My wife and I watched the first episode of TRUE DETECTIVE the other night (HBO original). The new series stars Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn. We were captivated with last year’s show by the same name, the one starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It was unique, moody and unnerving. We looked forward to every installment of the back-bayou, gritty Louisiana crime story. Great writing, acting, photography and setting. I haven’t formed a solid opinion of the new one yet, but I can tell you one thing: it is TOTALLY different from season one. I mean, other than the title, there is no resemblance to the first TRUE DETECTIVE. In fact, you could change the title to ANYTHING else and it would make no difference.
Don’t get me wrong. Farrell and Vaughn are great actors. In fact, they’re really movie stars that someone convinced to be on TV. And their acting is top drawer. I always enjoy it when a comic actor takes on a dramatic role and excels in it. Vince Vaughn does just that. And Colin Farrell has never let me down.
But watching the opening episode of TRUE DETECTIVE, season two got me thinking. As an author of thrillers, what’s the best choice for me—writing a series or a standalone? TRUE DETECTIVE is a series—that’s why there are two seasons with the same name. If it were the equivalent of a standalone, it would be called a movie. So as a writer, should I be writing a series or single novel? What are the pros and cons of series vs. standalone?
First let’s look at genre fiction (thriller, mystery, fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, police procedural, horror, romance, etc.). Genre fiction gives us both series and standalones. Which should I write?
Truth is, I’ve done both. My first published novel was THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (co-written with Lynn Sholes), the first of a 4-book series. Our fifth book was a standalone called THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. Both TGC and TPA went to #1 on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list. Now we’re finishing up THE TOMB, the last of a 3-book series. Next up will be a standalone. I believe both work for us.
But it’s important to see the pros and cons of the two. Feedback from our readers helped me put together these points.
Probably the single biggest advantage to a series, for the reader and writer, is that it’s comfort food for the imagination. Even though the story is a new one, it’s a chance to revisit an old friend(s)—the protagonist and repeat characters. For years, picking up a Clive Cussler or Terry Brooks novel always gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that I was back with my buddies. I knew those guys, trusted them, and couldn’t wait to see what they had gotten into this time. It was like meeting up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a year and catching up on the latest news.
Of course, every pro comes with a con. Writing a series means that every installment must be as good as or better than the last. No rehashing of a theme. No cookie cutter plots. No formulas. Readers must come away feeling their appetite for the the next adventure was satisfied, and they can’t wait for the next in the series.
Another con to writing a series is backstory. Can the reader pick up a book in the middle of the series and get enough backstory for it to make sense? Or do they have to start with book one? How much backstory does the author include in subsequent books without boring the dedicated series fan or confusing the mid-series pick-up reader?
Finally, what if a series goes too long? What if the protagonist keeps falling into the same old danger (formula) time after time? This can result in the B word: boring. You don’t want to go there.
The advantage of writing a standalone, especially if you are known as a series author, is it can bring on a breath of fresh air for you and the reader. You get to stretch your legs without the confines of your established characters, and your reader gets to see a new side of your talents. You get to try new bankid stuff, experiment with voice, tense, POV, etc. A standalone for a series author is an experimental science lab. Just don’t blow the place up and go too far over the line that your fans won’t even recognize you.
One interesting technique is to touch on something in your new book that appeared in a previous series. In THE SHIELD, book 2 of our Maxine Decker series, the OSI agent was interviewed by Cotten Stone, the heroine journalist from our first series. It can bring an unexpected smile to your reader’s face or produce enough intrigue that they will seek out the other books.
So whether you’re interested in writing a series or a standalone, think ahead to what might be the pros and cons once you’re done. And give the new season of TRUE DETECTIVE a try. It’s good if not different from its predecessor.
What do you think, Zoners? Do you prefer reading or writing a series or standalones?
I think a lot of this choice depends on the genre. My cozy readers love series. So do paranormal romance fans. I’ve done a series and stand-alones in scifi romance. I find that I get better mileage out of series, because once you hook the reader, they’re yours. But stand-alones do allow you to experiment and try something totally different. With book box sets being all the rage, think of tying a few of them together with a common theme and bundling.
Nancy, I’ve read your series and standalones, and you’re excellent at both.
It’s a great question, Joe. I do both. I know that I get a lot more email about series than stand alones, as in “When is the next one coming?” or “I hope you’re going to give us another.”
I know that John D. MacDonald, who wrote masterful stand alones, found his pot o’ gold in that long-running series featuring Travis McGee. If putting steak and champagne on the table is the motivation, then series writing is probably the way to go.
But I also have a bunch of stand alone concepts crying to get out. The nice thing about indie publishing is I can do whatever the heck I want to.
So I’m trying to follow Isaac Asimov’s advice, when he was asked what he would do if he knew he had just six months left to life: Type faster.
You’re right, Jim. Writers have to prioritize what helps bring in a paycheck. Still, we all get that urge to venture into unknown territory now and then just to quench our thirst.
Great question! And one I’ve been over analyzing as a writer recently. I write series, but I love reading stand alones, so, like Mr. Bell above, I’m considering some stand alone novels in my future.
Series writing is putting food on my table, but I also get emails from people telling me that they won’t purchase the first in my newest series until I have more out, because they don’t like the wait between books. (I’m making them wait a whole 6 months because I’m alternating between two series right now.)
Heather, thanks for stopping by TKZ and sharing your experiences and comments. When your fans email you with demands, that’s a great problem to have.
As a reader I haven’t found too many series that draw me in. I prefer big, high velocity thrillers that tie everything up at the end. (“Potboilers,” as Kris called them in her post yesterday.) I eagerly read anything new by an author I like, but I don’t look for more of the same story. I want him or her to give me a brand new story, new characters and new ideas, each time.
A brand new story with new characters and new ideas can be tough if a writer only pumps out standalones. One stumble can be costly. Most of my favorite authors mix it up. Of course there are exceptions. No matter what, it has to be a great story first.
I LOVE LOVE LOVE series. I fall in love with a character and can’t wait to see what they’re up to in the next book. (And I’ll note here that in romance, “series” doesn’t really mean “series” but rather books that connect to each other with repeating characters, but different protagonists in each.) In mysteries, it’s usually the same protagonist, and readers can watch the growth of the character, of relationships, and it’s like visiting a friend. Most of the mysteries on my bookshelves are series. But yes, for the author, it means keeping things fresh and moving forward, and I SO hear you on handling back story. I don’t like to step into the middle of a series. I want to follow along from day 1. And when I’m writing my mystery series, I want my readers to be able to read book 4 without it spoiling the first 3 books, all the while offering “insider” moments to readers who’ve read the others.
(Dare I tell you how challenged I was by your math captcha this morning. Subtraction AND double digits.)
Sometimes the captcha doesn’t add up, 🙂 Terry. Thanks for putting up with it and sharing your thoughts with us.
Joe, you set out clearly the pros and cons of “standalones” versus “series” in your excellent post.
Like James Scott Bell I write both. With my crime series, readers say things to me like, “Tom, tell me more about your cop character Matt Proctor in your next novel “, or “I find Azzra Mukherjee an intriguing character full of contradictions – let’s see more of her’. Standalones? With “Sarcophagus”, my feedback includes comments like, “…a fascinating insight into the post Chernobyl devastated and toxic landscape”.
As a writer, yes, I like to revisit my “old friends” in my crime series but boy! the thrill of heading into the unknown once more, staking out new territory, meeting “new friends”, introducing and sharing them with my readers. I believe mixing standalones with a series helps keep your writing fresh and avoids the potential to become stale; even, Heaven forbid – boring.
Totally agree, Tom. Thanks so much for dropping by TKZ.
My first book was a standalone, a coming-of-age story about a young lady runner. The second, more action/adventure for young ladies, was also a standalone. The problem with standalones for writers, as much as I like them both as a reader and writer, is that there is no immediate sales hook into the next book.
My current work is the first in a series, but also a different genre, one that expects series. The current plan is to finish the first book by the end of summer, and have a great start on the second while I shop the series concept. If I don’t have takers by the time the writing is complete, I’ll head to the indie side with it.
In the meantime, like Jim, I have standalones begging to be written, so I’ll work on two different books at the same time. Plus another non-fiction book that I’ll shuffle in when the opportunity presents itself.
Now, excuse me while I go follow Asimov’s advice and type faster.
Paul, sounds like you’re not afraid to experiment. Good luck placing book one in your new series.
As others have said, really interesting article and a great overview of the pros and cons.
As a reader I generally prefer books that are in a series to standalones, and it’s also what I’m most interested in writing. There’s that element of familiarity, having some idea what you will be reading going in, without knowing the specifics. I also tend to get attached to characters and fictional worlds, and enjoy following them, seeing them develop and grow over time. Then sometimes a story is so big that it takes a series to tell it properly (“The Lost Fleet” novels by Jack Campbell and the TV Series “Babylon 5” come to mind) or each book may be a self contained story whilst having elements that build to a bigger story (e.g. James Rollins “Sigma Force,” where each book is an adventure thriller in it’s own right, but gradually builds up a conflict in the background between Sigma and another organisation with usually opposing goals.)
But I do sometimes read standalone fiction if it’s by an author I like or the idea grabs my attention, and some of those can really stick in your memories. This is possibly partly because that is often the only story with those characters, so once you finish you know that is it. There can also be greater tension and a heightened sense of danger than you might get in a series, because while we all know they’re never going to kill off James Bond or Indiana Jones, you can’t really say the same for Joe Smith who is only in this novel.
(Couple of memorable standalones that spring to mind are “The Tsunami Countdown” aka “Rogue Wave” by former TKZ contributor Boyd Morrison and “Fade” by Kyle Mills. Both are by authors who I know more for their series, but in both cases these standalone novels are stories that couldn’t really be told using their usual characters.)
But for me the answer to the original question, which type should you write, is whichever one you want to write. Or both.
All the Best.
Oh and I love seeing characters crossover from different series when it fits the story. Simon Kernick’s Siege is really a standalone novel, but has a familiar face from one of his series turn up when you least expect it. And as I read James Rollins, Steve Berry and Brad Thor’s series, having characters from all three pop up in each other’s novels at one point was fun too.
All the Best.
I agree, Matthew. Boyd’s thrillers are terrific. We miss him. Now he’s off co-writing books with some guy named Clive Cussler.
Thanks, Joe, for another excellent article. I love series, both as a reader and aspiring author. As a reader, I am probably the author’s dream reader, because if I find a series that interests me, I feel compelled to start at Book 1, even if each book in the series can be read as a standalone. I like to revisit favorite characters. I am planning a series and working on the first book. I also like books that revisit a setting, but have different characters, like Stephen King does with various characters in Derry, Maine. Thanks for all your help, it is appreciated.
Glad to be of help, Rebecca. And we appreciate you stopping by TKZ.
I write stand alones that are set in the same town with some characters following from one book to the other. Always a new hero/heroine, though. Great post.
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Patricia.