Welcome to my newest blog series: Ask the Editor! Today I am going to start with one of the most common questions I get in my inbox:
I know the first novel in a series is supposed to “stand alone,” but what exactly does this mean? Do I have to tie up all the loose ends? Won’t ending on a cliffhanger get readers to buy the next book?
If you’ve read anything about query letters or writing a series, you know that agents want a novel to “stand alone.” This advice is all over the place on writing websites but it’s rare to find an explanation of exactly what this means.
Let’s talk about what agents are really looking for. Agents want your novel to feel whole and complete. All this means is that the story should not stop prior to the climax. That’s it. Really.
What you want is readers walking away going, “Wow, that was a great story!” What you don’t want is readers walking away going, “That was a good start.”
This means that the first book (and each book in the series) needs to have a clear goal (something the protagonist is trying to achieve) and the protagonist needs to either clearly succeed or clearly fail in a climactic scene near the end of the novel.
Do I have to tie up all the loose ends?
Nope. It’s totally fine to leave the reader dangling on some elements of the story so long as the character’s goal has been clearly achieved or the character has clearly failed.
That said, I would avoid leaving too much hanging unless it truly makes sense for your story. Make sure you have a clear plan for how you will tie up those loose ends later on in the series or you could end up with plot holes or inconsistencies.
Won’t ending on a cliffhanger get readers to buy the next book?
If that cliffhanger replaces the climax of your novel, no. Readers do not like being strung along. Reading a book is all about the payoff in the end. If you take that away, you will lose the readers’ trust and they will not buy another book from you.
However, a cliffhanger that occurs after the climax is totally fine. If the character has clearly succeeded or clearly failed at their goal, and then they discover a new obstacle or exciting bit of information in the denouement (the falling action) that is totally fine.
Just don’t cram a cliffhanger into a book when it doesn’t make sense or isn’t necessary. If you did your job and wrote a compelling story, it won’t make any difference in your book sales.
Got a question for the Ask the Editor series? Leave it in the comments or email it with the subject line “Ask the Editor.”
11 thoughts on “Ask the Editor: How do I make the first novel in a series stand alone?”
I’ve been reading your blog posts and watched a few of your YouTube videos over the weekend. I’m in the middle of excruciating novel re-writing and your advice has been a useful bump to keep me moving along. Thanks!
I’m so glad my blog and videos have helped! Best of luck with your novel!
Good stuff. I think this is a real problem with a lot of novels, and, as a reader, it’s one of the reasons why I am reluctant to dive into any book that is one of a series, or trilogy or whatever. A book should never be a really long “prologue” to yet another book. This is exactly where Game of Thrones has gone wrong, IMO.
I agree about books that feel like a long “prologue.” Nobody wants to feel like a book was just designed to make them buy the next one!
I love this new blog series and this is a great way to start it! I always thought “stand alone” had to mean that the book wouldn’t feel like it had loose ends, so I’m glad you clarified!
I’m glad you love the new series and that this post was clarifying for you!
Thank you! I’ve always wondered about this, but whenever I ask about it, no one can really answer what I’m looking for.
I’m really glad the post helped!
This is good advice for people writing epics. Stand alone novelist should offer a single cohesive experience in storytelling.
I’ve got, what’s turned out to be, a series in progress. I think I’m nearly finished with the first and still have TONS of plot left in the overall arc. I managed to work a one-novel arc that I am happy with. I’m glad I read your advice here, because I think the ‘cliff hanger’ I was planning to cram into the ending is, like you say, just crammed in at the end. I’ll definitely be re-thinking that. I just discovered your blog and videos last weekend, but I’ve already blown through all of it and am re-watching/reading. After I watched 2 or 3 of your videos I made a new copy of my manuscript and re-named it with “_AEB” as a suffix.. for After Ellen Brock. Thanks. …and we all look forward to more posts, and more videos 🙂
Hello Ellen, Thank you for this post. You received a question: “Won’t ending on a cliffhanger get readers to buy the next book?”
You wrote: “Readers do not like being strung along. Reading a book is all about the payoff in the end. If you take that away, you will lose the readers’ trust and they will not buy another book from you.” Ellen, you are exactly right.
I’m not a writer but I’m a very slow reader, with bad eyesight on a senior’s income. If I got to the end of a book only to discover a cliffhanger ending which would force me to buy the next book I would be very upset, and as you wrote I would never buy another book from that author. Furthermore I would complain about it on every forum possible including complaining directly to the author and publisher.
An author can’t afford to lose the trust of his/her readers. There are too many other authors and books out there and I, for one, have no loyalty to an author who would try to trick me. So thank you Ellen for your part in educating new authors.