Hey! Welcome back to my blog. It’s been a fortnight between posts because my eldest daughter started Kindergarten last week! It’s an exciting time for us and while we’re still adjusting to the new routine I’m very happy to be able to say that she is loving it, which as any parent will tell you is a relief and makes the transition a lot easier for everyone.
This week I’m going to discuss how to ensure that each book in your series can be read as a stand-alone by articulating what to include and the ways you can seamlessly include them. Series are a great way to develop worlds, characters and overarching plot lines. They’re fun to read and fun to write – who doesn’t love it when you discover a great series and find out there’s multiple books already published (yay!). However your reader may not even realise that your book is part of a series (I read ‘The Snowman’ by Jo Nesbo and had no idea until I finished that it was book 7 in his Harry Hole series). You should never assume that your reader has read your previous books nor that they have read them back to back. You need to make sure they are not missing any information that will affect their understanding and enjoyment of your novel. The best way to do this is to identify and explain the essential information that is needed from previous novels and integrate it into the storytelling of your current novel. This is also a great opportunity to pique your readers’ interest – if they want to know more details about a certain character, event or relationship, they will need to read your previous books!
The three things that should be included to ensure a book in a series can be read as a stand-alone are:
- Any major events that have affected the relationship between characters or that impact the storyline of the current novel
- Anything in a character’s background that is crucial to understand the character’s behaviour or situation
- If there are recurring bad guys – who are they, what’s their story in a nutshell and what’s their issue with the protagonist.
I’m not affiliated with the writers I will be referring to, nor am I promoting their work. Any examples that I use are based on my reading preferences. For this post I’ve chosen to reference ‘Fifty Fifty’ by Steve Cavanagh (book 5 in his Eddie Flynn series), ‘The Coffinmaker’s Garden’ by Stuart MacBride (book 3 in his Ash Henderson series) and ‘Lover Awakened’ and ‘Lover At Last’ by JR Ward (books 3 and 11 in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series). So let’s take a look at the three techniques that Cavanagh, MacBride and Ward have utilised to provide their readers with what they need to know!
- Flashback chapters
Unless you’re a fan of the paranormal romance (PNR) genre you may not have heard of JR Ward, but if you are then you certainly know about the emotional roller coaster this talented writer takes her readers on. I chose these examples because I read books 1 to 8 then skipped to book 11, where all the information required was provided and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything crucial. It’s actually very necessary for Ward to make her books be able to stand alone because she generally waits a year between release dates and stretches her characters’ love stories over multiple books. The series centres on the Black Dagger Brotherhood who are a group of powerful vampires living in Caldwell, just outside of New York, and their ongoing war with the Lessening Society, whose mission it is to destroy the vampire race.
Here’s the thing with Ward’s characters (and most books in the PNR genre as it is a common trope) – they are generally tortured and scarred (psychologically and sometimes physically). This means that they have a lot of backstory. Ward uses flashback chapters regularly to provide her readers with information about her characters’ histories and never assumes that her readers already have this information.
In book 3 the male protagonist, Zsadist, is a former blood slave (a vampire kept as a source of blood for another vampire) who suffered pain and humiliation, and in book 11 the male protagonist, Qhuinn, has been disowned by his family because he has two different coloured eyes. Their histories impact their abilities to trust others and to form healthy relationships (Qhuinn’s love story stretches over 6 books before he gets his ‘happily ever after’).
When using flashbacks it’s important not to provide too much detail or to make the chapters longer than necessary as you risk slowing down your pace and pulling your reader away from the main story. Background information may be interesting to you, but only give you reader what they need to know then keep going.
- Conversations between characters
Dialogue is a great way to include background information and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve the person we are discovering information about. ‘The Coffinmaker’s Garden’ is a thriller set in Scotland and begins with a terrible storm tearing houses down into the North Sea. As the properties are crumbling people see human bones buried in one man’s garden and when protagonist Ash Henderson, an ex-police Detective Inspector, enters the property he finds a kill room. He manages to grab a strip of Polaroids that were kept as trophies by the serial killer and barely manages to escape before the house begins to crumble.
I haven’t read books 1 and 2 of this series so I knew nothing about the main character, but through conversations between Ash and other characters (as well as statements made by periphery characters) the reader discovers that one of Ash’s daughters was tortured to death by a serial killer known as ‘The Birthday Boy’ (which is the plot for book 1 so if this information really interests MacBride’s readers they will go on to read book 1). One example of a conversation is when a character who has discovered her daughter was murdered by ‘The Coffinmaker’ confronts Ash and pleads with him to help her by stating that he must know how it feels because his own daughter was murdered by The Birthday Boy. This is a direct way to provide your reader with information and it is quite effective as it delivers a punch at the same time. A more subtle way this information is given is by Ash’s work partner trying to convince him to visit his daughter’s grave. We find out when she was murdered and the conversation leads us to our next technique – a character reflecting on a past event. This information is necessary as the murder is an event that affects Ash’s relationship with others as well as his behaviour and approach to solving the crime in the current novel.
- Reflecting on the past
Since ‘The Coffinmaker’s garden’ is written in the third-person limited from Ash’s POV, Ash is able to reflect on his daughter’s murder and give the reader more information through his memories (such as how she was murdered and the psychologically abusive events that followed). Steve Cavanagh also uses this technique in ‘Fifty Fifty’, which is about two sisters who go on trial for the brutal murder of their father. The catch? They are both accusing the other of the crime. I chose this book as an example because while I have read book 4 I haven’t read books 1 to 3. Eddie Flynn is the main character, an ex-conman turned defence lawyer for one of the sisters, who chooses his clients based on whether or not he believes they are innocent. Why? We find out through internal dialogue and reflection that he has previously defended someone who turned out to be guilty and subsequently paid the price. We also find out that he was once forced to defend a mobster after they kidnapped his daughter and strapped a bomb to his back (like MacBride, this is the plot line for book 1 in Cavanagh’s series so readers can go on to read that story if it draws their interest). This information explains his hesitance in relationships as well as his continual need for reassurance that his client really is innocent.
As with flashback chapters, it’s important not to give your reader big chunks of background information through a character’s thoughts. This will also slow down your story and again, while it may be interesting to you the reader only needs to know enough to understand what is happening and why the story is unfolding the way it is.
If you’re looking for examples of how books in a series are written as stand-alones and thrillers or PNR aren’t your thing, there are many other authors that do this effectively. The Fantasy genre has a lot of great examples, including JK Rowling (Harry Potter), Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments) and George RR Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire). In the Chick Lit genre you can find authors such as Marian Keyes (The Walsh Family) and Sophie Kinsella (Shopaholic), and for younger readers Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) is a great example.
Have you read any series that have excellent individual stand-alones? What about a series that has failed in achieving this? Do you have any examples from other genres not listed? Please leave your examples below, I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,