Stand Alone Complex

Why are so many books turned into series or as Julia Eccleshare asks it, why are there so few standalone books?

I’ve talked previously about series in which the first book is the best the series has to offer. Some first books standalone because they were written without a series in mind. Other first books set up the premise for the books that follow and do not necessarily have a satisfactory ending. This is not bad in and of itself, especially if you come to the series long after it is published and are able to plow through the successive cliff-hangers without interruption.

What interested me about Eccleshare’s piece was that the main disadvantage of series is the difficulty in picking up a random book in the sequence and reading without going back to the beginning. How can the middle titles of a story work better for those who haven’t been on the journey from the beginning, and yet still provide depth to those who have?

To answer this question we should consider two kinds of series, episodic and epic.

Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum books are a good example of an episodic series. While reading the previous books sometimes enriches the experience, it is by no means required that you read book 1 before reading book 13. Each story or mystery is fairly self contained, and the romantic triangle in each story progresses at such a slow pace that it never actually resolves. It’s unlikely Stephanie will ever choose which of the men in her life to be with, and if she does it will be the last book, so it doesn’t really matter from book to book who she’s with. An older example is Agatha Christie’s Poirot which, while it does have a timeline and final book, does not build much on events that have happened before. Neither of these series are hard to drop in on, but the drawback is that while the individual “case” can be interesting, the main characters don’t change a whole lot.

Epic series can be any length, but their primary feature is that events in later books build or depend on events in the previous books. Characters can change drastically over the course of the series, or even spawn new generations. Often there is a final confrontation the series is moving toward and the middle books are the bumps in the road on the way to that final destination. Depending on the author’s intention the books can all be considered part of one epic storyline, or self contained episodes taking place in the same universe (i.e. a series is 7 books long but the story is really in 3 chunks, Books 1-3, 4-5 and 6-7). It is these “chunked” epic series that I think are the ones with the best possibilities for dropping in mid-stream.

This blurs the lines a little between series and universe. The chunking example from above is the rough structure of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. All take place in the same universe over a roughly 500 year span of time. Additionally, however, there are connections to other Asimov series (his Empire and Robot novels), that form a larger timeline. Tolkien is the same way, with The Hobbit as sort of the gateway drug to The Lord Of The Rings, but with other books and notes taking place in middle earth as well. An author who writes in a universe (in my case the Trubeverse, jk), can have many series or standalone books that all play by the same rough set of rules, and so are easier to pick up outside of the “canon” order, but provide a rich tapestry when read all together. The Sandman graphic novel series is another good example of this type.

The antithesis of this is the fractured series. This is a sub-type of the epic series, but there is really only one story being told. A fractured series could be restructured into one long book, and may have even been originally written that way. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy might be one of these, though it is kind-of on the line. From what I understand (and please correct me if I am wrong), The Hunger Games is definitely an example of this fractured type, 3 books that really could’ve been just one long book. This is the type that is probably the most frustrating to pick a random book out of order since it is quite literally the middle of one story.

There are other series that fall kind-of in the middle of these two, that have episodes that build toward an epic confrontation, with each successive book becoming more dependent on knowledge of what has come before (Harry Potter might be a good example of this).

I personally love universe books. It allows you to form a comfortable set of assumptions about the world you are playing in, the 3 Laws of Robotics or the Kingdom of Manticore, but still tell unique stories about the individuals living in that world. Complex histories can be constructed which can be resolved and tie threads together from many directions, not just one linear fractured one. I’m working as a writer to form my own universe (or maybe a couple), and I love thinking about the different periods of times and how they might eventually tie together.

What kinds of series do you like to read? Do you prefer a more episodic or epic storyline? Are there other categories of series you can think of?

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