Series vs Standalones by Sarah Naughton
While this will be a balanced and well judged piece, I should admit, at the outset, to a certain bias. Series stink.
I caveat this with certain exceptions. The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, the Bible. But mostly they stink. Because mostly they’re about money, and are frequently afterthoughts when a book has become a surprising success (eg. 50 Shades). Consequently less time has been taken in the crafting, and they end up as poor imitations of the original.
This is, of course, mostly clearly expressed in the film genre. I enjoyed Ice Age 1, but by Ice Age 27 I wanted to stab myself in the eyes with Manny’s tusks. The same can be said for Jurassic Park, Jaws, Rocky etc. Alien is the notable exception, where the second in the series is widely acknowledged to be as good as the first.
Surprisingly, even when the film or book is directed/penned by the same person, they can still stink.
I’m a fan of both Patrick Ness and Suzanne Collins, but by book 3 in each of their respective trilogies, both authors seem to have run out of ideas. While I can remember every plot lineament of The Knife of Never Letting Go, (‘Squirrel, Todd!’) the final book is just a blur bar THE SHOUTING. Similarly the nuanced and complex character of Katnis has become just another Lara Croft by Mockingjay.
It might just be my attention span. Blame the internet.
Having been a big fan of series as a child (I devoured the ‘Flowers in the Attic’ saga) I still get very excited at the prospect of starting a new first-in-a-series. It’s with this childish glee I embarked on Skulduggery Pleasant, Artemis Fowl, Divergent, Darkside and Mortal Engines. The first books were fantastic, and I snatched up the sequels, only to get bored.
Either the plots are thinly veiled facsimiles of the original, or the ideas become more and more outlandish to try and hold our attention. At the end of The Hunger Games we’ve reached the climax of the obstacles the protagonists must face, and the zenith of their character development, but Collins is forced to keep ramping up the action, so that by the end of Mockingjay they’re being chased by cyborg vampire rabbits (or something – I forget). Think of the cringeworthy ‘imprint’ subplot in Twilight.
Very occasionally, series work with breathtaking symmetry. Each book in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy, and Harry Potter, has its own perfect story arc, whilst simultaneously moving on the broader arc of the series. They were obviously always intended as a series, and are deeply satisfying as such.
But the simple fact is that all too often standalones are about artistic merit, whereas series are about dollars. The publisher and author, drunk on the success of the original, just keep milking and milking it, and though they may be very successful franchises and sell lots of figurines and lunchboxes, the reader is being conned. Call me a grouch – I’m sure the mini Elsa and Annas are wetting themselves at the prospect of Frozen 2.
The detective genre offers more scope for novelty, but even they tire in the end as the author struggles to wring ever more convoluted plots for the same tired characters. I can envisage a time, fantastical as it may seem at the moment, when even Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock reaches the end of the road.
So, gentle reader, when you have finished your next first-in-a-series, I advise you (with a few notable exceptions*) to set it aside and move on to something completely different. There are many fabulous standalones out there, and just as many woeful sequels. The best in the series is invariably the first, and that’s why, when I finish Half Bad by Sally Green I will close the book with a sigh of deep satisfaction, and move on to Plumbing for Beginners.
I await the case for the defence.
(*The obvious exception to all rules is Game of Thrones.)
Sarah Naughton is the author of two books for young adults: Costa shortlisted The Hanged Man Rises, about possession and child murder in Victorian London: and The Blood List, featuring witches and changelings and a very nasty little brother. She lives in London with her husband and two sons. You can find out what she’s up to on her blog, or follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.