What makes a series book stand alone?

I wrote the Breeder trilogy so that each book could be read as a stand-alone.

I wrote the Breeder trilogy so that each book could be read as a stand-alone, yet have a story woven through all 3 books.

Basically there are two types of series books:

Option A: The books are dependent on previous ones. You have to read the books in order to understand the story, or

Option B: Each book is an independent story linked by a common thread.

There are two ways for an author to approach a dependent series (Option A). One, each book has its own story arc with a beginning, middle and end, so that it feels complete, but an unfinished story continues throughout the series, and the series overall has a beginning, a middle and end. Example:  Harry Potter.

Book one of The Remembrance Trilogy ends on a cliffhanger.

Book one of The Remembrance Trilogy ends on a cliffhanger.

A second option of Option A is for an author to write one long saga and serialize it, slice it like a pie into multiple parts. To be continued… One book serves as the beginning, another book is the middle, and the third book wraps it up. Example: Kahlen Aymes’s contemporary romance series The Remembrance Trilogy.  The first book ended on cliffhanger without closure. The reader had to read the second one to continue the story. (I am assuming Kahlen Aymes treats book 2 the same; I didn’t read that one).

Another example of Option A is the BDSM  Passion series by Livia Grant. Grant does not leave the reader hanging and offers closure at the end of each book, but she weaves multiple H/h relationships throughout each book, so to get each couple’s complete story, you need to read the books in order: Wanting it All (book 1), Securing it All (book 2) and Having it All (book 3 not pubbed yet).

Livia Grant weaves multiple H/h relationships through each Passion series book.

Livia Grant weaves multiple H/h relationships through each Passion series book.

In the independent series (Option B), there is no doubt that each book stands alone and you can read them in any order, but some aspect links the individual books. It can be the  characters, the setting, or a theme. Sue Grafton’s alphabet mystery series (A is for Alibi…) is a good example. Kinsey Milhone is a private investigator who solves a different crime in each book.  In the Corbin’s Bend spanking romance series, each book is written by a different author, but each story is set in the same Colorado town of practicing spankos.

Between polar opposites like The Remembrance Trilogy and Kinsey Milhone lies a large gray area.  At what point do series books become too connected to be enjoyed as a stand alones?


All the Corbin’s Bend novels are stand-alone, linked by a common setting and reappearing characters.

You can certainly pick up the early books of the Harry Potter books and enjoy them. JK Rowling does a good job of grounding the reader with  backstory. But as the series progresses, the books become more dependent on the earlier ones. To a small degree, I noted some of that occurring in the Corbin’s Bend series of stand-alone novellas. For example, as a secondary character, single-gal-on-the-make Carla Methon wreaks havoc with other people’s relationships in some of the Season One Corbin’s Bend releases, but then in the Season Two release of His Forever Summer by Tara Finnegan, she finally gets her own man.

My Rod and Cane Society domestic discipline series is written as a collection of stand-alone novels about the various characters who belong to an organization of men who spank their wives and girlfriends. Each book follows a couple’s domestic discipline journey. However, the Society evolves as the series progress. Sooper sekrit in book 1 (Unexpected Consequences), Rod and Cane is outed in the press  in book 2 (False

Book one of the Rod and Cane Society series. Each book is an independent read.

Book one of the Rod and Cane Society series. Each book is an independent read.

Pretenses), which then allows non-members to enter the Society in books 3 (Body Politics) and 5 (Reasonable Doubts). The publicity the members receive in False Pretenses affects the plot of Reasonable Doubts (to be released in Jan. 2015).

And characters appear and reappear as the main characters and secondary characters in the various books.

I intended my science fiction romance Breeder trilogy to be a hybrid between Option A and B. An overarching story more strongly connects the books of the series than it does in Rod and Cane, but Breeder book focuses on a different hero and heroine and how the male-dominated culture of their planet affects their relationship. They meet, they fall in love, and they risk losing that love in each book. A beginning, middle and end. Complete separate story for each H/h in Breeder, Terran and Warrior.

Reapers (good guys) battle demons (bad guys) in all three reaper series books.

Reapers (good guys) battle demons (bad guys) in all three reaper series books.

Author Lisa Medley handles her urban fantasy Reaper series the same way. Each book, Reap & Repent, Reap & Redeem, Reap & Reveal,  focuses on a different couple and how their relationship is impacted by the continuing battle to save the world from evil.

What do you think is the deciding factor in whether a series book can stand alone? Which type of series books do you prefer? Those that can stand alone? Or those that are meant to be read in order? Do you ever read series books out of order or do you feel you have to start at book one even if the stories are independent?

And now, a word from our sponsor:

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8 Responses to What makes a series book stand alone?

  1. Lisa Medley says:

    I think all of your books easily stand alone but are enhanced by the series arc. Once I fall in love with a world, I want to keep visiting as reader and a writer. The characters become like family and no one visits their family only once and moves on. Unless their family is just plain crazy. Not that I know anything about that.

  2. Cara, I want to thank you because I just had an “Aha!” moment for my own series, Lunar Falls, while reading this post. You talk about how the characters come and go as main and secondary characters in the Rod and Cane books and it got me thinking about my current series. It’s a trilogy that will focus on the same H/h in all three books, but I realize that I have quite unintentionally somehow chosen a different secondary couple for books 1 (Secrets of Lunar Falls) and 2 (Lies of Lunar Falls, due in Jan). And reading this post has shown me who that secondary couple needs to be for book 3 in order to bring the series to its proper full circle. Made me realize an important rewrite that I need to do for book 2. Thank you!!!

    I lurk on your blog all the time – I read each post, but rarely comment. That’s just me, but I want you to know that I adore your blog because you always share such great information, so thank you!

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Thank you Lashell for posting today! I tend to favor having a different H/h for each series book myself. But I know readers like to be brought up to date on what the other character are doing. You should “complete the circle.”

  3. Jo Jones says:

    I like books in both categories. I don’t like those that are one long book divided into three or more books. I do like a problem to be solved in the book. Characters, backstory and world building will be done in each book. I do like world building to continue and become more complex as the series continues. That and new characters and problems keep the series from becoming stale.

  4. Wow, what a surprise. You know I never miss your posts. I’m reading along on the way home from the day job and boom, there’s my cover. Thank you so much for including the Passion Series in your blog today. As always, it is an interesting topic and one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, obviously. I worry that I should have used the term ‘serial’ verses ‘series’ with my books because to me, the serial label indicates better that readers will enjoy it more if they read the books in order. I talked myself out of it because most serials I’ve seen (like Beth Kery) are usually short episodes each release and since Wanting it All is 98K, that didn’t seem to fit either. I’m learning. ~Livia

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