Musing: Why Books in a Series or Trilogy Must Stand Alone

Don't drop the ball so close.  One book's ending can be another's beginning.

Don’t drop the ball so close. One book’s ending can be another’s beginning.


That moment when you realize you read a 100k book that is actually just a teaser for a 500k drawl.

When I started writing seriously (that was about three years ago). I took to a familiar mantra I heard from several professionals. “When writing your (first) fantasy novel, it must stand on its own two legs.”

I see countless people settle on a fantasy trilogy as their first foray into novel writing. Point blank? I think it’s a terrible idea. I highly recommend burning the idea of a trilogy and seriously considering writing a book with series potential. What’s the difference? Everything.

Trying to pitch your debut novel as the first book in a trilogy is professional suicide. You might as well just say “I can’t wrap up a conflict over the span of one book.” Instead make a conflict that is interesting on its own AND makes people want more. Note I’m not saying trilogies are bad– if you have the reputation and the demand for your book it may be a great move. But the odds are not in your favor.

I hear people say: But what about X series! It was a trilogy debut work and it worked fine. I say look at it on a case by case basis and look at that book one. More than likely said book has a clear conflict that also happens to make for a good series or trilogy. My point is simple: Those books might have been written with the intent to be a trilogy, but they were successful because they are good books in their own right. If you find people criticizing your book one as vague and unfinished– you’ve failed the primary law of premier books. Don’t even bother uttering those poison words “…but it makes more sense in book two.”


Let your reader decide what interests them. Trying to force things down their throat never ends well.

Talking about ‘Book Two’ from a new set of eyes, any returning characters in book two are new characters. Their book one ‘self’ is backstory, best left to let the reader investigate how the person ended up being the person they are at the beginning of book two. It’s no different than the start of book one.

This creates four interesting scenarios.

– A reader that has read book 1, they know the character intimately.
– A new reader that treats the character as a stranger and is content to continue / complete the story as is.
– A new reader that finds enough intrigue from the character in the early chapters to seek out the first book before pushing on.
– A new reader that completes book 2 and enjoys it enough to seek out book 1. They read book 1 with knowledge a veteran reader didn’t have.

Good characters grow over the course of events. You’re not obligated to spell out WHY a character is a certain way– in fact, that’s one of the cardinal errors new writers tend to make when writing a new book.


“Whaat? You think it’s OK to give out spoilers? You CRAZY!”

Too many people  people treat their second entry in a series / trilogy as act two rather than book two. They resign that no one would want to read book two if they haven’t read book one. Book two should be an advertisement for book one… it should have all the twists and turns of any stand-alone book with an added bonus of rewarding loyal readers with some ‘bells and whistles’.

If you are completely banking on secrets exposed in Book one… there might not be enough substance in your book two.

Your conflict for book two needs to be self-sustained, meaning your pitch shouldn’t need to spend much time ‘catching up the reader’.  Instead, it should breifly present the current situation, just like book one did.

Things in your second book should refer back to the first, but in a way that entices the reader to go back and read / re-read it. It shouldn’t require the reader to read book one to enjoy and comprehend book two. The reader still needs to be re-acclimated to the world without irritating people that read the first book with old information.

By creating a book two, you are challenged to find a balance between established expectations and clarity for a new reader (Or a reader that forgets all the key details from the first book)

Regardless of foreknowledge of the story, the potential reader must be engaged. Someone familiar with the first book will inject their knowledge into the pitch for you, amplifying their personal appreciation of it.

Eg. “Luke Skywalker and his loyal band team up to do battle with the Galactic Empire’s forces.”

Is your book two just an extension of book one? Can you write a pitch for your book two without relying on details already covered by book one? Is your pitch just as interesting if you remove the names and replace them with pronouns? These are all things to consider when pushing on in a series.

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