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Do You Want a Stroll or a Road Trip? On Reading Standalones and Series

I’m a creature of habit. That may be one reason why my list of favorite books includes so many series: once I’ve gotten comfortable with a setting and a cast of characters, I’m inclined to settle down in their world for as long as I can. Fortunately, long series are a pretty common element of epic fantasy, which by definition encompasses big stories; the tale I’m telling is currently slated to span ten books before it’s done. I’m the sort of person who’ll never roll my eyes upon hearing that a beloved series has expanded to encompass another book. And yet, when I’m testing out a new author, I’m inclined to look for standalones.

Of course, this is at least in part for efficiency reasons: if I’m unsure about an author, it’s easier to get a sense of their storytelling skills if I can see how they plot out a whole arc. But I think the main reason is because the big stories told by series have at least as much potential to let down their readers as they do to bring joy.

On the simplest level, this is because the nature of series writing leaves the author with many more traps to avoid. If you’re writing a series, whether you’re telling a succession of effectively standalone tales like the ones in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files or Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books or, like Stephen King in The Dark Tower or NK Jemisin in The Inheritance Trilogy, a story that’s basically one long novel stretched over a few thousand pages, each book needs to be crafted individually. Whether individual volumes are meant to stand on their own or not (which is a different discussion), readers come into a series expecting that each volume will have its own plot arc, its own mini-journey, and in all but a few of the most loosely connected examples, it’s also expected that each book will contribute something to the overarching plot of a bigger story. That’s something most series readers love and look forward to; it also requires authors to carry two different plot valences in their heads from the very beginning, and means that the odds of writing yourself into a corner go up exponentially. If JK Rowling had decided two-thirds of the way through her tale that Harry Potter shouldn’t live with his horrible relatives anymore, she would’ve had to jump through more hoops to get him away from them than if she still had the whole story sitting in front of her, unpublished and accommodating.

Besides the problem of juggling plots, there’s also the trouble of reader expectation. Readers who discover a series early in its publication history have lots of time between volumes to grow attached to characters, to gossip about plot twists and dream up the endings they want for “their story” – and sometimes, the ending the author chooses isn’t the one you’d have picked. This happened for me with Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, a guilty-pleasure choice of mine where I reached the final book having read and reread the others until I had sections nearly memorized, and then was left cold by how the author opted to end her story.

Obviously, the ways reader expectations are developed have changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet; George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books might be a too-obvious example of this, where any fan who wanders onto the discussion boards almost can’t help but be prematurely spoiled about the final picture Martin’s been slowly laying out with hints and prophecies. I’ve heard more than one fan say that if Character X ends up proving to be aligned with Interest C, as some readings of the clues suggest, they’re declaring the final books non-canonical (in the same way some people have done with the Star Wars prequels, or the new Star Trek movies). Giving fans more time with a story, and letting the anticipation build for its conclusion, opens the door to disappointment that can’t be there in the same way for something wholly contained in a few hundred pages.

In fact, time presents a whole set of problems for series writers. Sometimes, an author’s voice shifts from the first book to the last on a path that readers don’t want to follow. I had a difficult time with the last trilogy in Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange series for this reason; I found the final books, with their more “modern” slang and their constant references to heroes of old, to read like a caricature of what I loved in the earlier trilogies, and they didn’t find a permanent home on my shelves. Sometimes, as with Melanie Rawn’s Exiles trilogy, an author loses the muse that was whispering that story in their ear, and moves on to other projects: while I’m the first to agree with the argument that authors, as artists, should write what they want, and stop when they want (as Neil Gaiman memorably put it in a post on the subject, “George RR Martin is not your bitch”), I do understand the impulse to avoid all but completed series to avoid being left stranded in mid-stride. And (most) finally, like Robert Jordan/James Rigney, an author might die with their story unfinished. I’m not a big enough fan of the Wheel of Time series to have read the new books Brandon Sanderson authored using Rigney’s notes; my impression is that many fans think they’re better than they might otherwise have been (review links to io9 and includes spoiler warnings for the final book), but I’m sure there are others in the fan base who feel the story couldn’t truly be finished without Rigney there to write it.

And so, in short, it seems like series offer more risks to the reader, extra disappointment on a whole range of levels. There are extra responsibilities in place for the author who wants to write good series fiction; first, the responsibility of making sure that the seeds you plant in early books are tracked, of figuring out whether you want your books to have a grand arc beyond the individual volumes and of what pieces of that arc you want to fit into the smaller stories. As a reader and a writer, I’d also argue authors have some responsibility to make each volume stand as a complete story on its own. I don’t mean that readers should be able to dive into the middle of the series, but I don’t like cliff-hanger endings between volumes, especially when there’s going to be years until the next one’s released (I nearly turned my back on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy after the way the first book ended). Series have to do more work than standalone books to succeed in the story they’re telling: there are some authors who I count among my favorites, authors whose standalone work I read over and over again, who seem to choke when they’re faced with stretching a story over multiple books. Series can be tricky.

But when they work, in my view, they allow modern readers to fall into one of the best aspects of storytelling, the kind of storytelling that’s been around for a long, long time – of falling in with characters from legend, characters whose adventures are legion, and starting down the road with them knowing that there’s a long, long way to go. That’s why I’m writing one, and why I continue to embark on road trips with other authors familiar or otherwise.

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  1. Elaborating on a Promise: A Tale of Series Fiction and Two Jo(e)s | Sociologist Novelist

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