How to Balance Series Ambitions with Standalone Stories: Guest Post by Dan Moren (THE NOVA INCIDENT)
How to Balance Series Ambitions with Standalone Stories
by Dan Moren
Writing a series is a dangerous business. Sure, it might seem like great fun to spin tale after tale of a cadre of characters beloved by fan and critic alike…but that ignores many of the pitfalls and challenges that come along with creating a story that exceeds the confines of a single book.
For one: expectations. As readers, we’ve all picked up the first book in a new series, devoured it eagerly, then torn through a sequel only to discover that we’re now stuck in a waiting game as the author toils away on the next book in the sequence. Or, worse, to discover that the series was sadly abandoned, for one reason or another, perhaps never to be finished at all.
As a writer looking to embark upon creating a series, it’s worth planning ahead to avoid those kinds of eventualities, in so far as such a thing is possible. (The publishing business is, of course, infamously fickle.) But the key to navigating those risks is in achieving that trickiest of balances: telling a self-contained story within each instalment of a series while still crafting an overarching narrative.
Of course, such an undertaking comes with its own challenges. Some series really are just stories spread across several volumes—Lord of the Rings, for example, was literally one book divided into three parts. And some series, especially trilogies, are sold to publishers as a package, if not completely guaranteeing that the final instalment will see the light of day, at least reducing the chances that readers will be left hanging.
But for many other authors who are working book to book to tell a large-scale story, it’s important to balance that overall series idea with arcs that are satisfying in and of their own right.
Keep ’em separated
A book, in its traditional physical form, is basically the atomic version of a story: it’s self-contained, and it doesn’t require any other equipment (or specialized knowledge) to consume. When balancing a series with standalone instalments, it’s important to not make readers feel like they have to do homework in order to pick up a book and read it.
Of course, delineating the different volumes of a series means finding a way to draw that line, make it clear that each book stands on its own. This helps you reset the board for each instalment, easing in new readers while ensuring that those who are continuing on from previous volumes aren’t too bored by the rehashing of things they already know. There are plenty of techniques to help you do that, but here are just three of my favorites.
The time jump: It’s been three weeks/months/years/millennia since the previous instalment of the series (dealer’s choice). Not only does this provide a hard temporal break from the previous book, but it also lets circumstances change in the interim, meaning that even readers of a previous volume will have to be caught up. Two factions once at war might now be in an uneasy stalemate. Characters may have gone their separate ways, paving the way for their eventual reunion. A new threat may have arrived on the scene, necessitating new strategies to confront and combat it. A time jump is a great opportunity not only to draw in new readers, but to refresh the memory of those continuing on in the story.
The point of view shift: Readers may have gotten all comfy in the head of the series’ protagonist, but maybe their arc came to an end—or, at least, a convenient place to pause—in the previous volume. Which means it might be a good opportunity for a point-of-view shift: A new challenger has entered! It may be a brand new character to whom new and existing readers alike have to be introduced. Or it could be a side character from the first instalment who now gets their time to shine. (Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy uses this technique to great effect, and each volume only gets better.) Alternatively, add another POV character to the mix, or remove one from the previous volume. You can always bring those earlier characters back later—unless they’re dead, of course. And, who knows? Even then…
The miniboss: The heroes have triumphed over their opponent in the previous book, blowing up the planet-destroying battle station or defeating the alien trickster god…but wait, what’s this? They weren’t the real villain? Switching up antagonists is a great way to refresh the stakes of a story. Perhaps the heroes have pulled back the curtain to find their previous antagonist was themselves a pawn of a villain with even more nefarious plans—dare I say, series-level plans? A new threat means a new challenge for the protagonists and it lets new readers feel like they’re in on the story from the beginning. Heck, you can have a different miniboss for each instalment of a series, with leaving the big boss lurking behind it all until the moment’s right for them to step into the spotlight.
All of those techniques may be well and good when it comes to breaking up your books and keeping them delineated, but what about when it comes to gluing them together and telling that one overarching story? How do you balance that with telling the individual story arcs. So glad you asked: here’s a few ways to manage that series plot in standalone instalments
The background thread: Even as you’re spinning out the main plot of the story, you can take a moment or two to drop hints about the overarching story. Maybe a threat is massing in the background, but the protagonists are only hearing about it in whispers. Or perhaps a relationship between two characters is slowly souring, leading to a falling out that might propel the entire plot forward. In any case, while it might not be the main thrust of the story, it’s something that can be developed as a sub-plot in those moments while the main story is taking a breather. That way, when it comes to the forefront, it won’t feel like it’s arrived from nowhere.
Character development: So much of an ongoing series isn’t really about plot: it’s about the characters. We keep coming back because we enjoy spending time with these fictional people, no matter what befalls them. That’s why character development is one of the best ways to build a series, even when the plots might be more self-contained. More episodic series like many incarnations of Star Trek or murder mysteries like Laurie King’s Mary Russell adventures thrive on characters evolving and changing, and it’s one way for a writer of a series to keep the overarching story moving forward.
The cliffhanger: I’ve saved the riskiest technique for last. They say ‘always leave ‘em wanting more’ and the most literal option possible for that is to add a cliffhanger to one of your instalments. However, you probably want to wrap up the standalone of that particular volume before bringing an unresolved plot point into play in the last moments. Think of the ending of a season of television, when the plot of this year has reached its culmination, and everything seems great…only for there to be one last scene where events are thrown into question once again. Why is it risky? Well, if the series ends up not getting a subsequent instalment, readers may end up feeling unfulfilled…but the payoff is that they’ll really want to read it.
The Nova Incident by Dan Moren is the third book in the spy-fi spectacular series, The Galactic Cold War. When a bomb explodes in the bustling Commonwealth capital city of Salaam, responsibility is quickly claimed by an extremist independence movement. But after a former comrade, an ex-spy with his own agenda, is implicated in the attack, Simon Kovalic and his team of covert operatives are tasked with untangling the threads of a dangerous plot that could have implications on a galactic scale. And the deeper Kovalic digs, the more he’ll uncover a maze of secrets, lies, and deception that may force even the most seasoned spy to question his own loyalties.