point, it definitely helps when there are multiple leading characters within a series.
      It’s like when movie adaptations of books split movies into two instead of only one installment. Sometimes it just takes longer to tell a story….and sometimes movies can drag on longer than they should. 😉
      Thanks again Peter, I’m glad you enjoy my posts!

      • I always thought that books were more suited to being turned into a TV series then a moive (i thought that before game of thrones lol) In a tv series you have more time to explore plot and characters etc 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on PeterGermany's Blog and commented:
    Aly Hughes always writes posts that get me thinking about how I approach writing. Her blog is a must read for me 🙂

  3. I think Jack Sparrow is a good example. I saw the first movie, entirely because Johnny Depp was in it. My thought as I left the the theater was, “Wow, that was better than I thought it would be. It was really fun, and I don’t need to see any more.” And I’ve never bothered with the other movies. Movies like that don’t get sequels because there’s still more story to be told, they get sequels because there’s more money out there to be made.

    OTOH, the Resident Evil movies were originally intended to be a trilogy, and now there’s been a fourth and the fifth will come out in September, and I’ll be there. Because they’re good, and because the story hasn’t had a happy ending that needs to be undone to produce a sequel.

    But I think there’s a difference between tacking on endless sequels and simply setting stories in the same world with some of the same characters. Or maybe I think that’s different because that’s what I do. 🙂 My first novel was a mystery story, The second was a gritty, urban, magical realist novel, including some of the same characters. Since then, I’ve continued to work in the same world with the same (ever-expanding) group of characters. But the one time I actually attempted a real sequel to anything, it ended up on the shelf.

    I talked about this on my blog: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=84 (there’s a link at the end to a later post on the same subject).

    • Oh, and it just occurred to me (duh!) that Ulysses takes place in the same Dublin as the stories in the collection Dubliners, including characters who appear in both books, but it’s not any kind of sequel.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I haven’t seen the latest one, but when they did a complete overhaul, ending he Will/Elizabeth story arc, I think it was time to let it go. And perhaps it only needed a first one anyways, as the last two, although having their moments, just declined after the first one. If a sequel isn’t equal (or better) than the original, then it probably shouldn’t have been written.

      What I like about the Resident Evil movies is that at their core, they’re the same as far as main character/killing zombies/surviving goes, but the settings are different, the supporting characters are different, and the zombies are ever evolving, as are Alice’s powers.

      There’s a lot of evolution in the story, which sounds like your series. And I really enjoy when series operate within the same world with recurring characters. Tamora Pierce comes to mind for doing that as well. But I do love world building, which probably heavily weighs my preferences. 🙂

      Thanks for the link, and, as always, thanks for the input! 🙂

  4. robincoyle says:

    Good timing on this for me because I am considering whether or not I should write a sequel to my first novel. It leaves off at a point where I could.

  5. TheOthers1 says:

    I always think of the Sookie Stackhiuse/True Blood series on this one. I was actually talking to a friend of mine and we agreed she could’ve stopped at thlike the 8th book and been good. I think there are like 11-13 books all together. I haven’t read anything after the 8th because it wasn’t worth it. The action had no point and Sookie wasn’t growing. Readers aren’t dumb; they know when it should stop and may only read to humor the writer. It just bothers me because the story line is being stretched for no reason. Ending it well is better than dragging it out.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I definitely agree with that last thought! I have to wonder if the authors ever get bored with doing that? I feel like I would. There’s just way too many different stories, worlds, and characters to explore!

  6. Pingback: Series vs. Stand Alone Novels « Aly Hughes Writes | | The Writing WenchThe Writing Wench

  7. Thought provoking post, Aly. It made me think about what series I read because I loved and which ones I read because I had to find out how it ends. For me, series I loved were ones like LOTR and Chronicles of Narnia and Mary Poppins and Harry Potter. Ones I read to find out the ending were Hunger Games and Twilight. Also, I love graphic novels and many are series that I must read because they are so addictive. Y: The Last Man, being among the forerunners.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I’m still pretty new with graphic novels and comics, but they are addictive! I think the visuals help drive me on in reading them. The Hunger Games I definitely read to find out what happens too. For me, LOTR, Harry Potter, and Chronicles of Narnia I did read because I loved the characters as well as the stories. They’re ones that I’ll go back and re-read slowly to enjoy. 🙂

  8. Sara Flower says:

    I generally prefer stand-alones, too. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lost Books series made sense to have multiples books, but usually, I think it is better to keep the story to one novel or maybe even do a spin-off without making the next story a direct sequel.

  9. pephredo says:

    George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is one where I’m glad he continued with the story after the first book. In the case of his story, there’s a truly epic feel, though, that almost assures it has to be written over the course of a series. If Martin had tried to fit it all into one novel, I don’t really think it would be the story that it is today.

    Conversely, Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series should have cut off after the first or second books. She’s up to what, 20-something now in that series? But, it’s all the same stuff in her stories with very little advancement of the plot or the characters, and after the third book, the series turned into little more than vampire/werewolf erotica, the kind of which you can find written on any number of Twilight fanfic slash websites.

    • derekberry says:

      Of course Martin meant that to be a series, at least. Though he did mean it to be a trilogy until it spilled over such length. I’m glad because I love that series.

      • Aly Hughes says:

        Ah! I really feel like I need to jump on the Song of Ice and Fire train, but it’s so intimidating! I know some people complain about the length, but I haven’t heard people complain about the story, so I’m assuming it’s really good. And I agree, epics should never be rushed through.

        Although I do wonder if authors ever get bored of writing such long series. I think I would, or at least I would need to take a break and refresh myself by writing with different characters for a while.

  10. Samir says:

    I think a story needs to be only as long as it takes to tell it, economically. If it can be done in 50 pages then it should be 50 pages.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I definitely agree! 🙂 That’s also why I still read short stories and novellas, which can be very underrated. They’re definitely legitimate stories.

  11. Christopher Patterson says:

    Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. I loved the first one, and although I like the other ones as well, I think the first one was the best and each subsequent book has not gripped me the same. I want to read another book with the same characters and similar plot line to The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, I really was surprised by how much I liked that book.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I feel like if a sequel isn’t as strong as the first, then it probably shouldn’t have been written in the first place. But that’s determined by opinion, the author may think it’s bettter/just as good as the first, even if the reader doesn’t.
      I’ve heard mixed reviews about The Historian, but I’m really interested in reading it. I’m glad to hear you liked it!

  12. derekberry says:

    A lot of books were meant to be stand-alone and became a series. It think this occurs for two reasons. Firstly, fans want to know what happens next, get to know more of the story after the first novel’s main events. But because these were meant to standalone, it’s difficult to write past “happily ever after” sometimes. It depends entirely on the story being told. Furthermore, sometimes, the authors love their characters too much too give them up. I can understand that, if I felt one character had much more to say in another book. But sequels can either be poison or stimulant for the original, depending on how strong the plot of the second book is.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Oooh, yes I’ve mentioned it in an above comment as well, but if a sequel isn’t as strong (or better) than the original, then I think it can even take away from the series. It can stop me from re-reading the first book even. The only problem is that it’s all based on opinion. Sometimes the author may like the sequel better, even if the readers don’t.
      I like what you said about it being ‘difficult to write past ‘happily every after” which is definitely true. Especially if you write such a good ending for the first book. 🙂 Thanks for the input!

  13. Good post hon 🙂

    Personally I prefer stand alone novels, but I know a lot of people who love a series. I have a friend who will devour any James Patterson book because of Alex Cross, even though she actually admits that some of them are rubbish, but, she’s attached to Cross, NOT Patterson lol.

    I think if I was writing about the same character all the time I’d get bored lol

    xx

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Thanks VikkI!

      I would totally get bored too! I’m not opposed to writing a series myself, but I don’t think I could write more than a trilogy…unless I was writing about different characters within the same world, but even then I think I’d eventually want to branch out! 🙂
      And there are some series that I’ve stuck with just for a character and to see what happens- good or bad!

    • Christopher Patterson says:

      Talk about being attached to characters, I’m completely attached to the characters in George R.R. Martins series Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones). I just hate that it takes so long for him to release the next book haha.

  14. I’m a stand-alone fan! And I’m a fan of yours, too, Aly. I just gave you a Kreativ Blogger Award. You can find the details here: http://wp.me/p1bhaB-De

  15. amhudlow says:

    I think, like others before me have mentioned, that it all depends on the story being told. I love both stand-alone books and series. It all depends what is being said. I think you made a great example when you brought up Captain Jack Sparrow, I would have been perfectly content if there had only been one Pirates of the Caribbean but I enjoyed them all (except the 4th because it was total rubbish).

    There are defiantly some series that should have ended early on (like the True Blood series), but there are others that needed to continue to end the story completely (like the Hunger Games series and the Harry Potter series).

    Frankly, I think writers need to think long and hard before they write a sequel to a book they intended to have as a stand alone, because it can ruin the integrity of the story if they decide to add on to an already completed story.

    As always, Aly you have written an amazing post.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      haha, I still haven’t seen the fourth one, but after they dropped the Will/Elizabeth story I knew it was time to let go!

      And I agree, some stories really do need to be told in a series. Those are usually the ones that at least have an ending planned. I haven’t read the True Blood series so I don’t know if it applies to them, but there are series that just don’t have a set ending to them. It feels like they can go on forever, and they often do. Although there is an aftermath in Harry Potter and The Hunger Games (with an epilogue, which is a whole other post), the story arc being told has been completed, and we’re left satisfied(mostly).

      I agree, it can be dangerous writing a sequel to a story that’s had an ending.

      Thank you, and thanks for the input! 🙂

      • It’s different in different genres, too. In mystery stories, the regular characters continue but the plots are always different, so they’re a “series,” but they’re not a series like a fantasy series, because usually they can be read in any order.

  16. Pingback: Series vs. Stand Alone Novels | Some Such Nonsense

  17. There’s nothing worse than a series where the final book is huge disappointment. Sometimes I wonder if the author has grown bored with the story or is trying too hard. In either case, recognizing when a good series has run it’s course is a challenge but one most authors would like to have to face. On the other hand, how many times have you read a stand alone book and loved it so much you wish there was a sequel?

  18. Anonymous says:

    As a rule, I don’t care for series. When I was a child, I did read ‘Little Women” and “Little Men” I didn’t get to J’o’s Boys’ the last of the stories about the March family until two years ago,but I never saw that as a series.And I did read ‘the Hobbit’ and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ Trilogy.
    Years ago I started a series that went on for twelve books. You needed to read them in order because they were multi-generational. Unfortunately I got to about book 5 of the series (I don’t even remember the name of it now),and couldn’t no matter how much I tried find book six. That pretty much was the end of series reading for me, until I started watching the most recent Poldark series on PBS. There are such long intervals between seasons, I wanted to get ahead of the TV series, because I am hooked on the multi-generational story of the mains characters and their later lives. I acquired the entire series as quickly as I could (there are 12 books), and I have read them all. I’m keeping them because I may read the series again.It was good, but I don’t want to read another series.I prefer stand-alone books.

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