"Standalone with series potential"

HareBrain

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I have a non-Chrons writing friend about to start in SFF, who is wondering whether to aim for a standalone or a series. I've often heard that the ideal pitch is something which can stand alone but lead to sequels if successful. I've been aware of this "ideal" for years, but I've never aimed for it myself. Of the three books/series I've written that have got past their beginnings, one was standalone with no prospect of a sequel, and two were obvious series.

So I'm wondering if anyone here has aimed for this from the outset and made it work. I don't necessarily mean got it published/represented, more as in wrote something that genuinely could stand alone but had enough unresolved material to make more stories out of. How did you approach the balancing act? Did you always have a series in mind and were trying to "disguise" the first one as a standalone? If so, how big a compromise did that involve?
 
Apart from the YA stuff I wrote, pretty much everything I write is 'standalone with series potential'. Just happens that way. No balancing act, nothing particular in mind. Not very helpful, I know, but just concentrate on writing a story with a beginning, middle and end, and don't really worry about anything else.

Example, I guess... Locke & Co (not published, vague attempts at getting it published, all failed, now kinda can't be arsed... plus also annoyed at new Netflix series with similar name)... it works perfectly well as a standalone. But it's about demons & monsters so could easily be a series with a new enemy each time. Plus even though the characters' stories are resolved, they all end with enough in the bag to carry on in a new book. (eg. one character is now pregnant, one has some serious PTSD etc. etc.).
 
I feel that regardless of the choice to create a series, the first book (and every other one in the series) should be a stand alone story. The major conflict needs to be resolved. If there are minor open issues, that is fine and these can be brought to the forefront in later tales.

I think it really comes down to the friend's writing style. I am mostly a discovery writer, so I've found that if I like the characters and world in a story, a follow tale is enticing. I barely had the ending pictured for the first story when I wrote it, much less a plan for a follow on. When I got done, though, I found a tertiary character that I liked and brought that character forward as the main PoV for a second story. I'm mulling a third to resolve some minor background issues, but don't have a plot line for it as of yet.

On the other hand, I've heard the J. K. Rowling had heavily plotted out the Harry Potter series before starting. I think the anser comes down to personal style. If the writer feels excited about creating an epic plot line or a detailed world to explore, then certainly, he or she should do that. If that sounds intimidating, then it is also fairly easy to write a stand alone story and find aspects of it to create follow on stories to form a series.
 
I feel that regardless of the choice to create a series, the first book (and every other one in the series) should be a stand alone story. The major conflict needs to be resolved. If there are minor open issues, that is fine and these can be brought to the forefront in later tales.
I agree that the major conflict in the forefront of the story needs to be resolved. But planning for a series allows you to bring in hints of longer plot arcs stretching between books, which is what Rowling did with Harry Potter (and GRRM with ASOIF, etc). I wonder if readers now expect that in a way they didn't use to, partly because of HP and also multi-season shows on streaming services.

But the more you include these hints, and the more enticing they are, the less it can be read as standalone. So it becomes more attractive to some readers and less to others (and perhaps less to the industry). Just as an abstract thing, I'm wondering if there's a sweet spot where the hints are just enough to make readers crave a sequel without making them dissatisfied if there isn't one, and how easy that would be to identify. And do some writers hold back on the series arcs in book 1 but then really go for it in books 2 onwards?
 
A series doesn't need to have unresolved plot elements in the first book - sequels can simply be set in the same world, with or without the original characters. Crime fiction is the epitome of "standalone with series potential" - you don't have to read the first Agatha Christie book before you read any other novel by her. Even crime series where the character slowly develops or evolves, there's usually enough info dripped in to cover whatever happened previously to bring readers up to scratch.
 
In the Harry Dresden books a lot are stand alone, but should a character crop up from an earlier book Harry gives a brief run down of their previous meeting. This feels a bit like padding if you have read the previous books but I assume it is helpful if you haven't.
 
planning for a series allows you to bring in hints of longer plot arcs stretching between books
For me, however, I haven't discovered how to plan beyond the vaguest hint of a plot line. I do find, however, that as I write I need to drop in hints of larger issues to make the world seem more well-rounded, but it is a distraction from the plot if I try to put in explanations. Some examples with my personal justifications.

If a character appears or disappears, I will include some reference to an occurrence outside the plot line. I feel this gives the reader some justification for the character's absence, but giving more than a one line explanation is distracting. This does give a potential hook to be used in a later story.

If something occurs by happenstance, the reader may be more interested in the consequences of the action rather than the reason behind it. For example, if the protagonist's headquarters is raided, the reader will be more interested in the protagonist's escape and how he or she addresses the set back to his or her plans. What happened behind the scenes leading up to the raid may certainly be explained in a following story.

I like having betrayal or redemption character arcs. With just a little foreshadowing, the reader will accept the character's change in heart without knowing the background reasons. The reader will be more concerned with how this affects the plot line than why the character acted in that manner. A later story can provide a compelling rationale for betrayal or a less than altruistic reason for coming to the protagonist's aid.

I don't think it is necessary to plan out these hints ahead of time and they are, in fact, a necessary part of building a world with depth. When creating a sequel, part of the fun for me is to select a set of this unexplained details and create a logical narrative for them. The reader's response should be, "I didn't notice that before, but, wow, that makes a lot of sense." In either case, of course, it really comes down to quality of execution.
 
My inclination is to write standalones with a crack of an open ending. Series potential is only really going to matter if number one is a runaway success. Not particularly likely. Why would volume two do better than the establishing volume? Producing a volume two which can be read 'first'* is tricky without regurgitating much back story.
* This happens a lot.
A second factor is the authors psychology. Fun as the first may have been they may well become weary of the 'same old' and want to try new pastures. Book one likely sets tight limits on the arena.

Regarding 'hints' you are committing the next volume , If you don't follow through the reader will feel frustrated.
I would say that Chekov summed it up well:
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off."
 
A series is different from a trilogy etc - each book needs to be able to stand alone.
Ah, so "standalone with series potential" is not saying "standalone with potential to turn into a trilogy (or whatever)" but "standalone with potential for other standalone sequels"? A multi-book plot needs to be conceived and declared from the start?
 
What are we calling a series? Banks' Culture novels have no plot connection to each other and only rarely share characters. The latter three Dune books are similar, as are the three trilogies Gibson wrote. It is hard to imagine an ending that truly prevents another story being added in the future.
 
My first novel (time travel adventure) has series potential, but was written as a stand-alone (I'm pitching a TV series adaptation, which includes additional seasons). My second (YA SF) was the first part of a series, but again deliberately written as a stand alone novel, and readers would have been able to read the later books in or out of sequence.

I got both traditionally published, but neither of them did well enough to prompt additional books. I've written a third of the second book of the YA series, which I will revive if a miracle occurs and the world discovers how wonderful the first one is! :giggle:

I knew after the first novel came out how difficult is was to sell a book, so I deliberately chose to make the second a stand alone rather than pitch it as a series, as I felt I needed to have two or three written - or at least fully mapped - to do that. Not sure that's the case, but I wanted to write other (non-SF) stuff and not devote so much time to a series that might not sell. It's all guesswork, really, so you don't know anything until you do.
 
Well, when I began to write the Green Lion books I had absolutely no idea in my head of writing a series, and all through the years when I was writing the first three or four drafts I fully intended it to be a standalone ... but somehow by the time the story was told it had turned itself into a trilogy (or more accurately, since it is one continuous narrative, a three-volume novel). So in the sense of being able to write a stand-alone book, that project was clearly a complete failure.

When I wrote The Queen's Necklace I was firmly committed in my own mind to writing a standalone book, and I stuck with that all the way through. However, after it was written and sold and someone (I think it was my agent) suggested that I write a sequel, I did begin to think of all the ways that it had series potential, and ultimately did become quite excited over the idea of writing more in that world and featuring at least a couple of the characters from it's very large cast. But I never did write the series (at least not to date) though do have a small trunk full to bursting with notebooks in which I have scribbled a very detailed outline for another book and less detailed outlines for at least two more. I would still very much like to write them, and maybe someday I will, but until that day, if it ever arrives, I suppose the question remains whether the book did indeed have true series potential—since even I, to whom it means so much, have yet to get around to writing even that first sequel.

Of course the average size of fantasy novels having increased over the years between the two projects, I think that The Queen's Necklace, stand-alone though it is, is about the same length as all the books of that first trilogy combined. So, if I had written the Green Lion in the same year that I wrote TQN, it probably would have been published as a standalone. But that's just speculation. And since I did, eventually, write a sequel trilogy (and have notes for further stories as yet unwritten), yes, it unquestionably did have series potential.

So to answer your question, HB, um ... maybe?
 
For me, however, I haven't discovered how to plan beyond the vaguest hint of a plot line. I do find, however, that as I write I need to drop in hints of larger issues to make the world seem more well-rounded, but it is a distraction from the plot if I try to put in explanations. Some examples with my personal justifications.

If a character appears or disappears, I will include some reference to an occurrence outside the plot line. I feel this gives the reader some justification for the character's absence, but giving more than a one line explanation is distracting. This does give a potential hook to be used in a later story.

If something occurs by happenstance, the reader may be more interested in the consequences of the action rather than the reason behind it. For example, if the protagonist's headquarters is raided, the reader will be more interested in the protagonist's escape and how he or she addresses the set back to his or her plans. What happened behind the scenes leading up to the raid may certainly be explained in a following story.

I like having betrayal or redemption character arcs. With just a little foreshadowing, the reader will accept the character's change in heart without knowing the background reasons. The reader will be more concerned with how this affects the plot line than why the character acted in that manner. A later story can provide a compelling rationale for betrayal or a less than altruistic reason for coming to the protagonist's aid.

I don't think it is necessary to plan out these hints ahead of time and they are, in fact, a necessary part of building a world with depth. When creating a sequel, part of the fun for me is to select a set of this unexplained details and create a logical narrative for them. The reader's response should be, "I didn't notice that before, but, wow, that makes a lot of sense." In either case, of course, it really comes down to quality of execution.
Wayne, do you have any form of "series diary" or wiki to keep characters and plot points etc in order?
 
do you have any form of "series diary" or wiki to keep characters and plot points etc in order?
Yes, having something to keep track of plot and characters is highly useful. My preference is to use a spreadsheet with three pages, plot, characters, and notes.

For the plot page, I have a row for each chapter and for each row, I keep columns for, Chapter Number, Description of 1-5 sentences, Character lists for each section in the chapter with the PoV character listed first, Setting for each scene, word count for the chapter, running word count for the book.

For the character page, I have a row for each named character (even incidental ones) or location. I have columns for the full character name including any title, a description, a characteristics list, challenges, backstory, and planned arc.

The notes page is pretty free form, but includes calculations like space station sizes and how long it takes to cover distances at walking or running speeds.

My process is evolving and now I usually fill in the chapter plot description right before I start writing the chapter. I create a character row just before I introduce the character in the story. I don't worry about writing anything down beyond what is in the current chapter that I'm writing (I think I'd like to, I just haven't figured out how to do it).

I know that description was a little confusing, so here are some extracts from one novel.
1675720962485.png


1675721015559.png
 
Yes, having something to keep track of plot and characters is highly useful. My preference is to use a spreadsheet with three pages, plot, characters, and notes.

For the plot page, I have a row for each chapter and for each row, I keep columns for, Chapter Number, Description of 1-5 sentences, Character lists for each section in the chapter with the PoV character listed first, Setting for each scene, word count for the chapter, running word count for the book.

For the character page, I have a row for each named character (even incidental ones) or location. I have columns for the full character name including any title, a description, a characteristics list, challenges, backstory, and planned arc.

The notes page is pretty free form, but includes calculations like space station sizes and how long it takes to cover distances at walking or running speeds.

My process is evolving and now I usually fill in the chapter plot description right before I start writing the chapter. I create a character row just before I introduce the character in the story. I don't worry about writing anything down beyond what is in the current chapter that I'm writing (I think I'd like to, I just haven't figured out how to do it).

I know that description was a little confusing, so here are some extracts from one novel.
View attachment 99679

View attachment 99680
thank you for sharing!
 
So I'm wondering if anyone here has aimed for this from the outset and made it work.
HB, I planned out Beastie that way (you'll be pleased to hear I've been thinking of going back to it and trying to make it work...). As a standalone but with a rough outline for two sequels that were NOT shaped as a trilogy, just as expanding that world and characters. Whether in its original format it had enough to entice readers to go for a sequel, well. You'd know that better than me. :LOL:

(Beastie = currently-trunked SF YA novel that HB has read.)
 
I'm working on a series of interconnected stand-alones right now. This is actually a pretty common setup in some subgenres. Each book having their own self-contained plot that resolves, but sharing the same world and possibly some of the same characters or other overlap and not necessarily having to be read in a particular order. Sometimes interconnected stand-alones may also have a 'big picture' plot that's subtly hinted at and comes into focus the books you get into it, but not always.

With another series I'm working on, there is the series arc, but also the individual book plotlines. The individual plotlines all fully resolve at the end of each book, but with each book also giving you more pieces of the larger plotline.

The multi-book, single overarching plot series structure is really just one possible way to write a series, but it's by no means the only one.
 
Second complete manuscript fulfilled the brief. What made it easy was that it was a murder mystery, which makes the resolution easy (we found the murderer) and the spinoff potential (people gonna keep killing people).

In terms of pure SFF adventure, maybe not so easy. Although I guess everything has series potential unless it ends with the bloody planet exploding.



Tbh sometimes I wonder about the whole "standalone with series potential". Fantasy at least runs on series. How many big name fantasy authors post-1977 started with a standalone? How many built their name on standalones? The only one I can think of is John M Ford, and he is 100% not as well know as he could be.
 

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