Should sequels stand alone?

Last week someone asked a question about sequels on a forum I participate on. The basic question was, ‘do you think sequels should stand alone, or should you assume that the person has read the previous book.’

I didn’t follow the whole discussion, but one of the strong opinions on the board was that all books should stand alone.

I disagree. A lot.

I personally think it depends. In some worlds, like Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, all the books can be read alone. However, the deeper you get into the series, the more you will get out of each book by having read the previous ones.

In other worlds, like C.S. Friedman’s Cold Fire trilogy, you absolutely should start at the beginning. They can be read alone, but I don’t recommend it. Another example is Michael Stackpole’s Dragoncrown War series. In this one there is even a prequel, and it’s best to start there. I find these stories in no way diminished because the books don’t stand alone.

Now, that being said, I believe a lot of my bias comes from being a fantasy reader/author. No need to recap/rebuild a world if everyone already knows the rules – for instance if the book is set in our world – but if it’s a whole new world, recapping every time would be impossible.

On the other hand if it’s such an established universe that many authors are playing/writing in it, then by no means do you have to read every book in order, nor should you have too. For example the Star Wars universe has many small stories and series within a much larger universe. I generally expect that if I pick up the beginning of any of the smaller series within the world, I’ll know what’s going on in the bigger picture. Then I just need to get involved with the specific story. There’s no need to explain what a lightsaber is, or how the Force is used. I already know, because I know that world.

So over all, it probably depends on what kind of books you read as to the best answer to that question. I would just say that there is no absolute answer. Books should not always stand alone, but sometimes they should.

And if you want my honest opinion… I love trilogies, so I almost prefer books that don’t stand alone. But that’s just me.

I wrote another blog on Sequels last summer if you are interested in reading more on how to write sequels. It went up as a guest blog on Jon Gibb’s awesome blog here:


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6 Responses to Should sequels stand alone?

  1. ella grey says:

    Very true. Raymond Chandler’s series could all be classified as standalones and for his character it worked. But I think fantasy, paranormal and urban works better as a continuity of one story or character.

  2. Ian O'Neill says:

    If we’re writing for ourselves and not worrying about capturing new readers, we could make no mention of previous books in a series. We could forgo the ‘recaps’. But we want to be able to capture new readers and satisfy them with the book they choose, whether it be book one or five. If a reader stumbles onto a series and chooses the fourth book instead of the first, wouldn’t we want them to enjoy it as a stand alone story? Yet, we’d risk losing that reader if they couldn’t understand the story without knowing some information from previous books. It’s a fine line.

    • It is a fine line. I think you sometimes have to remind readers what has happened in previous books, which should, usually, also be enough to catch a new reader up, or at least convince them to go find the first book. Thanks for dropping in Ian 🙂

  3. Mardel says:

    I don’t know how I feel about the matter – but I do know there’s a fine line between small bits to catch up new readers (for sequels) and way too much recapping of the past for comfort when a returning reader (me) continues reading a series. It can be downright irritating, sometimes boring and frustrating as a series reader. And yet, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea on how a writer should avoid that particular pitfall. I like reading a third or fourth book even when the author assumes I know all about the world. I figure if I jump in the middle of a series, I should go get the other previous works and get to knowing that particular world. But then, that’s my lazy brain at work (or not at work. haha)

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