[Warning: This post contains significant spoilers for two of the three Star Wars movies. If you have not seen A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, you should do so before reading this post. Also, what’s wrong with you? They’re cultural touchstones that have been out forever.]
Standalone, with Series Potential
If you are submitting your book to publishers, it’s common to see the advice that, even if you intend it to be a thirty-one-volume series with four spin-offs, you should refer to it as “standalone with series potential.” Agents like that line, you’ll hear. They don’t want to commit to multiple books before they see how the first one will do. So, you slap it at the bottom of your query letter and send everything off.
Or maybe you see the advice and say, “screw that, I want to write a series. I’ll just self-publish.” So, you start finding beta readers, maybe a copy editor, then send it to Amazon, already halfway done with the next part of the story.
But both approaches miss the point.
The reason agents like the line “standalone with series potential” isn’t just that they’re afraid of commitment, hate authors, or have short attention spans. It’s because that’s what the first installment of a series needs to be.
What the People Want
When you buy any book or a ticket to any movie or play, there’s an implied contract: “I’m going to give you money, and you’re going to give me a story.” Even when you’re reading or watching something for free, you’re trading your time for the story. From the reader’s side, we generally understand this. If you bought a book and it cut off in the middle of a sentence, you’d almost certainly ask for a refund, thinking that you hadn’t actually gotten what you paid for. If a movie, without warning, simply ends, you’ll expect that the projector quit working.
But from the author’s side, when we’re planning a series, it’s easy to get caught up. After all, it doesn’t end in this book, but the story keeps going. Thirty books down the line, I’ll have a conclusion that knocks their socks off.
And, who knows? When I finish that series in sixty years, it could even be true.
But that’s not what a reader is looking for or agreeing to when they buy the first book in your series. They’re taking a chance. They want to know that you can actually write a good story that comes to a conclusion. They want to get their money’s worth in this book, and then they’ll consider the series as a whole. After all, if you can’t manage to end a story well in one hundred thousand words, there’s not even a snowball’s chance that you can do it in three million.
So, if they get to the end of your novel and the main thread isn’t resolved, they’re going to be disappointed. After all, they gave you money and time in exchange for a story, but they didn’t get the story. Instead, you’re asking them to give you more money for the rest of it. Heck, in many cases, you’re also asking them to wait a year or more until the next book comes out, if it does at all. Most readers will be upset with the ending and feel cheated, even if they don’t phrase it that way.
Perhaps more importantly, this results in poor reviews and sales and might actually be what keeps the second book from being released.
The Real Thing
So, if you want to actually write a “standalone book with series potential,” what do you do?
The best model is Star Wars.
Episode IV: A New Hope (originally released simply as Star Wars) is the story of a young farmboy who discovers that he has the power to use the Force, joins the Rebel Alliance against the Empire, and destroys the Empire’s superweapon: the Death Star. The Death Star is the driving force throughout the entire movie. In the opening crawl, we learn that Rebel spies had stolen the plans to the battle station and were trying to escape. Droids with the plans are sent to a potential ally but intercepted, and that’s where we meet our hero. In the process of trying to get the plans to the Rebels, we see a planet destroyed, the princess rescued, and the rebel based threatened. All centering around the Death Star.
So when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star, he’s completing the plot. There are certainly loose ends (Vader escapes, for example), but the film ends with an award ceremony for the heroes.
In contrast, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is oriented around Luke’s training and the war against the Empire as a whole. Toward the end of the film, Luke abandons his training to go help his friends. But this only results in Han’s capture and Luke losing his hand. (And the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father in a line that I’ve had quoted to me thousands of times, but never once correctly.) The story ends with Luke and Leia’s narrow escape from being captured as well.
There’s no real resolution here. The main focus of the story, Luke’s training and the defeat of the Empire, has actually been set back significantly from where it was halfway through. “Strikes back” is a good way to phrase it. This is the story of the bad guys retaliating.
This is a good pattern for a series. Your first book should be “standalone with series potential,” even if you’re not looking for agents. Figure out what the main problem facing the characters in the first book is and make sure it’s solved by the end.
Are they trying to get the ring to a city where it’s safe? They should arrive there just before the end.
Are they trying to figure out who is causing deadly storms all over the city? Then the fight scene with the villain should be the conclusion.
Are they trying to win their freedom from their captors and find redemption? Then the book needs to show their victory.
That doesn’t mean that you wrap everything up. The ring still needs to be destroyed. Whoever was backing the warlock is still out there. The pretender still sits on his brother’s throne, claiming that he’s dead. You don’t have to tie up every loose end for a story to be complete. After all, in real life, our stories always end with evil still lurking. (20% off any one editing project to the first person who names all three books referenced above in an email sent to tole@ my website.)
If you want to write a series, you want to be sure that things are left open. “Happily ever after” is a bad way to end the first book in a series. You should even leave the more significant threat. There’s still evil lurking outside. But what you don’t want to do is leave a cliffhanger or other indication that the story doesn’t end.
In the second book, you have more freedom. Not many people will read the second book in a series if they haven’t read the first, so your readers already have some degree of trust. They know that you’ve written a story that was satisfying enough that they were willing to read another, so you don’t need to worry about wrapping things up. You should still have an arc, but your conclusion no longer has to be about the main focus of the plot. Like in Empire, you can focus more on the main events of the series and start aiming at the “big bad.” Your conclusion can be “we managed to get out of this trap that the enemy set, so now we’re ready to try again.” Empire is generally considered the best out of the trilogy, even though it doesn’t tell a complete story.
Notice that these are all “you can” and “it doesn’t have to be.” You can write an entire series like it’s the first book, with the main plot of each entirely self-contained. Quite a few series work that way. What’s important is that your first book is “standalone with series potential.” Because if it can’t stand on its own, the series itself is much more likely to fail.