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.
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.
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