Neil Turner on Writing a Series Versus a Standalone Novel

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Writing a Series Versus a Standalone Novel

Writers often debate the merits of writing a series versus standalone novels. There are pros and cons to either approach. I’ll recap the debate by focusing on three key elements in any novel: characters, setting, and plot.

Characters. A series negates the need to create a new cast for each novel. It also allows for longer character arcs. Many readers enjoy revisiting characters they connected with, and the same is true of writers. While I enjoy creating new characters, I find it equally rewarding to plumb the depths of my characters in ways only a series can accommodate. On the downside—especially with thrillers—we sacrifice an element of suspense when major characters are placed in peril. We may not know how they’ll escape, but we’re pretty sure they will. Well, most of the time.

Setting: Similar to the pros and cons of characterization, I find a recurring setting advantageous. The fictional Chicago suburb of Cedar Heights is well-established in my series, and I have the giant canvas of Chicago to work with, so it’s generally enough for me to paint a quick sketch to orient readers new and old. This keeps the story moving forward. I established a firm sense of place in the first Tony Valenti Thriller, A House on Liberty Street, which slowed the story here and there, but I did so because the setting was vital to the story. I also knew I was crafting a series and wanted a strong sense of place to anchor the novels. Readers who have read the series from the start have a deeper appreciation of how Cedar Heights figures in the lives of the characters in a way standalone novels are seldom able to accomplish. That said, creating new locales is fun, so Tony has been known to take the odd road trip.

The third element I’ll address is plot. A decided danger in working with a series is repeatedly writing essentially the same novel, so I strive to give Tony and company fresh challenges to face in each book—tests they meet with the help of accumulated experience and newly-acquired skills. Brute force and/or violence is one way of taking down an adversary, but I find it equally satisfying and more interesting when characters outthink their opponents. Not knowing how Tony will tackle problems also adds a welcome element of suspense.

At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong in this discussion. Some of us enjoy writing in a series; others are abhorred by the idea of doing so. Some authors write a series and standalones. One size doesn’t fit all!


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