Agency Lessons: what makes a series stand alone

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made. 

So last week I wrote about how to query a series (FYI: the first book only). And the comments section reminded me that I might need to clarify a few things when it comes to a series. Specifically, what makes a book in a series a stand alone.

The issue came up because you should always indicate in your query for a series if the first book is a stand alone or not. But how do you know if your book is a stand alone?

I picked two really popular series to hopefully illustrate the difference and make it a little clearer for authors venturing into the query gates.

The stand alone: Harry Potter

And right off the bat, I'm guessing I lost several of you who thought the Harry Potter series was not made of stand alone books. But it is, I promise. Let's take a look at the first book, The Sorcerer's Stone.

This is the book that starts it all so it's a bit heavy in back story and description, but once we get into it, there is a clear goal for Harry: Keep Voldemort from getting the sorcerer's stone. It's a windy path to get there, but at the end of the book (SPOILER ALERT) Harry has recovered the stone and successfully kept Voldemort from using it to bring himself back from near death.

But Sarah, many of you say, what about all the open threads and unanswered questions. Yep, they are there. That's what makes this series different from one like Sue Grafton's alphabet series. That is written more like a sitcom with the same characters in each book, but not really tied together in plot. You could read those out of order and be okay. The same could not be said for Harry Potter.

The unresolved conflicts are what create the series arc in HP. This is important so I'm going to bold it. You don't have to answer every question in order for a book to be a stand-alone. Got it? Good. Now, let's look at the other side of series.

The non stand alone: Game of Thrones

So the first book in this series is about...all the different people, and...lots of stuff is going on, and...winter is coming. But at the end of the book, winter is not here and we have people dying left and right and no one came out the hero. Without the next book in the series we are left with almost zero answers and a stone castle full of questions.

And that's okay. There's nothing wrong with that kind of book, but George RR could never claim that the first book in that series stands alone. There isn't a single goal, conflict, resolution line to be found.

And that's what you need for a book to stand alone. One solid Goal: Conflict: Resolution plot line that ties the rest of the book together. Even if you leave several other threads open, your book can stand on it's own spine if you can identify those things.

I hope that clarifies series a bit and makes everyone feel a little more warm and fuzzy about sending out your next batch of queries. Well, probably not warm and fuzzy, but maybe less nauseous. That's a good goal.