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If I have an idea for a novel (consisting, let's say, of a premise and a vague idea of characters), how can I tell if the idea will turn into a series or a stand-alone? I don't want to start development on what I assume will be a stand-alone novel, only to find out half way through that it would actually be better as a series.

Question: Are there indicators I can look for in a story idea alone to tell me if it should be a series or a novel?

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There are two kinds of series: (a) What is really one very long story that is broken into pieces for convenience or marketing purposes. That is, if a story takes 1000 pages, rather than try to sell one 1000-page book, we instead make a trilogy and sell three 330-page books. This makes each book more manageable and makes pricing more realistic. Etc. (b) A story that is a series in the sense of distinct episodes that have common characters and/or a common setting, but that are distinct, stand-alone stories.

For a story to work well as a series, each installment has to pretty much end up where it started. That is, a problem was presented, the characters solved it, and now things are returned to "normal", ready to attack the next problem.

Consider the detective story. This works very naturally as a series. In each installment, a crime is committed and the brilliant detective solves it. Once he's solved it, it's done, and he's ready to take on the next case.

Or consider the typical TV family comedy. Members of a family have some problem, they solve it, and now order in the family is restored. They are ready to face the next problem. (Usually the solution turns out that it was all a misunderstanding, because if somebody was truly in the wrong, then one of the main characters is now less likeable, which is a problem for the series.)

Some stories do not work well as a series, because once the problem is solved, it would be very unlikely for a similar problem to come up. Like take the classic romance story: the heroine meets the hero, they fall in love, they overcome some obstacles to their love, and then they live happily ever after. So once you end with the happy couple getting married (or these days, simply moving in together), where do you go from there? If the next installment the heroine is chasing after some other man, than apparently they didn't live happily ever after after all. To start a new romance we have to say that in fact the first romance was a failure and not the success that it was painted. So okay, you might, you might say that the first husband turned out to be a jerk and now the heroine is divorced and in pursuit of romance again. But there's a limit to how far we can go with this. We might buy that she was unlucky in love two or three times. But after the 15th failed marriage, we're going to think there is something wrong with this woman.

You could, of course, go off in a different direction. You could say that now that they're married, we explore their married life, or they start solving crimes together, or whatever. But in that case it's not a "romance series", it's a "detective series" where the first episode was a prologue that explains how the two detectives got together. I suppose in principle you could have a series with the same characters and they do totally different things in each installment. In book 1 they have a romance and get married. In book 2 they solve a crime together. In book 3 they become doctors and treat a difficult patient. Etc. But who would want to read such a series? Each book would appeal to fans of a different genre. And after a while it would get ridiculous: Are these people experts at EVERYTHING?

In my humble opinion, a major element in making television so uncreative is that it is largely limited to the series format. Only so many ideas work as a series: the detective solves a series of crimes, the lawyer handles a series of cases, the doctor treats a series of patients, the family deals with a series of misunderstandings, the spaceship visits a series of planets. Those five ideas probably make up about 90% of TV series, because they're ideas that work as series.

Earlier I said that in a series, each installment has to end where it began. It doesn't have to end EXACTLY where it began. The problem can be solved and the characters ready to deal with another problem, but their relationships might change and develop, the characters might learn new things, etc. But then that requires that the installments be read/viewed in order. In TV, for example, episodes are often re-run during the summer, sold to syndication, etc, so the producers don't know what order people will see episodes in. So TV series often make sure they really do end each episode EXACTLY where it started.

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  • This is great. But back to the question, how would I implement this with a story idea alone to figure out if it's a series or not? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jan 4 '16 at 4:38
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    Sorry, maybe I circled around too much. What I was trying to say was: If the nature of the story is such that it is naturally divided into installment where each installment ends essentially where it began, then this is logically a series. Like a detective story or doctor story or some types of space travel story. If it doesn't logically divide into episodes, or if any attempt to divide into episodes does not result in units that end essentially where they began, than this is not logically a series. Like a romance or war story. – Jay Jan 4 '16 at 7:07
  • Something I really liked in this answer: the unapologetic concern for how best to market and price the story. – Lostinfrance Jan 4 '16 at 10:41
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I think you would be better off writing some of the story and discovering along the way where this story fits into the grand scheme of things, or even if it does. I also have a vague plot and some momentum going in the first few chapters that I'm very excited about, but while there is likely potential for a number of stories to be extrapolated from the setting and characters, I don't know yet how quickly my plot will resolve itself.

Perhaps I will understand more about that as I go and ultimately realise it's better left as a standalone.

As far as indicators, how expansive is the scope of your story? For example, adventure, science fiction and fantasy lend themselves to being expanded across a series of novels or films. Dramas and other genres may not be so obvious as they tend to complete their stories in one sitting.

Perhaps your story might only be one of a series of only loosely related and independent stories in the same setting?

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I started out refusing to write a trilogy. I enjoy reading series, but I sometimes think writers like Christopher Paolini just needs a better editor who was willing to trim his series down into one book.

I finally had to admit I was writing a trilogy because I had three very distinct stories. At the end of the first story , the characters succeed in their quest, but they find out that discovering the solution brings several questions into light and they need to find those answers.

In the second book, they discover that the people they have been saving the entire time were their real enemies.

In the third book, they fight to take down their former allies and fix the problems they caused when they solved the first quest.

Those are three very distinctly different stories that all connect to tell one over arching story. They just have to be three separate stories.

In Terry Pratchett's Disc World, there are so many characters and events going on and they all have their own story to tell. He has many stories that share little more than the world. Of course that leads itself to a series.

I think that I wouldn't try for a series unless it turns out to be the best or even the only way you can best tell your story. Don't force it to be a series if it doesn't need to be one. It could make your story thin and weak or cause you to unnecessarily pad your story to stretch it out.

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  • Don't worry. There is no way I am going to force my novel into anything. I'm just having trouble determining exactly what is natural without starting it (I'm a plotter, so I don't just write and see where it gets me; I have to know first). – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jan 5 '16 at 19:13
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A rule I once read and use in my own writing -- which helped me finish a first book (which is now in the process of being illustrated), and has MOSTLY helped me with a second, [temporarily that bogged down in the middle (main character was going through the motions, not developing, so I need yet another collision of a better story idea to get him moving again...)

Most good stories result from a collision of two good story ideas. For example, in Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, the two ideas could be stated as "we can find the best genius children to fight the space battles" which ends up in conflict with "the aliens must be genocidally wiped out". Stephen Donaldson also uses this to good effect the Thomas Covenant, Gap, Mordant's Need series. He explains it in an author's note at the end of the first gap novel, btw if I remember right, but it's been a decade or more since I read them.

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