Alexander Hellene

The Story Stands Alone

By Alexander Hellene

Not every story needs four-dozen parts. Some, but not all. Some stories, including some multi-part series, in fact, would have benefitted from being much, much smaller.

Stand-alone stories in fantasy and science fiction or whatever you want to call the genre should be encouraged more, and honestly, I wish more people would buy them, thereby encouraging their proliferation. I suppose writers must listen to the marketplace to a degree, but I wonder if the apparent dearth of stand-alone stories is not so much a reaction to the marketplace, but the marketplace reacting to what the publishing industry has been feeding it for so long.

It’s like television or popular music: we lament how everything looks, sounds, and feels the same, and yet people keep buying it. My theory is cynical, but I think it explains a lot of what we call capitalism: if one thing makes tons of money, every single other firm in a given business sector moves as one uncoordinated school of fish to do the exact same thing until there’s no more money left in it before moving on to the next trend.

Who can we pin the blame on? J.R.R. Tolkien? It sure seems that the generations who grew up reading The Lord of the Rings and fell in love with fantasy and writing as a result all wanted to make their own trilogies. But there were plenty multi-part stores pre-Tolkien, whether or not they were one coherent narrative or various stories set in the same—and may God forgive me for uttering this term—universe. Off the top of my head, H. Beam Piper comes to mind.

Marketplace stuff aside, this topic was spurred by my friend, author Jon Del Arroz, mentioning that he wished there were more stand-alone stories being produced, and then a follow-up question asking your humble writer how to avoid story bloat.

I do not pretend to be an expert, but as one who has published one stand-alone story, is working on another one, and has about five unpublished stand-alone stories just waiting for a polish, I do have some experience. And all of my advice boils down to one word:

Restraint.

That’s it. That’s the big tip. If the theme of your story can be conveyed in one book, whether it be 1,000 pages long or 200, then that should be sufficient. If the story calls for more, then give it more.

Like most things, however, the concept is simple while the execution can be tricker.

The call for restraint is why I am an advocate of having at least some form of outline or structure planned before you start writing, or at the very least knowing or having a relatively clear idea of how your story with end. There can be fun and exciting plot beats along the way. There can be sweeping epics or romances chock full of heroism, villainy, and world-shattering events. But even these benefit from a sense of knowing when to pull back.

Switching mediums, think about common criticism of progressive rock—too many solos! Did the keyboard player really need to take another turn at minute 23? And the songs are too long! It should have ended at Part VII; why did they add parts VIII-XXIII?

Your writing could benefit from a similar sense of scale. If you have a story that comes to a satisfying conclusion in one book—or maybe two!—leave it at that. It requires a lot of self-discipline, but if you have the self-discipline to write multiple books in the first place, you can write a stand-alone story—and stand-alone stories have an added benefit of potentially helping you, the writer, avoid the creative burnout of working on the same project for years on end. At the very least, a stand-alone story will require far less planning.

And who knows? Maybe by offering an alternative to the glut of lengthy series filled with Bible-length books you will attract an audience eager for something different.

– Alexander

10 thoughts on “The Story Stands Alone”

  1. Alexander,

    I’m kinda sympathetic, even if I tend to prefer series. I don’t mind stand alones.

    However, most contemporary stand alones aren’t that great. They’re either rushed, underdeveloped, or the plot just ran of of steam.

    If I’m to read a stand alone don’t just entertain me but tie up the loose ends as best as possible. In sum, the story is done, the plot totally resolved, and no more elaboration is needed or wanted.

    xavier

    1. However, most contemporary stand alones aren’t that great. They’re either rushed, underdeveloped, or the plot just ran of of steam.

      Really? This is the first such complaint about stand-alone stories I’ve ever heard. Usually, it’s series I hear lamented as rushed, underveloped, or where the plot just ran out of steam. Do you have any particularly egregious examples? I’m very curious.

  2. Speaking as a reader (and I’m positive not at all under the influence of the zeitgeist but instead fully awakened…surely) I think that what I like about series is the ability to establish a point of investment in the story of a character or characters. Although perhaps it’s the familiarity of a setting on a recurring basis.

    I wonder if “common setting, different characters/storyline” would be a valid alternative way to do series while allowing for standalone characters?

    1. I think that what I like about series is the ability to establish a point of investment in the story of a character or characters.

      This is a huge appeal of series, and is definitely an advantage over a stand-alone story. Much like the endless parade of superhero movie sequels that can dispense with the origin stories that took up the first third to half of part one, subsequent volumes in a series can really get into the thick of the plot and action.

      Maybe my post made it sound like I’m anti-series. I am not. It is just that the market seems to have only series, and the quesiton that came my way about “How to keep stories from balooning” inspired these ruminations on the importance of doing at least some groundwork before one starts writing and to only give a story what it needs, in addition to the idea that perhaps there is a market for stand-alone stories after all.

      I love a good series. I am an unashamed and proud Wheel of Time fan, after all, as well as a fan of series by Tad Williams, Dan Simmons, C.S. Lewis, and Frank Herbert, among others.

  3. I think a lot of the reason for standalone’s not being as viable is the same reason shorter stories up to novellas aren’t so viable. That was what the more common reader went for while the more hardcore reader preferred bigger books, but that majority was chased out of the industry.

    So it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The majority won’t read because books aren’t being made for them and books aren’t being made for them because writers don’t see an audience. It doesn’t help to that so many people are taught as kids to hate and reject reading.

    It’s mostly a perception issue. Unfortunately it probably won’t change for a long time. OldPub has damaged the industry too much for any change to happen soon.

    1. JD,

      Exactly. The book-selling marketplace the terms of what is avaialble just as much as the consumer, and maybe more so. However, as with nearly all pop culture, the producers have more power and appeal to an increasingly niche segment of their, quite frankly, weird customer base–for example, why do all of these kids’ cartoons starring kids doing kid things have more adult fans than kid fans?–while ignoring others.

      That said, this is where NewPub can swoop in much as it has done in other sectors. We obviously haven’t reached critical mass yet, but the audience is, I think there.

  4. I wonder if standalone stories starring the same character could be a marketable middle ground? A lot of pulp writers took that approach.

  5. I am borrowing from David Stewart, but it all comes down to what you are used to read, and what has inspired you to build your own story. Many people have grown up as creatives with the proverbial doorstoppers, or with long-running series, so they tend to think in the same terms and make their own Wheel of Time, their own Berserk, and so on.
    I believe that as many of us grow as artists, we will get a better eye for the appropriate length to give a certain story. Also more people will start referencing single books or movies rather than decade-spanning narrations as the PopCult corrupts them and people start being tired of them; I may be too optimistic but my impression is that we are heading there already. I myself prefer quicker reads and shorter movies at the moment.

    1. I don’t think you’re being “too optimistic,” nor are you wrong. We do imitate what we are influenced by. But artists must also outgrow this. Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.

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