In some genres, namely fantasy and science fiction, there is perhaps nothing rarer than the standalone novel. A novel with no sequels, planned or occurring spontaneously, epic or procedural—just a single story, standing alone, forever.
There’s no inherent reason for this. Mostly, Tolkien is the cause—though Lord of the Rings was originally a standalone itself, it was so large that the publisher broke it into three, and thus trilogies have dominated fantasy ever since.
This is not a criticism of series—I love them. Getting to spend a great deal of time with characters and places you love is a joy, and many of my favorite books are series. And some stories are just too large for a single book (or, in the case of more procedural stories, are just more fun with additional entries).
But there’s something about the market in place for series that I feel a bit… off for contemplating a standalone novel. Common wisdom indicates that debut authors are better off selling a standalone, but the overblown success of debut trilogies and more suggest otherwise.
Beyond the cold commercialism of a series (with a built-in audience, and time to grow), there’s a certain comfort in knowing what you’ll write and publish next. If you manage to gain any audience at all with your first work, throwing something completely different at them the next time around could kill any momentum you had. And with a series, you have certain elements of character, setting, and formula to depend upon both in the writing process and in the expectations of your audience.
But, to be fair, those expectations can be limiting. A standalone can express the height of your ideas, without being pumped full of filler and expanded well beyond effectiveness. It can also allow you to work on a multitude of ideas, not bound by the continuation of a single one. Yet that means having to come up with constant new ideas, new characters…
So which is better? The comfort and limitations of a familiar series, where the next book is built in and the only new ideas are the details? Or the wild and adventurous free-for-all of standalones, where your next book could be anything—but your audience may not follow?
Ultimately, it has to be about the story. Whether you have a large enough story that you see a series from the start, or you have a character who is begging for serial adventures, or you write one story and then see potential for more—if you want to write a series, do it. But if your story only gets weaker the more it’s stretched, if its thematic and character arcs do not extend beyond a single narrative, if you want to express a single idea in a unified reading experience—then a standalone may be the better choice.
And a great standalone trumps a shoddy series any day.