Laws of Nature / Man vs Nature / writing

Writing a Series vs. Stand-alone

During my promo for my latest prehistoric fiction, Laws of Nature. one of my wonderful hosts posted this article  I wrote briefly about stand-alone novels vs. series. In case missed it, here’s a revisit:

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I got into a discussion with Robbie over at Robbie’s Inspirations a while ago about the mechanics of writing a series. She writes stand-alone books while I write mostly trilogies. If you don’t follow her, you are missing out. She reviews books, writes them, and discusses classics like Dostoevsky. Do yourself a favor–check her out.

The issue we were discussing that day:

When you write a series in the same setting and featuring the same people, how do you keep the descriptions fresh in each book. In other words, how much attention do you give to describing the people and places in the subsequent books to keep the books stand alone and yet part of a series? 

What a great question. Here’s what I do:

I struggled with that at first and then analyzed how other authors did series. Sometimes, they included a quick summary of important facts in subsequent books within the series. Sometimes, they provided tantalizing hooks–maybe to drive readers to the earlier books. Other times, when something wasn’t terribly relevant to the story, they skipped it.

I do a hybrid of all three. Where the story would limp without some background, I add that briefly, usually as narrative but occasionally (as in my current publication, Laws of Nature) as a flashback. One answer doesn’t fit and I respond to the particular needs of the current volume in the series/trilogy. Because I read a lot of series, I take note of how authors address this and mostly, when it fits the author’s voice and the story’s pacing, I like their varied efforts. 

What do you do?


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Man vs. Nature saga, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the acclaimed Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Natural Selection, Winter 2022

79 thoughts on “Writing a Series vs. Stand-alone

  1. That is a really good question. I try to recap what’s happened in the previous series, and hope there’s enough detail to keep the reader interested. I also add information along the way, if it fits what is happening with the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When each novel can be read as a stand-alone too, a short chapter summarizing in a few pages the previous volume(s) might be needed. Not necessarily the first chapter, though – a second or a third, of a sort of flashback nature, giving only what is needed to a new reader in order to understand characters and facts already established. And yes, it needs to be a SHORT chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with Robbie. If I read a book (even months earlier) then launch into the next in series, I don’t want it to be a repetition of the first story. Give a few subtle reminders and move on.
    Even if the reader picks up book 2 first, it should be just enough to get them to go back and grab the earlier book.
    That said, I’m currently working on a duet told in the same timeframe, so we’ll see how that works out! lol

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoy reading series, Jacqui, and I appreciate writers who can make that happen. As a reader, I like to be immersed in stories as I get to know the characters and the setting. Your books certainly dive deep into your characters and your descriptions of prehistoric Earth are quite amazing. I will say that I have been disappointed in a few “series” where the story could have been written in one book, instead of sucking me into making me buy more books. Honestly, if the first book doesn’t grab me I doubt I will keep reading. I admire those authors like you who can walk that thin line and deliver each book with punch and a motivation to continue!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Jacqui, thank you for your kind shout-out, I appreciate it. I found your answer very interesting and what you said sounds appropriate and correct to me. I don’t ever read re-caps. If I was sufficiently interested in a book to read the sequel, I will always remember the story outline even if I read it a long time before. I prefer subtle reminders, it seems more professional and a better writing technique. I read all the comments and found them all useful.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Jacqui – it does depend on the genre I guess – mysteries can be series, a different crime/murder each time – or a saga – yours are series that turn into journey sagas through time. Also a brand of sorts – eg Poirot and others But you and your commenters have added some important and thought-provoking ideas here – cheers Hilary

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I do all of those. I also use my multiple-viewpoint characters to describe things that were shown in previous books from one perspective, in subsequent books by a different character. That can give the same setting/event a totally different perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Jacqui, a fascinating discussion and Robbie asked a great question. I would be daunted to even try a series of books exactly for this reason. Your constant reading and research of series books stand you in good stead and excellent advice to anyone trying to write a series. A brilliant answer and analysis of your writing technique. One book that sorely disappointed me was Frederick Backman’s ‘Us against You’. The first third was a long-winded rehash of the excellent, stunning ‘Beartown’! Instead of your suggestion of ‘quick summary of important facts’, ‘Us against You’ became a laboured retelling of everything that had happened before.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wouldn’t like that either. I guess you’re getting the rehash through someone else’s POV but if the original was ‘stunning’, why do you need someone else’s telling. I’ll have to look up that book. I haven’t read either one.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great topic of discussion. Some things from earlier series are irrelevant and others are critical to understanding what’s going on. Unless it’s a main plot point, I like to be reminded. That can be tricky as not all readers want the same things. I think your hybrid approach makes sense.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I like your answer to this situation. I think it’s interesting to see how other authors handle their series. You’ve implemented your own way of doing this, and I think maybe that is the answer; to do what is right for you and your works. I really admire people who can write a series as it seems a difficult thing to do. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  11. It is a valid concern when writing a series. I always have a different setting so that helps, and I throw in a few new characters. But I need to create an adventure and that should always be different. I sometimes struggle with that. I will refer to one or two of the other books but only subtly. My books don´t need to be read in order. A great question.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Great question and answer, Jacqui, and I agree that there’s no one way to address it. It matters too whether the books of a trilogy can be read as stand-alones or not. Stand-alones within a series (to me) need more repeat description because it may be the first book for a reader. In a trilogy that is one long story and meant to be read in order, I try to avoid repeat descriptions because I assume the reader got them in book one.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. The way you do it works very well indeed. One thing that I know doesn’t work is to go over the previous book too much. Years ago I read the second book in a series by a well-known author and I almost put it down. The first third of the book was basically a rerun of the first book in the series. It got tiresome quickly. I limped and groaned through that third of the book, quite annoyed until I got to the new part. Your books certainly don’t do that. As for descriptions of the characters, a few words dropped in here and there is all we need, and you do that expertly.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Your series remain interesting Jacqui because the story moves forward. I guess you also have to introduce new characters to keep the series going well. I’ve read some wonderful series that could hold the interest without any repetition.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Most interesting, Jacqui. I love your ideas and approach to trilogies. I’ve read ones that incorporate each of your scenarios. I think the author has to find what works for his/her story. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Dear Jacqui,
    if you are interested, I just got the author’s copy of a non-fiction book of mine that actually was published end 2020 (sometimes it takes ages to get copies from the US). It’s about personality types and patterns of action. I used this model to construct personalities, their interaction and plots. It goes back to Gurdjieff.
    “The Enneagram Workbook”, published by Sterling Ethos, an imprint of Barnes & Noble (New York 2020).
    Have a relaxing pre-holiday-time
    Klausbernd 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  17. When I wrote my novel, “Einstein’s Compass a YA Time Traveler Adventure” it was going to be a stand-a-lone. My editor suggested I write a backstory to the supernatural compass in Atlantis. Strange how story takes you places never imagined. Atlantis and the Supernatural Compass is taking more time since there is little history of the ancient civilazation. However, the characters are coming together with the history. A third book after EC is also in the works.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. When I was young, I read a lot of series fiction, but today I seldom read more than one book in a series (the only recent exception was reading all four books in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson–and I’m waiting on his fifth volume).

    Liked by 2 people

  19. When I write a series, I let the characters and text determine what to reveal (and how) from the earlier books. It sounds like a cop-out way to answer the question, but the background needs to be revealed organically or it sounds like author intrusion. Like you, I use various methods, and I let the situation dictate what they are.

    That’s a really interesting question to ponder, Jacqui (and Robbie).

    Liked by 4 people

  20. I haven’t thought about writing a series and haven’t even written a book. Currently I am writing my first book and that is challenging enough already to keep focused on my plot. I do like when you mentioned the use of flashbacks as a hook to other books in the series – sort of like a teaser.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You have a clever approach, of blending other book characters into the background of current books. That really works for me.

      BTW, just finished “Searching for Home”. I was rooting for those kids the whole way through!

      Liked by 1 person

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