This question came to us via email from Ashley Rhone:
This question has been bothering me for some time now: is it necessary to write my the first book in a series as a standalone? Or can I leave a few strings untied, or even perhaps end the first book on a cliff hanger of sorts?
This question is a great one because I learned the answer the hard way! I think most of us would love the chance to see our first novel expanded into a series, and for some very fortunate writers, that’s exactly what happens. That said, an agent will tell you that it is important that your first novel be able to stand alone, which means it must include a satisfying ending. Early drafts of FIREFLY left many loose ends (just ask Savannah and Kat, who both read and gave me comments!) and it was very difficult for me to understand why those questions left in the readers’ minds mattered so much. I wanted to believe that, even if there would never be a second book, the questions were just part of a somewhat mysterious ending. What I came to understand was that it wasn’t so much about killing all the mystery; it was more about a sense of satisfaction after reading that last page. You can shake up your readers’ contentment with the ending in Chapter One of Book Two, but your readers need a sense of resolution at the end of each book.
Julie is exactly right. Readers have to come away from your book ‘satisfied’ that the story drew to a successful end, otherwise they will develop negative feelings about your book, which may impact your readership in the future. Consider M. Night Shyamalan. Man, I like his stories, but I HATE his endings (except for Devil, which I saw recently and really enjoyed!). Endings are very important in wrapping up the reader’s expectations. They invested time and energy into your book, expecting to be rewarded at the end. When there’s no reward, or only a partial reward, they feel cheated.
Agents and editors know this, and that’s why they prefer as many loose ends as possible to be tied up. Given the current economy, fewer trilogy sales are going on right now… many prefer to sell the first book and see how it does before authorizing the second. Therefore, you might only get ONE chance to tell your story, so you need to give it a one-story ending.
I’m gonna have to agree with Julie & Sav on this. The book needs to be able to stand alone, meaning it needs to end on a satisfying note, track a full character-arc, full plot (with resolution!), and wrap up most loose ends.
That said, The Spirit-Hunters was written as the first book in a trilogy, and I queried it saying, “Though this is the first book in a trilogy, it can stand alone.” Why did I say that? Because it can stand alone. The MC grew into a new, tougher person by the end; the main plot goal of book 1 was answered and resolved; and all but 2 subplots were wrapped up. There were loose ends at then end of book 1, but they were “minimal”: the introduction of a new villain and an intentional non-resolution of the romance — they were aspects that I could remove if I needed to make the book 100% stand alone (and not part of a trilogy).
Like Julie said: meeting the reader expectations is very important in any novel, but especially your first. Some series can get away with crazy non-conclusions (::cough, cough:: George R. R. Martin), but not most of us!!
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