Saturday, September 8, 2012

Standalone vs Series

By Vicki Delany

There are, basically, two types of mystery novels: standalones, in which characters appear once, never to be seen again, and series, in which characters feature in book after book.

Some authors like to write standalones, some like to write series books. Me, I can’t decide.

So I do both.

You can’t beat a series for getting to know the characters: the details of their personalities, their quirks, their families and relationships, lovers gained and lost, parents dying, children born. As well as the lives of their families and friends and enemies and the community in which they live.

But when it comes to real personal once-in-a-lifetime drama, you need a standalone.

After all, how many times can one person have a life-changing experience?

A standalone novel gives the protagonist that one opportunity to achieve great things; to have that grand adventure; to meet the everlasting love of their life; to conquer evil, once and for all. In a standalone, the characters face their demons and defeat them. 

Or not. 

My first books were standalone novels of suspense. In Scare the Light Away the main character confronts, for one last time, the debris of her traumatic childhood. In Burden of Memory, the protagonist faces down the ghost of a past that is not hers, but is still threatening what she holds dear.

In a series book, the central character, or characters, confront their demons, but they do not defeat them. Their weaknesses, all their problems, will be back in the next book. In each story the series character stands against, and usually defeats, someone else’s problem or society’s enemy, but she or he moves only one small step towards the resolution of their own issues, if at all.

After the two standalones, I began work on the Constable Molly Smith series. I like that the series format allows me to slowly and gradually explore all of those people’s complicated relationships while at the same time the police are working to find a killer. But series novels present difficulties to the author. The books in a crime series mustn’t flow into each other so much that new readers will be lost as to what’s going on. It can be a balancing act, to create a plot that’s self-contained within each individual book, but still allows the characters to grow and to change over time. To give readers who’ve come into these people’s lives in book five enough information that they know who’s who and a bit of their history, but not so much the long-time reader gets bored at the repetition.

It can be a challenge to keep the main character interesting and growing and changing but to do it so slowly that the reader’s interest in the character can be maintained over several books and several years. I can think of several series that I abandoned because the character kept on doing the same old, same old, and I think of Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks, who’s now in his twentieth book and as fascinating a character as ever. Perhaps realizing that Banks might grow stale, Robinson cleverly introduced a secondary protagonist, Annie Cabot, but Banks still is the heart of the books.

I deliberately made Molly Smith young when the series begins with IN THE SHADOW OF THE GLACIER – she’s twenty-six – hoping to be able to watch her grow as a police officer and as a woman.

After five Molly Smith books, for my newest book, MORE THAN SORROW, I went back to a standalone. All new characters, a new setting, a different style of writing.  MORE THAN SORROW is a contemporary thriller with a historical background, using the dual narrative format – two storylines running throughout that merge at the end.

The protagonist in MORE THAN SORROW is Hannah Manning, once an internationally recognized journalist but now a woman suffering from traumatic brain injury that occurred during an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Hannah is an ‘unreliable narrator’ as her brain injury has left her in pain, confused, lethargic. When she begins experiencing visions of a woman in a long dress emerging from the icy mist of the root cellar, Hannah doesn’t know if the woman is real. Or the product of a damaged brain. And, she wonders, which would be worse?  She finds comfort in the quiet company of Hila Popalzai, an Afghan refugee living on an adjacent farm, a woman also marked by war. When Hila disappears, and Hannah can’t account for her time, not even to herself, old enemies begin to circle.

Hannah would not work as a series protagonist. In MORE THAN SORROW she has to confront her enemies: human as well as her own medical condition.
If she fails to defeat them, she will not get a second chance.

Series or standalone? Ultimately it is up to you and me, as readers, to decide.

I suspect we’ll vote for both.
Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most varied and prolific crime writers.  Her popular Constable Molly Smith series (including In the Shadow of the Glacier and Among the Departed) have been optioned for TV by Brightlight Pictures.  She also writes standalone novels of psychological suspense, as well as a light-hearted historical series, (Gold Digger, Gold Mountain), set in the raucous heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush. Vicki’s newest book is More than Sorrow, a standalone novel published by Poisoned Pen Press.  In a starred review, Library Journal called the book, “a splendid Gothic thriller.”

Having taken early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world, Vicki is settling down to the rural life in bucolic Prince Edward County, Ontario where she rarely wears a watch.
Visit Vicki at,, and twitter: @vickidelany. She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave


Sheila Connolly said...

Vicki, I think you've defined the differences well. A stand-alone allows more intensity because it's a one-shot opportunity, and the stakes have to be higher. A series must have an inherently slower pace.

One question I wrestle with is how to create a series protagonist who is clearly flawed at the beginning, which leaves room for him or her to grow over the course of a series. But you can't make that character too unappealing up front because then the readers won't care and come back for more. How do you balance those needs?

Vicki Delany said...

That's a tough one for sure Sheila. I tried to make Molly a good person but a green, inexperienced cop. She makes lots of mistakes in the first books, but starts getting better with experience. I guess the reader has to believe they can realistically change - after all "once a jerk, always a jerk"

Kaye George said...

Just so you keep writing both, Vicki.

I think stand alones would be waaay easier to write, but that there's more reader appeal for series. I haven't tried a stand alone, though. Maybe some day!

Bev Myers said...

Nice post, Vicki. I'm so stuck in that series mode, always balancing the needs of the book against the ongoing series arc. I think I might have a stand alone in me. Someday.

Dru said...

Great post Vicki.

I like reading series because of the relationship you gain with the protagonist.

I like reading stand-alones for the same reason i.e. the relationship, but knowing that the ending will be final and worthy.

Steve Liskow said...

I agree with Sheila that a stand-alone allows more intensity (and maybe higher stakes) because there's no guarantee that your protagonist will live through it. A series character is going to survive.

I intended my first book as a stand-alone, but a few reviewers and readers told me they wanted more about the characters. I've had to struggle a little to establish a continuing relationship between the people as the series goes on.

The traditional wisdom is still that you build readership with a series because it helps brand you, but I also write both (my newest book is a stand-alone). Sometimes, you want the complete closure a standalone has to offer.

Vicki Delany said...

Isn't it nice that we don't have to choose. Tana French is combining the two ideas - she has a secondary character from one book become the protagonist in the next.

Kaye George said...

Thanks for that reminder! Yeah, I could maybe to that.

cncbooks said...

As a reader, I'm squarely on the fence ;-) I love series but also appreciate a good standalone. Trouble is, when it's a REALLY good standalone, I want more and I hate that I'm not going to get it.

Lelia Taylor

Vicki Delany said...

What a dilemma, Leila!

The Daring Novelist said...

Here's my feeling as a reader:

I am attracted to a body of work. I generally start reading a writer when I can find a series with 6-7 books, and I'll usually start reading with a later book, to see if I like where things are going.

But once I have decided I like a writer, I'll read everything. The stand alones and other series, and books in other genres, and early books which maybe aren't as well written.

So to catch me as a reader it takes time anyway -- you might as well write everything in your imagination when it wants to be written.

As a writer... I have dozens of series in my head. And some stand alone ideas, although those will nearly always turn into a series. If not with the same characters, then at least with similar characters rebuilt from scratch for a series type story.

I think to grow as writers, we have to write different things. It keeps life interesting.

(Also, just a note: I always consider those "life changing" standalone stories as more mystery suspense than as straight mystery. In the old days that was a more common and defined genre than now.)

Vicki Delany said...

Daring (is that your real name?), I agree. I consider my standalones to be suspense. The mystery is sometimes only secondary, the way to add stress to reveal characters' characters. I think of suspense as opposed to mystery when the protagonist isn't trying to solve any crime, they really just want to be left along but find themselves caught up in events beyond their control. Thanks for your input to the discussion.

Sandra Parshall said...

I love the emotional intensity of standalone suspense novels and seldom find it in series books. (I should point out,I guess, that I intended my first published book to be a standalone but ended up writing a series around Rachel, the protagonist.)

Nicci French -- the pen name of a husband/wife writing team -- has written a string of bestselling standalone suspense novels that I loved. (My favorite is The Secret Smile.) Now they've started a series that will be more of a conventional mystery series. with a quirky female psychiatrist helping the police investigate crimes. The first one is okay, but I didn't love it, and it seemed such a departure from the kind of Nicci French book I've come to expect. I hope it doesn't mean the end of her/their standalones.

I hope you'll continue doing standalones too, Vicki. You're a talented writer.

Vicki Delany said...

Thanks, Sandy. And back at cha. And thanks so much for hosting me here at Poe.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thank you for a great post, Vicki. See you back here next year?

Darla said...

Just came across this blog -- wonderful post! I'll be back... :-)