What makes a series better (or worse) than a standalone story?
I often think about this when I am writing, since both of my major projects right now - Shadow’s Advent and Nightshade - are each a series. Archangel is the first of (so far) six novels. Nightshade is the first story, now three strong, in the Nightshade series, which does not yet have a finite lifespan. I seem to have a tendency towards writing series, though don’t think that I have forsaken the standalone story. Each style of writing holds its own merit. So let’s compare what makes a series great and what makes a standalone just as good.
There are some obvious standouts for a series. The first is the room it gives an author and a reader to explore the world that it is set in. It is a simple fact that you will not be able to fit everything you want in your standard 80-120k word count book. You might cut out entire storylines to make your novel the best that it can be. But a series lets you visit those that might have been cut, or to visit new stories, places, and characters that will be welcomed additions to your story.
A series also lets you continue a story beyond its normal limits. Take Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, for example: the first three books happen right after one another, but the fourth book and the ones following it take place literally hundreds of years after the end of the first trilogy. Such a jump in a single novel would be tough to pull off, making an unnatural, clunky break in the story. But by having multiple books, the jump in time can be pulled off masterfully (and is done so in the case of Mistborn).
Finally, and importantly in an economical sense, a series is a surefire way for an author to have a more successful career. While a repertoire of standalone novels can support an author, a series can attract new fans which will generate readers of multiple books (assuming, of course, that the series is good!). That, in turn, can generate a stronger, more invested fan base. You don’t need to look far to see how some of the biggest fandoms have created whole worlds around a series of books, making it lucrative for the author and much more entertaining for all involved.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t drawbacks to writing a series, either.
A series can sometimes go on for too long. An author might get caught up in the success of their series and not know when to stop, ultimately making sequels hurt the overall story. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had a positive reception, but many believe that it was an unnecessary addition, especially the way it was written as a play. Quantity never beats out quality.
So with all those positive aspects, why would anyone choose to write just one novel?
First of all, not every story needs to be drawn out into multiple books. It is perfectly reasonable to have a tale begin and end within the confines of a lone book. In fact, most genres actually play to this strength. Mystery, romance, general fiction, horror, crime - these all tend to have more standalone books than series. That is not to say that series do not exist in these genres, just that they are not as common. Genres such as fantasy and science fiction play more naturally to a series, as they usually build their own worlds, religions, customs, etc. from scratch. But most genres don’t need the author to create a world - some of the best stories take place in our own.
Where a series might get out of control and end up diluting a story, having a single novel forces the author to edit their work, meaning that only the very best makes the cut. While we’d like to believe that only the highest quality story makes it past an author and editor (and more), the truth is that this is just not the case. Especially in series that keep going because of commercial success, a single novel cannot rely on the merits of its prequels and sequels and thus must shine on its own.
Finally, a standalone novel - if written well - gives you a definitive, satisfying ending. Unless the author tells their readers, you will never know when a series is wrapping up. So while each installment will have its own ending, the real ending - the satisfying, grand ending - is a mystery as to when we will get it. And having to wait years for the ending can be unbearable, especially when compared to the more readily available satisfaction of a single novel.
Even after listing all of these pros and cons, I can’t really say which I prefer between a series and standalone novel. I know that I prefer a series in fantasy, my prefered genre. But when reading my other favourite, horror, I only want to read the individual books and have almost no interest in a series.
Be sure to leave a comment below to let me know which you prefer, or when you prefer one to the other. Did I miss anything in my comparison? Or do you disagree with anything? I would love to hear from you!
As always, feel free to continue the conversation or reach out to me. And have a great weekend!