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:
- Jonathan is a former Delta Force operator, leaving the potential for stories dealing with his days in the Unit.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!