The Biggest Question in Sci-Fi & Fantasy: Series or Standalone?

debateIt’s the question that defines us as readers of science fiction and fantasy: when you pick up a new book, do you prefer a story that stands alone, or one that is part of a series? There’s no easy answer—and no right or wrong one, either. That’s why we asked two of our bloggers, Aidan Moher and Corrina Lawson (both of whom happen to be fiction writers, too) to debate that age-old question: does everything really need to be a trilogy these days?

Aidan: Alright, I’m going to come out of the gates here unequivocally as a lover of standalones. While I’ll admit that series are what helped me fall in love with science fiction and fantasy—Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Brooks’ Shannara, Hobbs’ Farseer, in particular—they’ve been struggling to find a place on my bookshelf over the past several years, set aside or avoided in favour of standalone tales (or, at least series that are comprised of standalone-structured novels, like Pathfinder Tales). There’s just something satisfying about picking up a new book and knowing that by the time I turn the final page, I’ll have experienced a story in full. No waiting on tenterhooks for a year (or more) just to get the next taste. Give me a full dosage over a drip feed any day of the week.

Corrina: I checked my bookshelf and it’s full of series. Oh, sure, there are a few standalone stories here and there but, mostly, I’m hooked on series.

Why? Because I get hooked on characters and their world. When I truly love a place and traveling with the people inside it, I want to go there again. The first two series that ever hooked me were Walter Farley’s Black Stallion stories and the Trixie Belden mysteries. They set my reading pattern, as these are series that keep the same world and many of the same characters, but toss them into different plots each book. That gives me what Aidan likes—the catharsis of a complete story—along with the hope that I’ll travel to this world again, soon.

The other reason? Given how my attention is scattered between non-fiction and fiction writing and four kids, it takes far longer for me to sink into a brand-new story. With a series, I can pick up the next book and instantly be engaged.

The downside is, of course, the law of diminishing returns as the series runs out of steam. I tend to separate my series into “epics” with no true ending for each volume, ala A Song of Ice and Fire, and “same setting,” series where each book has a definitive end to the plot, but may set up future stories—and the books don’t necessarily all feature the same point of view character.

Aidan: Very interesting. I was definitely raised on series and trilogies as I first discovered science fiction and fantasy, and I totally agree that there’s something exciting and comforting for a young reader to know that there are more books just like the one she’s finished reading. As I’ve grown older, though, my tastes have changed quite a bit.

Honestly, I think that downfall you mention is a serious one for me. My time for reading is limited, even more so as I’ve grown older, established a career, and started a family, so I want to know that when I commit to a story, I’m guaranteed some measure of satisfaction by the time I finish it. I’m as easily sucked into serialized or episodic storytelling as the next reader, but I also get annoyed when I feel like I’m being taken advantage of (like, say, volume five on of The Wheel of Time) or the plot starts to meander because the author doesn’t know where the series is supposed to go. As a writer myself, I’ve always felt that constraint is a tremendously valuable tool\. Being challenged to write an entire story, with a beginning, middle, and end, in one volume, requires the writer to make sure that every chapter, every scene, and every word counts towards the end goal. Would A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time be so oft criticized for “bloat” if Martin and Jordan had stuck to three books as originally planned, let alone one?

I often find that multi-volume epic fantasies are a whole different beast compared to defined trilogies like Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky or C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire, which are a lot closer to (admittedly very long) stand alone novels in their structure and ability to leave the reader feeling satisfied at the end of each volume.

Corrina: Very true. For instance, Zelazy’s Chronicles of Amber cannot really told in one book [Editor’s note: Though it has been published that way…]. However, all the individual books are working toward a definite ending. Perhaps that’s the difference—open-ended series versus those designed with a definitely end point.

Though I’ve been known to be hooked on open-ended series as well, like the In Death series by J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts. I like spending time in that world.

Aidan: One of the things I like about Pathfinder Tales (or, pick your tie-in universe of choice), is that it’s the best of both worlds. The world, the magic systems, etc., are familiar, but the stories are self-contained and offer resolution in a single volume. I can pick one of those books up and know I’ll be comforted by its familiarity, but also taken along on an adventure that doesn’t require me to know the finer details of a book I might have read a year (or more) ago. A nice little package. There are also several non-tie-in series that take this approach, like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, or Katherine Kerr’s Deverry novels—smaller, self-contained stories (sometimes branching a single volume, sometimes three or four) that together form a larger story about a secondary world.

Corrina: I gave up on SFF series for quite a long time (almost a decade) and delved into mystery series, my favorite being Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books. Loved, loved the early ones though you can see the diminishing returns near the end, which is probably why he switched over to other series.

The interesting thing is that when I switched to reading romance series, there’s an utterly different pattern. It’s a “same setting, different people,” most of the time. Because romance is about courtship, there is rarely a follow-up of the same couple. Instead, it’ll swap to supporting characters and bring them to the forefront. You can get hooked on stuff like that, like the winter I went through all of Jayne Ann Krentz’s Arcane Society books—past, present and future.

Mainly, though, I get hooked on an author’s voice, and that’s where a series has it all over anything else. My re-entry into SFF was Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan stories, and, oh, man, I will read anything that women writes, because I’m so in tune with her authorial voice. Interestingly, Bujold follows more of a romance series idea, where she’ll pull a supporting character up front or swap genres from mystery to romance to adventure. She keeps it fresh.

I’m trying to remember the last stand-alone book I adored. I can’t, not in prose books. It takes so long for me to sink into a new voice.

My solution? Comics. I can read them quickly and get pulled into a new world by the art. But take a chance on a 400-page prose book by someone new that’s a stand alone? Hardly ever. The only circumstances under which that would happen is if someone I know well says, “You must read this. You will love this.”

Aidan: It’s funny you mention comics. I’ve recently been getting into them by buying trade volumes. Lumberjanes, Saga, etc. They totally give you that bite-sized satisfaction, but also the joy of sticking with a long-running story.

Corrina: Yes! But you’re better off with the non-Marvel/DC works, as they’re more likely to follow a single story. Or at least, Marvel/DC story arc with a definite ending.

Aidan: I also think you’re onto something with authorial voice. My list of favourite authors is chock-a-block full of people who write standalone fiction, whether they’re novels, short stories, or anything in-between. One of the things I love about authors like Guy Gavriel Kay and Mary Robinette Kowal (who have written both series and standalones) is that I can pick up one of their books or novellas, feel immediately comfortable, ease into their prose and style quickly, but still have a fresh experience that I know will be wrapped up with a neat little bow by the end. I’ll even cheat a bit, and lump authors like Bujold and Terry Brooks in there, because they write contained stories within a larger arc. This allows for the best of both worlds, where I “get in and get out,” and can move onto something new or fresh if I feel like a need a change, or keep going if I want to read something familiar. I know I can always go pick up a Shannara or Vorkosigan book and expect to enjoy it—without a lot of commitment or Wikipedia research required.

Corrina: It’s the time commitment for a stand-alone that gets to me. I have to take that extra time to get used to the style of the book. I’m more likely to enjoy something that is fast-paced in that case, like Chuck Wendig’s Invasive, which really reads more like a movie playing in my head.

Aidan: At the end of the day, time is probably the largest determining factor any reader when we sit down to choose that next book. For me, between reviewing obligations and just a general desire to read as broadly as possible, it can be tricky to fit in series without sacrificing elsewhere or stretching the my reading out over several months (or even years!) I have a young family right now, and my reading time can often be limited, so I’m drawn towards the singular experience of a standalone. (Not to mention my recent obsession with novellas.) But like you, I can certainly see the needle shifting back in the other direction as the circumstances of my life change. I grew up on fantasy series, and can’t wait to introduce them to my daughter. Will that lead me to jump back in the deep end? Quite possibly.

These days, I almost find it easier to get on board with a series when it starts, so I only have to commit to one book every year or so. The wait doesn’t bother me like it does for some other readers. It’s more a commitment issue than anything else.

Corrina: It’s fascinating you say that, because reading series also goes back to commitment issues for me. I just find it easier to read stories in a familiar world that solves my brain drain problem.
Same problem for both of us; different solutions.

What’s your preference? Weigh in in the comments below.

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