Of Arcs and Standalones, Part 5: Surprise #5--Mission Impossible: Standalone Series Stories
This is the eleventh of fifteen posts dealing with surprising things I learned in the course of writing a science fiction series.
We've covered series and story arcs and how to establish them early in the writing process. Now let's talk about the fifth surprise I had about writing this genre after more than 20 years as a published author: That stories with Overarching Series that are so dependent on series arcs running throughout each book in the series just might break an author's ability to provide standalone series stories.
In the literary world, "standalone" has two meanings:
1) A standalone story can refer to a work of fiction that has no relationship with any other piece of fiction and doesn’t fit into a series. In other words, a standalone story stands alone without ties to other books. A standalone story resolves all the plots and subplots specific to that work within that work. The story is encapsulated within a single volume.
2) A standalone story can also mean that readers don't have to read the other books in the series in order to understand it. That's the definition we're focusing on here. Based on that definition, a standalone is a book that has all the story threads tied up logically at the end and the reader isn’t left hanging on any story or series arc points.
What makes standalone stories nearly impossible to have within an Overarching Series is, as the name implies, the overarching series arc or arcs. In previous chapters, we discussed how story arcs are short-term while series arcs are long-term. The series arc is introduced (but not tied up) in the first book in a series. That arc is continued in all the middle books, each one adding something new and critical to that overarching conflict so the stakes are undeniably raised with every subsequent installment. That series arc is only resolved in the final book that completes the series. That's what keeps readers following along from one book to the next. This is acceptable because the story arc in the individual books has been resolved, and the reader can leave the story with a sense of closure, satisfaction, and certainly anticipation for the next book in the series because you’ve given them something (in the form of series arc plots) to look forward to for the future.
Mystery writer Luisa Buehler so eloquently says that a story arc resides within each book, and each book resides within a series arc. “Think of an umbrella covering characters who are each holding their own umbrella. For me, it’s important that each book’s story can stand alone because that’s how the story from the first book can still live in the last book.”
In the past 25 years, I've written 16 series with only a small handful of stories with no affiliation to any of my other books. During all that time, my goal as a writer who mainly writes series verses single titles had always been to offer standalone stories with each and every installment of a series. That readers didn't need to read the others in the series to make sense of each installment--and could even read them out of order!--was a point of pride for me. Imagine my stunned face when I finished writing the first book of the Arrow of Time Chronicles and realized that, while most of the story arcs came to a natural resolution, the series arcs were still hanging out there unresolved. With a series arc so sprawling and complicated, installment standalones quickly became a mission impossible. The nature of the major and minor series arcs I'd devised dictated that those long-term plot threads became the backbone of every single story in that series. There was no way those could be resolved in the first, second, or even the third book in the series (hence the requirement for a fourth and final volume). At the end of Book 1, the series arcs left behind fiery trails of suspense and dread for what might happen in the future. That meant I was forced to end the first three books in the series with something I had avoided almost entirely in the 20 years I'd been writing at that point: Dirty, rotten, unforgiveable cliffhanger endings! Well, actually not quite that horrifying. At the very least, they included series arc sequel hooks at the end of all the books in the series other than the last. But let's talk about cliffhanger endings in general before we establish that the Overarching Series will almost always include a milder version of them in the installments.
In case you've been living in a pocket dimension unconnected to the real world all your life, a cliffhanger is basically a method in which the main character(s) are left in precarious situations at the end of a story and the outcome of that situation will continue to be in doubt until and unless there's another installment. In most situations, the purpose of this method, naturally, is to leave the reader dying to know what happens next. In fact, it's thought that the term originated with Thomas Hardy’s serialized novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, in which Hardy left one of the main characters literally hanging off the edge of a cliff. This led to the archetypal cliffhanger in Victorian prose and all serial writers began to use it--in many cases, even if they didn’t quite agree with the theory. One such writer in that time period rightly disapproved since the use of this suspense violated “all proper confidence between the author and his reader".
To this day, cliffhangers are hotly debated subjects. Yes, a cliffhanger is like the epitome of a page-turner...only it comes at the end of a book, thereby denying the reader resolution and, as a consequence, mitigating satisfaction with loose ends tying up. Instead, cliffhangers build stressful anticipation and the opposite of relief--dread. Most readers and writers cast a disapproving eye on stories with these endings because it violates the unspoken promise of a proper conclusion for each story, leaving behind the bitter aftertaste of being cheated.
As an author of Standalone Series throughout most of my career, all I could see were the disadvantages to cliffhangers, largely because as a reader myself I wasn't fond of them. It's frustrating and unfair to force a reader to wait--possibly indefinitely--for all threads in the story to effectively reach resolution in the next dubious installment. The publisher might close up shop, postpone the release of a book in a series, or grow bored or disillusioned with continuing the series, the author, and/or the genre. The author might become sick or keel over, or get excited about some other series or story they're working on and never come back. An example that comes instantly to my mind--that's how memorable the first two offerings were--is Dean Koontz, who has to this day never finished his Moonlight Bay Trilogy (Book 1 was published in 1998, Book 2 in 1999). And I'll never forgive him until he does because those first two books were mind-blowing…even as I grudgingly understand as an author how hard it is to get back into a story you haven't visited for countless years. In his case, close to 25.
Few readers want to wait a year or more to find out the conclusion of a story, if it even is in the next book in that series since most series are at least three books long and frequently many more. Let's face it, most readers will probably have forgotten what happened in the original story and, if the time lag is a long one, they may no longer even have that book to refer back to. Also consider that a cliffhanger might, and frequently does, present a situation in which the reader is so desperately anticipating the sequel, the delivery may be a disappointment and can’t possibly live up to what it was building toward.
Long story short, cliffhangers suck. A lot of people believe they can never be justified because they come instilled with disrespect and unfairness--and authors lead the pack of in terms of feeling swindled. Speculative fiction writer Margaret L. Carter says, “I feel upset, sometimes to the point of outrage, when a novel in a series ends on a cliffhanger. With the long time span that usually intervenes between the publications of successive books, that trick doesn’t seem fair to the reader. Sometimes, of course, this happens because of the publisher’s choice, and the author has no control. I think it’s important that each book come to some sort of satisfactory conclusion, a logical resting place for characters and readers, even if the overall arc continues with unresolved problems and mysteries.”
Clearly, story arc satisfaction is critical in each and every story, even if the series arc resolutions are forthcoming (or never see the light of day, as we've seen happens). For the most part, a milder form of a cliffhanger ending--series arc sequel hooks--are part and parcel to most Overarching Series.
For most of my writing career, the cons of employing anything even vaguely resembling cliffhangers provided all the viable reasons I needed to avoid them completely. Ending three of the four installments in my Arrow of Time Chronicles on series arc sequel hooks was the only way the story could be told. I now understand J.R.R. Tolkien's quandary with The Lord of the Rings. He intended it to be a single volume of over a thousand pages, but that would have been too expensive and readership would have been limited (considering the war taking place at that time). The publisher split the tome into three volumes against the author's wishes. Tolkien called the whole thing a "fudge thought necessary for publication". Do you know he intended The Silmarillion to also be part of The Lord of the Rings? Can you imagine if both stories had been published as a whole instead of divided into two separate works? You want to talk about massive! Would it have been as popular if it'd been offered to readers the way the author wanted? I'm not so sure for a variety of reasons best left to another debate.
In many ways, times have changed from when Tolkien faced this dilemma. These days readers love and even expect to have future follow-ups to an epic story. That's common. It's actually ideal. But times haven't changed so much that publishing houses are willing to publish books that are so big, they're no longer affordable or even interesting to most readers (unless your last name is Martin or Gabaldon, that is). Massive 400-500 page volumes are intimidating to the majority of readers, especially in the last few years when attention spans have shrunk so much that it seems many can't handle even a 200-word back cover blurb in one sitting anymore.
We've covered the very compelling disadvantages to cliffhanger endings, but there are advantages--at the very least--to the less offensive series arc sequel hooks. Paranormal author Dyanne Davis said that she does end each of her books with a version of a cliffhanger, which she knows a lot of readers hate. She never viewed it as unfair. "Considering that I’m also a reader, I don’t mind. I will scream, curse the author…and wait hungrily for the next book." Obviously, the writer who leaves his story on a cliffhanger ending hopes readers will eagerly come back for the next installment, which promises to solve the dire situation the previous story was left in.
Author Joanne Hall added, “In terms of reader fairness, it’s perfectly fair to string them along until they’re tearing their hair out and begging on their knees to know what happens at the end of the last book. It’s notfair to let them down with a feeble ending, or leave important issues completely unresolved. It is okay to leave them a little sad, and to leave a few things hanging, especially if you’re planning future books.” I believe this is the core reason why most authors are fine with leaving installments with series arc sequel hooks and avoiding cliffhanger endings altogether.
I can't even deny that I just finished reading an Overarching Series with a hybrids of cliffhanger endings in all but the last installment. Each of the first four volumes was more exciting than the last. I finished one and immediately started the next because I absolutely could not put it down. When I got to the final in the series, the resolutions matched what they'd been building toward with just enough of a twist to make my joy complete. Right after I finished, I went looking for other offerings from the same author and found not only was there another 5-book spin-off and a prequel, but that the author had two other series not connected to these two. I bought all of them in one fell swoop. You can't deny that is exactly what you want a series to do to readers. For that reason, I have to say that this "pro" of writing and reading an Overarching Series is so monumentally compelling, it may drown out the very many cons.
Next week, we'll talk about ways readers combat the disadvantages of cliffhanger or series arc sequel hook endings, make the most of their advantages, along with discussing the role publication dates of installments play in selling series books.
Based on Writing the Overarching Series (or How I Sent a Clumsy Girl into Outer Space): 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection by Karen S. Wiesner (release date TBA)
Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 140 titles and 16 series, including the romantic science fiction series, ARROW OF TIME CHRONICLES