The standalone novel

Kerry on the LRK Virtual Book Club recently brought up the question of standalone versus series novels:
“I have a question for Laurie about standalones vs. series. I hope I’ll be able to express this properly. The question was sparked by reading Touchstone and being mesmerized by its depth and complexity. Then I got to thinking, and realized that I find all of the standalones to have a sort of multi-layered richness and density to them that I don’t quite get from the series novels (which are still rich, of course — but not quite the same). So then I wondered whether or not that might be a natural consequence of the fact that, in series novels, character complexity builds across books, while in standalones, it all has to happen in one place. If that makes any sense.”

This is one of the things I talk about when I do events for a standalone such as Touchstone. In a series, there is a certain leisure in both plot and characters: the writer needs only put in what that particular book requires. Of course, each book in a series has to be self-contained—you don’t want a new reader to put the book down in confusion on page thirty—but it does not need to be complete. Most of the characters will have their chance to speak again, and the fictional world they inhabit is larger than the covers of that volume.

Not so with a standalone. The pages of that book have to contain an entire universe, from dust to dust again. It does not describe the whole past of the characters, but it must leave the reader feeling as if it had. Moreover, it needs to hold in its final pages the direction of their future, a taste of where they are going when the covers close.

The standalone is the only chance these people get to live, and the author’s writing must reflect that responsibility. It requires a tighter kind of writing, continuously weighing the balance of “enough” and “too much” in presenting backstory, laying out the various personalities, describing the physical and social settings, explaining the relevant areas of politics and sexual mores—well, you get the idea.

A standalone’s plot, the means of tying all these factors together, is equally demanding. The complexity of characters requires a plot—and subplots—strong enough to bind them together. Not that a series novel doesn’t require a strong plot, but in a standalone, there is a more intense focus, as if the characters are looking over the writer’s shoulder and urging her to get their only appearance right.

As I writer, I work my muscles in a standalone in ways that aren’t appropriate to a series novel.

I’ll have more thoughts on this in the next post.

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  1. bani on January 22, 2008 at 9:11 am

    O, very interesting. I look forward to the sequel (bada-boom-tish). Being a lover of crime fiction, which is often written in series, I’ve thought a little about this too. I just lack the ability to write about my thoughts in a coherent manner… *eyeroll*

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