Examples of Fantasy trilogies where first volume also works as a standalone


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Feb 1, 2014
The consensus of expert advice e.g. from agents seems to be that although many successful fantasy stories are trilogies or longer, the first volume ought also to be viable as a stand-alone story- especially if you're an unpublished author pitching to an agent for the first time. However I can't recall any fantasy series that fit this description- possibly because the ones I know were written by already established authors. So can anyone provide examples of a trilogy or longer series where the first volume would also really work as a single book?

And as a more general question, how much of the loose ends need to be gathered up at the end of volume one to make it viable as a standalone, while still leaving potential to extend to further volumes?

The story I'm working on (300,000+ words at present which constitutes about 2/3 of the whole) is too big for a first-time author's single volume (ie John Jarrold reckons 140,000 is the limit for a first time author) so I'm looking at how to split it up. However it's conceived as a continual story so I'm not sure how much I can leave hanging at the end of volume one (about 130,000 words).
Lord Foul's Bane, by Stephen Donaldson?

I can also think of several in YA fiction: The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway (Jan Siegel); Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper; Ursula le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea; Harry Potter and the Philsopher's Stone by JK Rowling; Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman. It seems to be much more common there.

In terms of how much you tie up, if you want it to act as a standalone then I suggest you need a major plot arc that gets resolved, along with most of its sub-plots, no matter how many longer series arcs are left dangling.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (I would maintain it does stand as its own book - as does The Great Hunt, which is Book 2 of the series.) The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (yes, it's a children's book but it does stand alone and sets up the world). Harry Potter Bk1 - I'm not sure it's what you're looking for because it was conceived as a series but it does stand-alone as its own novel - as do almost all of the HP books because they all have their own internally coherent plot and you could, in theory, read them as stand-alones.

The thing is that there are a spectrum of ways of writing a series. At one end you can write a series as a single novel that is spread across multiple books (example: any series by Peter F. Hamilton). At the other end of the spectrum you write a universe and make all the novels within the universe stand alone (example: Iain M Banks's Culture novels or Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels). There's also the in-between ideas like Robin Hobb, who wrote a series of trilogies where each trilogy is a single story but they're all set within the same universe and follow-on from each other, or Janny Wurts's Wars of Light and Shadow series where book 1 is a stand-alone, books 2 & 3 are another story, books 4 - 8 are a separate story, books 9 & 10 are yet another story and the (forthcoming) book 11 is a stand-alone (maybe - that's what she says, anyway) but they all follow-on from one another and continue an over-arching time-line.

In terms of wrapping up loose ends. Well, if you wrap everything up then you've written a stand-alone and you have nowhere to go. If you leave everything open then you risk annoying your readers and frustrating them that you haven't answered any of the dramatic questions. So, it's a balance for which there are no explicitly right or wrong answers - it's a creative decision for you. I would ask myself - how many plot threads do I have? How many can I close off in this novel? and, possibly most importantly: What is so compelling about the threads I'm leaving open that my reader will come back to book 2 for? (sub-text question - why will my agent/publisher pay/contract me to write book 2?)

You have to remember that the audience (and your agent or publisher are your audience for the purpose of selling your novel) will come back for book 2 because they want to know what happens to these characters next. So, I don't think you necessarily need a lot of loose ends, you just need the audience to want to know what happens next. But any loose ends that you leave open should be compelling enough to make the reader come back for the answers. And the answers to those loose ends need to be good and they need to be honest. And, as the writer, you need to know what they are before you finish book 1. Because if the answers are not great then, as a reader, I'm going to be disappointed in you, then I'm going to be angry with you, then... Ok, my point is that your book needs a good "what happens next" question and a good answer to it in book 2. At which point book 2 should open new dramatic questions.

Hope that helps - good luck.
Feist's Magician, could be read as a stand-alone.

Nixie beat me to it. I regularly see Magician recommended as a standalone.

I'd also agree The Final Empire stands alone well enough. So too, imo, does Miles Cameron's The Red Knight.

And not a book, but Star Wars is very much a first installment of a trilogy that works alone and is in the fantasy storytelling tradition.
Garth Nix's Old Kingdom series - Sabriel is a fully stand alone story, whilst Lirael and Abhorsen are almost a single book split in two. The latter two books not only take place after a significant time jump, but also with a different lead character, yet the series operates as a set. Much the same as the afore mentioned Magician by Raymond E Fiest.

In general I think that many series start as a single book, ones like those I just mentioned have the feel that the writer wrote one book very well. They built a good world and backstory to work from, but essentially they were writing a standalone novel. When it sold well they then extended the story with further books, and with the blessings of a publisher/fanbase were then able to spread the following story out over more than one book.

If you intend from the outset to have a single novel fully stand alone and then branch into a longer story then I'd say there's a few things to consider
1) Worldbuild like crazy in the background. Most of this won't make it into book 1, but it will form a backbone to the whole series. This lets you slip references and themes and ideas and even a few characters into book1 where they are minor elements; but which later tie into the further books in a bigger way. This helps tie the books together and can also help you avoid having major things that are simply not mentioned in the first book, which then suddenly appear in the second without warning. You essentially futureproof your writing.

2) When writing the first story you want to resolve the primary storyline. This doesn't mean that you have to win every battle; indeed you could well end it with the heroes achieving a major victory, but still leaving the war itself playing out. You essentially end on a high-note. Rather like the end of A New Hope (starwars), you achieve a major victory, but you've still left all the major players in the game in positions to continue on - heck New Hope even specifically has Vader spinning off into the dark of space to leave him as a returning character.
It's a good example of where there were plot elements left ready to continue, but where it could well stand on its own if required.
Thanks for all these useful references and advice, I shall study the books that have been mentioned. Re Overread's advice, yes I like the futureproofing idea. I have a lot of historical, legendary, geographical and personal background detail that can either be omitted from Volume One or else referred to obliquely or in passing, also characters who make a brief appearance in Volume One but are prominent in Volume Two or Three. At present two central characters of Vol 1 will die unexpectedly at the end of that volume (the build up will have been described but the actual deaths will be sudden and surprising) while some other viewpoint characters will find themselves liberated and on the verge of greater adventures in a wider world of which they've previously known little.
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. In my opinion, this is one of the best YA fantasy books out there. Dealing With Dragons was my first introduction to fantasy at a very young age, and while there is a series that follows the first book, (The Enchanted Forest Chronicles) it is also a delightful stand-alone.

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