Back when I was a kid and I had notions of being the next JK Rowling – and this was before JK Rowling was the absolute definition of successful author – I thought the best books had to be in a series. I didn’t read standalone novels, if I could help it. I think part of this comes from growing up on television, and part of it comes from kids books seeming to all be part of a series. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to see the beauty of a self-contained novel. (And, I think, part of that comes from developing a habit of going to the cinema every week.)
The big NaNo question of the day is: do you need to write a series?
Technically, no. That’s the short answer. A standalone book is just as worthy of reader attention as a book in a series. There are pros and cons in publishing each.
Looking at it strictly from the point of view of an artist, everyone needs to answer this question for themselves. It comes down to whether the story can be told in one book. “Story” here refers to the overarching narrative for the protagonist(s) or antagonist(s) – or world, society, etc. This can sometimes be told in one book. Other times, it needs several. Sometimes the story doesn’t really have a defined end in mind. 200+ issue comic runs or 60+ volumes of manga are indicative of this sort of storytelling. (And, apparently, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)
My one piece of advice is: know your ending.
Maybe not to the book you’re writing now, if you’re planning on writing a series, but to the whole story. Know when it ends. Know where the loose ends are. As some television shows have shown, continuing to tell a story just because there’s an audience doesn’t mean you won’t tell a bad story. (Need examples? The last couple of seasons of Lost. The first half of the sixth season of Buffy. An extended period of The Simpsons.)
So let’s shift the question. Don’t think about whether you need to write a series. Think about whether you need to continue telling the story.
For me, Ben’s story was going to be over at the end of A Death in the Family, until the additional narrative revealed itself to me in a moment of inspiration. (This was during the planning stages. I plan extensively so I can be doubly surprised while writing.) Kurt’s story was going to be told over twelve novels, originally, and I’m glad that I abandoned that idea. – The Necrohall and Hell Hath No Fury are much better ideas. Arnold – an asshole necromancer in A Death in the Family – was only supposed to appear in The Local Necromancer. The three characters’ narratives are tied together, now.
Those stories need to be told. (For me, at least – the longer narrative is one that’s been trying to get into my novels for years, and I didn’t know how to work with it.)
So when you think about whether you need to write a series or a standalone story, think about whether the overarching narrative can be told in the same book that you’re planning now. If a character’s greatest desire can be dealt with at the same time as she deals with the obstacle in your novel, whether those two things are related or not.
Think of Harry Potter – his overarching narrative is about finding his place in the world, whereas each book is about surviving the school year. Or Buffy Summers – she wants to keep the world safe from the demons at the Hellmouth, while also being an ordinary teenager; this means dealing with prom and dating, while figuring out how to beat each seasons’ Big Bad. Then think of American Gods (the novel) – it covers Shadow Moon’s entire journey from leaving prison to the end of the story. Yes, there were spin-offs. But the novel stands alone, and fills in all the gaps. It tells several smaller stories throughout – the magic of sub plots – while resolving the grand narrative and Shadow’s stories side-by-side.
Think about your own story. Find your own answers. In the meantime, I’m going to plan book 2/? and eventually figure out at what point I’ll end Kurt’s story, and whether it’ll require murdering him brutally. (For old time’s sake.)