October 8 – 14: “How does a stand-alone novel become a series?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Stand-alone novels vs. series. How does one become the other? This week we’re joined by ITW Members Colin Campbell, Ellen Byron, Lee Murray, Ava Bardley, DiAnn Mills, Kyle Mills and Erica Wright as they describe how and/or why a stand-alone novel would become a series. Scroll down to the “comments” section – you won’t want to miss this!


USA Today bestselling author Ava Bradley loves edge-of-your-seat thrillers, but believes every story is better if there’s a guy who gets a girl in the end. To Ava, a book without a Happily Ever After is like a cake without frosting. Her latest book, Her Darkest Fear, took root and wouldn’t let go, prompting Ava to create a world around the psychic Massaro sisters, and the Deadly Sight series was born.


Kyle Mills is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eighteen political thrillers. He now writes the Mitch Rapp series for the late Vince Flynn and has also contributed books to a series created by Robert Ludlum. Kyle initially found inspiration from his father, the former director of Interpol, and still draws on his contacts in the intelligence community to give his books their realism. Avid outdoor athletes, he and his wife have lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for over twenty years.


Lee Murray is an award-winning writer and editor (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows). Her latest thrillers include New Zealand military thriller INTO THE SOUNDS (Severed Press), and supernatural crime-noir, TEETH OF THE WOLF (Raw Dog Screaming Press) co-authored with Dan Rabarts. HELLHOLE, a volume of subterranean thriller stories, including novelettes from Jonathan Maberry, Michael McBride, and Sean Ellis, is forthcoming from Gryphonwood Press in December.


Ellen Byron writes the Cajun Country Mystery series. A Cajun Christmas Killing and Body on the Bayou both won the Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery and were nominated for Agatha awards. Plantation Shudders was nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards. Mardi Gras Murder, just released, was deemed a “winner” by Publishers Weekly. Ellen’s TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly OddParents; published plays include the award-winning Graceland.


Ex-army, retired cop and former scenes of crime officer Colin Campbell is the author of British crime novels Blue Knight White Cross, and Northern Ex, and US thrillers Jamaica Plain, Montecito Heights, Adobe Flats and Snake Pass. His Jim Grant thrillers bring a rogue Yorkshire cop to America where culture clash and violence ensue.


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She combines unforgettable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Firewall, the first book in her Houston: FBI series, was listed by Library Journal as one of the best Christian Fiction books of 2014.


Erica Wright’s crime novel The Granite Moth was called “brisk, dark, slinky” by USA Today. Her debut The Red Chameleon was one of O: The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of Summer 2014. She is also the author of the poetry collections Instructions for Killing the Jackal and All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned. She is the poetry editor at Guernica Magazine as well as a former editorial board member for Alice James Books. Her new novel THE BLUE KINGFISHER launches this fall.


  1. While a series could be born from a plot line that doesn’t feel finished at the end of a stand-alone book, that’s not the primary reason. The fundamental question is whether the characters have anything more to say. Do they have room to grow and evolve? Do they have compelling ongoing relationships or the potential to form new ones? And, finally, have you as a writer developed a connection with these characters that you’re excited about continuing? Have your readers?

  2. There are two main reasons for a standalone novel to become a series; either the first book becomes so successful that the moneymen demand a sequel or the author likes a character so much that more stories become too enticing to ignore. I can’t attest to the first, which probably applies to movies more than books anyway, but I do understand the pull of the second.

    When I wrote Northern Ex back in 2008 it was the story of an ex-policeman who missed being an undercover vice cop so much that he keeps visiting the massage parlours that he used to bust. Vince McNulty gets mixed up with missing girls at the Northern X massage chain and becomes the hero he’d forgotten he used to be. End of story. Full circle. Standalone.

    Something about McNulty kept nagging at me though and I considered having him become a Private Investigator with his friend, Donk but that never felt right. Fast forward a few years and my Jim Grant series about a Yorkshire cop working in America hit the buffers, leaving me needing a new series. Enter Vince McNulty, now working for a tinpot movie company in Boston as a technical adviser and getting into the same shit that Jim Grant is always stirring up.

    The other thing is the spin-off as opposed to a sequel; a secondary character that takes on a life of its own and demands a further adventure. It’s not a big leap for that adventure to become several adventures and hey presto, your standalone becomes a series. That’s something else that has happened to me. Of course, my preferred scenario is still the first one, but I’m still waiting for the wild success to sting the moneymen into action.

  3. A stand-alone novel is a perfect candidate for a series when the character(s) proves he/she is capable of taking another two, three, or more adventures. The writer has successfully shown the character has two vital components: the skills necessary to secure the reader’s attention and backstory conducive to a character arc that extends over the series.

    Regarding the plot:

    1. The real antagonist is unknown.
    2. One part of the mystery/crime is solved, but other issues are outstanding.
    3. The solving of one crime leads the investigation to another crime.

    In the event of a romantic element, a third component is necessary in which one of the following may have occurred:

    1. The hero and heroine end the first book with an established like.
    2. The hero and heroine end the first book with a friendship.
    3. The hero and heroine end the first book with something that hinders the relationship from going forward.

  4. A stand-alone can become a series when you have a protagonist who feels like he or she is ripe for additional adventures. I’m going through this right now with my first stand-alone. I realized that my protagonist could certainly be utilized again. At first I thought this wouldn’t work because I’d run into a problem stylistically – the book is set in the past and in the present. But then I decided I could use that. A likeable, interesting protagonist carrying a series that flashes between past and present could make for a very interesting ongoing series. Now all I have to do is sell the first book!

  5. When I finished writing my first mystery novel The Red Chameleon, I never dreamed it would have siblings. Then I met with my agent for the first time, and she asked me how many books I envisioned in the series. Hopefully my panic wasn’t visible. “Three?” I suggested, and she shook her head. She advised me that most series have more like seven or eight installments. I nodded, but my panic only increased. Could I really write that many novels? After I got back to my apartment, though, I realized that my book had sequel potential for a couple of reasons. First, my private investigator Kat Stone was still coming to grips with her undercover life, still trying to figure out who she was when not pretending to be a criminal. Second, I loved spending time with the characters. In my view, those are the two key ingredients to turning a standalone novel into a series: loose ends and a memorable cast.

  6. It’s happened to me twice; a book that was intended as a stand-alone actually turned into a series. I’d like to claim it was an a-ha moment of brilliance on my part, but the truth is, sometimes it’s the characters that don’t want to be silenced.

    For this author, series are both easy and difficult. They’re easy because I follow some rock solid policies for every book I write: provide a complete story, tie up loose ends, and deliver a satisfying ending that a reader can feel good about (as in not a cliff hanger).

    They’re difficult because a series needs precise continuity. Bibles need to be created, continually maintained, and studied. Everything about a character, place, and situation must be kept consistent down to the smallest detail: eye color, family relationship, career, pet’s name, their fear of spiders and love of chocolate chip cookies.

    So how does an author with a single, completed book think about turning it into a series? I think the story tells us if it’s not ready to go away, not the other way around. Sometimes it’s the magical world we’re not quite ready to let go of. Sometimes it’s the dynamics of the family we’re not ready to part with. Sometimes it’s a secondary character who came alive more than we ever intended. Maybe it’s an organization that’s too important to end. (Bodyguards, investigators, and secret agents are especially fun!) Sometimes it’s epic worlds that are too big to fit into a single book. (Game of Thrones, anyone?)

    I have a favorite: Barbara Van Tuyl’s A Horse Called Bonnie. I was a horse crazy girl growing up, and I could not get enough of Bonnie! What are some of your favorite series?

    1. I’m enjoying the very interesting responses to this topic!
      I wrote a stand alone romantic suspense ‘Find Her’ but then had the urge to write a sequel. It can be read as a stand alone too so not really series. If I did write more it would about the town. I’m writing the second of a series based in a small country town at the moment. Australian rural romantic suspense. There are recurring townspeople but the main characters are different.

      I love the Lindsey Davis Falco mysteries set Ancient Rome.

      1. I love Davis’ Falco series, too. In that case, the fact that each story / episode includes a discrete mystery to solve makes it easier to extend the series, with the long story arc being the day-to-day life of the main character and his friends. Beloved characters can be revisited again, and history helps too, with the expansion of the Roman Empire conveniently providing the backdrop and societal context for her stories – a little like an episode of a TV show. So your idea of using an Australian township as the ‘world’ is a great one, Elisabeth – everyone recognises that small-town isolation, and there is an element of escapism that comes with a down-under location.

        1. Australian ‘ru-ro’ is very popular here but doesn’t seem to go too well overseas. Authors say they have to market it as ‘Western’ to gain traction in the US.

      2. Yes, Falco is another great series! Two of my newer favorites are the Emma Kane / Jacob Thorne series by Todd Travis, and Barbara Nickless’s Sydney Rose Parnell series.

  7. This happened to me recently. My novel INTO THE MIST was intended as a stand-alone, but sales were so good that the publisher approached me to write a sequel. “Give me a sequel!” were his exact words.
    Since I hadn’t envisaged writing a series, there was no long story arc to continue, which presented a bit of a problem. Instead, I went back through the first novel and looked for story threads that I could extrapolate to create a second episode and possibly a third. I looked at reviews and critiques for aspects that readers had enjoyed in the first book ‒ the New Zealand landscape (this time the epic Fiordland sounds) certain characters, a monstrous yet plausible predator, and evocative local mythology ‒ and wove these into a second standalone narrative.
    However, I was careful to avoid a cookie cutter sequel. The second novel INTO THE SOUNDS needed to contribute to the work done in the first, while also setting the series up for a kick-ass finale. I’ve just completed the third book in the series, INTO THE ASHES, tying up threads in a long story arc I developed after the fact. That book is with the publisher now and I can’t wait to share it with everyone. There’s no monster in this one, but early readers assure me it’s just as monstrous.

  8. Thank you for this discussion. I appreciate your insights and you have answered many of my questions of how or why to write a series.

  9. When I completed my infectious disease thriller “Yellow Death”, it was written as a stand alone novel. The protagonist Kris Jensen is a tough, intelligent, very much grounded CDC disease investigator who is kind of an amalgam of some of the smart capable women epidemiologists I knew when I worked at the CDC. I then started two other infectious disease thrillers with a different protagonist even though I really liked Kris Jensen as a character. Turns out my readers loved her and insisted on more adventures, so I decided to do a series. To do that I had to do two things.
    First, I had to have her leave CDC. She was assigned to viral hepatitis and most CDC epidemiologists based in Atlanta tend to stay in one field for years at a time. Some assignments such as “special pathogens” allow for more of a variety of investigations but the real problem was freedom of movement. Most field investigators are in the US Public Health service and have to wear a uniform on active duty and have authorization for travel and their investigative activities. Having left CDC, she would have the skill set of a trained epidemiologist and could work with her CDC contacts easily but not be regimented by the need for official approval of her activities.
    The other thing I had to do was train her in infectious disease. This track from CDC to infectious disease fellowship is not unusual. Once trained in general infectious diseases, she would be free to break away from her private practice to investigate an outbreak of an insomnia causing virus in a small town in Tennessee (“Night Plague”), and a serial killer who uses a hybrid rabies virus to knock off homeless people (“Death by Full Moon”) – my 2 WIPs. A planned fourth adventure is rooted in the back story of the debut novel when it is mentioned that her father died in Africa of an Ebola-like illness. She will go back and discover the cause of her father’s death (“Zambezi Fever”).

    Now I have just to finish writing them!

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!