Ask the Editor: How do I make the first novel in a series stand alone?

14779520072_914171dbb7_oWelcome 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.

3926513450_a7d82c5a8b_oWhat 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?

11158400806_e39db2ef82_oIf 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.”

10 thoughts on “Ask the Editor: How do I make the first novel in a series stand alone?

  1. Karen says:

    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.

  2. ddrespling says:

    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!

  3. sam forsyth says:

    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 🙂

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