Standalones vs. Series ~ Vicki Delany

Vicki DelanyThere are, basically, two types of mystery novels: standalones, in which characters appear once, never to be seen again, and series, in which characters feature in book after book.

As a reader as well as a writer, I am torn as to which I prefer. I believe that in real life a person, unless they’re a secret agent or bodyguard to a crime boss, has only one great adventure in them. Police officers will tell you that the job’s pretty boring most of the time, and crimes, even murders, are mundane things, easily solved.

A standalone novel gives the protagonist that one opportunity to achieve great things; to have that grand adventure; to meet the everlasting love of their life; to conquer evil, once and for all. In a standalone, the characters face their demons and defeat them.

Or not.

My first books were standalone novels of suspense. In Scare the Light Away the main character confronts, for one last time, the debris of her traumatic childhood. In Burden of Memory, the protagonist faces down the ghost of a past that is not hers, but is still threatening what she holds dear.

I then switched to writing series books, but returned in 2012 with a standalone gothic thriller, More Than Sorrow, about a woman attempting to recover from a Traumatic Brain Injury caused by an IED explosion in Afghanistan. The focus of the novel is on Hannah Manning’s attempts to recover her life while she experiences visions and fears she is losing her sanity. Her inability to explain where she was and what she was doing (even to herself) when a woman disappears, puts her in the cross-hairs of an old enemy.

Not a story line you could drag out over a series of books. How many old enemies can a woman realistically have?

As Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale says. “In a standalone the reader has no safety net. The reader knows it is possible the main characters may die. You can assume in a series they will not.”

Now I’m back to Constable Molly Smith, Sergeant John Winters and the town of Trafalgar, B.C. with the sixth book in the series, A Cold White Sun. (Coming in April: Under Cold Stone) Series novels present different problems. The central character, or characters, confronts their demons, but they do not defeat them. Their weaknesses, all their problems, will be back in the next book. In each story the series character stands against, and usually defeats, someone else’s problem or society’s enemy, but she or he moves only one small step towards the resolution of their own issues, if at all.

It can be a challenge to keep the main character interesting and growing and changing (and not dying) but to do it so slowly that the reader’s interest in the character can be maintained over several books and several years.

In the Constable Molly Smith novels, set in a small town in the mountains of British Columbia, Molly is haunted by the death of her fiancé, Graham. It was a meaningless, preventable, tragic death and, even in her grief, Molly knows that returning to the small town in which she grew up and becoming a cop won’t help her to make sense of Graham’s death. But she does anyway, and as the series unfolds, Molly is able to confront the gulf that Graham’s death has left in her life and, eventually, move on. By the time we get to the sixth book in the series, A Cold White Sun, Molly has put Graham’s death behind her, and said her good-byes. Now she has a new man in her life, Constable Adam Tocek of the RCMP. But new problems arise.

A Cold White SunWas Tony flirting with her? He certainly was. It felt nice. He was a good-looking guy; he obviously found her attractive. He was a good skier. What could it hurt? She thought about Graham, her fiancé, dead for almost five years now. She thought about Adam. She thought about putting in a twelve-hour night shift and how she’d feel following that.

“I won’t be here until around one.”

He gave her a huge smile. “What a coincidence. So will I. Probably hanging around at the top of Hell’s Vestibule.”

“Molly, are you coming? I’m starving!” An exasperated Glenn said.

“I’m coming. Don’t be so impatient.” They carried the laden trays to their table.

Molly Smith knew Tony’s eyes were following her.

A Cold White Sun by Vicki Delany

Which do you prefer, standalones or series?

I suspect that, like me, you’ll vote for both.

Vicki’s latest books are A Cold White Sun from Poisoned Pen Press, and Gold Web: A Klondike Mystery from Dundurn. If you’d like to read the first chapter, please go to:

Vicki can be found on FaceBook and Twitter: @vickidelany. She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave.

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1 Response to Standalones vs. Series ~ Vicki Delany

  1. Excellent post Vicki, and one with which I can really relate. I find in writing series books – and particularly in sequels – that each successive book has to put the heroine in greater danger, become *more* suspenseful, or the reader will say, “well, she got out of something far more dangerous in book 1, so it’s pretty obvious she’ll get out of this…” I think this is the problem Janet Evanovich has faced with her heroine Stephanie Plum. And of course, if you are writing funny books, then the expectation is that each book in the series will be funnier…

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