Series, -Ogy, or Stand-Alone?

By John Gilstrap

I am often asked about the business and creative considerations of writing a thriller series as opposed to writing stand-alone thrillers.  The truthful answer is a shrug and a heartfelt “I don’t know.” But having written both over the course of my career, I guess I have some thoughts to share.

An -ogy is not a series.

A trilogy or a quintilogy is not a series.  It is a single story broken up into parts.  As I understand it, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was originally a single manuscript.  There being no market for a 900,000-word book, however, he broke the one story into multiple parts.  I don’t know if that story is true, but I like it because it proves my point.  In an -ogy, there’s no anticipation from the reader for a completed story at the end of any volume but the last one.

The Harry Potter saga is another example–one with which I’m more familiar because I actually read the books.  Not to be confused with Hobbitty stories, which I have not.  Book One of the septilogy (is that a word?) is dedicated mostly to establishing the wizarding world, along with establishing relationships between the kids.  The whole business of the Sorcerer’s Stone is more of a MacGuffin.  At the end of that volume, while there is a sense of continuing peril, Harry’s immediate world is stable.  Looking back on those books, I believe that Rowling wrote Sorcerer’s Stone in a way that it could have lived on as a stand-alone if the market had not embraced Harry and Hogwarts.

Beginning with Book Two, and continuing all the way through to the end, the Potter story was a continuous one.  Even though Harry resolved the immediate crisis of each book, the last pages always revealed more impending doom.  There was no real resolution.

A series is more episodic.

My Jonathan Grave thriller series is not a continuing story, but is rather a collection of stand-alone stories that involve recurring main characters.  Jonathan Grave’s character arc over the course of eleven books now is very long and slow, while the arcs of the characters he interacts with are completely developed within each book.  There are Easter eggs for readers who have read all the books in order, but I am careful to make each episode as fulfilling for a reader who picks up  Book Ten as their first exposure to the series as it is for a reader who’s been with me from the beginning.

Writers like the always-fabulous Donna Andrews write series that are driven as much by place as by characters.  The people in her fictional town of Caerphilly, Virginia, are a hoot, even though an extraordinary number of people are murdered there.

Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme solves a new crime by the end of every book.  While Rhyme’s medical progress as a quadriplegic is continually evolving from book to book, as is his relationship with Amelia, a new reader is well-grounded in any story, without benefit of having read the previous ones.

A stand-alone, well, stands alone.

When I finished Nathan’s Run, the story was over.  There was no place I could feasibly have taken Nathan or the other characters to tell a new story.  That was the case with each of the following three novels and, of course, with my nonfiction book.  I think the primary characteristic of a stand-alone is that “The End” means the end.  The character and story arcs have all been driven to ground.

A series takes planning.

When I was writing No Mercy, the first book in the Grave series, I knew in my heart that I had finally landed on a character who could support a series.  What I didn’t know was whether or not a publisher would buy it, and if they did, whether they’d support the idea of developing the one story into many.  Still, I made a conscious effort to plant as much fodder as I could for potential use in future stories.  For example:

  1. Jonathan is a former Delta Force operator, leaving the potential for stories dealing with his days in the Unit.
  2. His hostage rescue activities are a covert part of a legitimate private investigation firm that does work for some of the largest corporate names in the world.  This sets up potential stories set in the world of more common private investigators.
  3. Jonathan is the primary benefactor for Resurrection House, a school for the children of incarcerated parents.  When every student has parents with lots of enemies, there’s lots of potential for future stories.
  4. His home, Fisherman’s Cove, Virginia, is the town where he grew up.  This puts him in the midst of people who already know the darkest secrets of his childhood and accept him for who he is.  Or they don’t.  This sets up the potential for small  town conflicts.

There are many more such seeds, but there’s no need to highlight them all.  The point is that unlike a stand-alone, a series needs to be engineered not just for the current book, but for future books as well.

What do y’all think?  Do these resonate with you?  What have I forgotten?

And finally, tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the United States.  For those who celebrate, I wish you a wonderful time with whatever your holiday traditions may be.  For those of you who read this from somewhere other than America, I wish you a great day with lots of high-calorie food and televised sports!

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

11 thoughts on “Series, -Ogy, or Stand-Alone?

  1. This is useful.

    I have a couple of projects that I originally saw as trilogies, but when I tried to outline them, they didn’t fall that way. This week I decided to just write them and see how they fall later.

    Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

  2. Nice follow-up to yesterday’s discussion.

    I’ve long felt that some stories do not lend themselves to sequels. My theory is that in those cases the story’s magic lies in its unique concept. Too often sequels amount to a weak attempt to capitalize on the success of the original, without recognizing the uniqueness of the concept. Think _Legally Blond_ or _Princess Diaries_.

    In each case, the character, the plot and the “joke” or revelation are intimately related, once-in-a-lifetime events. Elle surprises us by showing depths of character and ability that we’re set up to believe she’d never have. Once we know she has them, we can’t be surprised when she uses them. So what’s gained by putting her into a worn concept of fighting for a cause against corrupt politicians? Mr. Smith went to Washington too many movies ago.

    In these stories you can’t reprise what was magic in the original, which was a unique combo of character and plot. It sounds like this is the case with your _Nathan’s Run_.

    • Dude, they made a legally blonde two? That’s ridiculous.

      I liked princess diaries two, because it had a different goal than the first movie. The first was a coming of age, the second was pure comedy. I think sequals can work very well that way; it’s if you try to craft the same type of story with the same goal that make them flop.

  3. My classification system is stand alones, series, connected books, and spinoffs.

    In the romance world, which I delve into with my romantic suspense books, the term “series” usually refers to connected books. Players from previous books take center stage in future ones. Suzanne Brockmann’s an excellent example.
    I wasn’t aware of this “rule” when I started because I’d never read a romance, so I followed up with the same hero and heroine in a second book, which would make those two a legitimate “series”.
    My mysteries fall more into the series category – same protagonist throughout, but like you, I want each to stand on its own.

  4. I think Eric hits on a very valid point, “Too often sequels amount to a weak attempt to capitalize on the success of the original…” I also find in the world of online only, new authors, book one is really more of a teaser for the much more expensive book two. Regretfully I have found more than a few books where the “whodoneit” reveal is in book two for $9.99. Sorry, each book needs to stand on its own.

    That is a trap I have found with some series. I prefer each book be strong enough to be read by itself. I could read Potter book 3 without the first two and be able to follow along. I would miss somethings, and might want to go back, but I shouldn’t have to start each series at the beginning. I might need a few years to catch up on the Sue Grafton alphabet that way.

  5. I hadn’t really thought of the difference between “-ogys” and series like that, but now that I do, it makes perfect sense. I write two series and both are open-ended with some continuing lines and even some overlap. (The main characters in each series are first cousins.) I’ve never thought of a finite arc to multiple books, which is probably why each series continues to present ideas to me.

  6. My first several novels were all stand alones with recurring characters but completely different stories. A couple years ago though I started what was planned as a single book, ICE HAMMER. It is not a series, and was never intended to be. I planned it out on a roll of butcher paper, the parallel timelines of three sets of characters ended up taking over fifteen feet of paper and turned into a 300K word story. Broken into a trilogy of 100K word novels it turns out just right.
    A series is, for me at least, not in the offing. Too many chances for me to break something in the storyline and get readers up in arms. That said, I have at least a few more -ogy stories that are already outlined as well, some even with characters from my existing recurring once again.

    • Wish we could edit comments….
      I meant to say, ‘a serious series is not in the offing”.
      My Leperchaun tennants have been working on their own series that will eventually have more than one book in it. The Brothers Four is definitely a series with both book specific individual stories and an ongoing core story that carries through every book.
      But it is silly and not a serious series of any sort.

  7. Great post with perfect timing for me as I finalize the concepts and structure my next works.

    Some observations and muddying of the waters from my (Indie) side…

    While the “Hunger Games” is a true trilogy to me (and it’s sold that way, i.e., a story broken into three parts), take a look at something like Ken Follett’s “Century Trilogy.” This is more of a series to me rather than a trilogy. And, in fact, Amazon sells it as a series. (NOTE: Amazon has its own rules about what qualifies as a series, which is important for us Indies) Maybe this applies more to multi-generational sagas, as some historical fiction is, but I was able to read these Follett books almost as stand-alones (haven’t even purchased Book 3 yet!).

    Also, I have a single-generation saga (“The Manhattan Series”), which is an installment story (in 4 parts) that would seem to be a quadrology by the definition here, but I don’t consider it that; I call it a series, as does Amazon. (It then turns into an updated and expanded omnibus—“New York 1609”)

    So bottomline for me: it depends. But good food for thought, and again, perfect timing!

  8. I really appreciate your sharing examples of how you planted some things about your character’s life that served as fodder for future stories. It really helped to visualize the examples and help me think about my own character’s possibilities in this regard.

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