Standalone Or Story-Arc?

Bryant and May

Which do you prefer?

I’m taking a straw poll, because although the Bryant & May novels are standalone they also have a story arc for regular readers. ‘The Memory Of Blood’ is very much a standalone novel, but picks up on a long-running MoD situation that’s reaching critical point. For the tenth Bryant & May novel, ‘The Invisible Code’, I’m thinking about an unusual scenario that could be taken either way.

I used to get annoyed when I’d pick up comics or books with continuing arcs. Being a constant reader, it’s difficult to separate storylines in your head, and lately I’ve read so many crime novels for the CWA Gold Dagger Award that characteristics and plotlines start to blur.

The all-purpose one would be; ‘An alcoholic Italian policeman investigates the murder of a young girl that echoes a case on the files ten years earlier, and encounters corruption in the courts.’

Mine, it is fairly safe to say, won’t be like that. But should it be self-contained, or continuing? Series don’t get reviews, so critics don’t care, but readers do.

The picture, by the way, is a first draft for the next cover.

27 comments on “Standalone Or Story-Arc?”

  1. STALKY says:

    Hi Chris,
    I like story arcs but the danger I have always found is that more often or not the end never lives up to the chase.I can remember reading quite a few series and finding my self thinking ,well that was a bit of a let down .By the way good cover.


  2. Leigh Bellinger says:

    Interesting question. I can tell you I was introduced to Bryant & May quite late in the game (it’s been about four years now? I think that’s right). So I read the books out of order, which is not ideal, but, like you said they can standalone. It was only after I caught up that I was able to enjoy that continuing storyline. So now I have to say please keep with that story arc for regular readers. Because … after all … we want to continue that journey with not only Bryant & May, but the entire Peculiar Crimes Unit.
    PS-Love the new artwork for the next cover.

  3. Simon says:

    The story arc needs to be in the background and not to have an ‘intimate’ link through the book so that new readers can enjoy the standalone story while regular readers can enjoy the totality as a reward for continuing to read the series. Artwork looks great.

  4. Vicki says:

    Hi, I think the story needs to stand alone in essence, as so many people tend to pick up a book without realising it could be part of a series. However story arcs in the background are fun for us long term fans, it is really useful for fleshing out the characters and you feel you learn a little more about them in each book, a kind of eureka moment when you think, ‘Oh I never new that about x’. They also are great for promoting backstock!
    Agree new artwork is great!

  5. Alan Morgan says:

    It’s good to have that arc, but then too for novels it is a case they get picked up and read, and not always in the right order. Bookshops won’t always have the first two, four or even ten – but they may have the latest. In libraries (where I test run a lot of previously unread authors) I’m not going to take out the third book of a series without reading the first two. B&M are their own connection, their own arc. There can be stuff spread about that joins them, old cases like the Deptford Demon and May’s family. I’ve not read the Victoria Vanishes yet, but all before and after. I like stuff that isn’t resolved too. I confess that having had the Leicester Square Vampire around for twenty years I didn’t really want to be any more enlightened than I was through Ten Second Staircase.

    Also and I’ll admit if I read two or three books that together describe a story in about six hundred pages, I tend to wish it had just been one book. I do like a good snappy story, Logan’s Run for example that can be read in one go and quite possibly during a single good dump. I also sometimes like a bit longer to really submerge myself, Martin Millar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl. All of which helps you not at all in that really, you know what the story warrents.

    Lovely to be asked, mind.

  6. Mark Pack says:

    I’m on the fence on this in that I prefer the best of both worlds – stories that stand alone, but with references and characters that tie in to the rest of the series. Anthony Price was a great example of this – stand alone novels but with a recurring main character who got noticeably older across the different books.

  7. stonemuse says:

    With B&M a story arc in the background works. However, your other books are generally standalone and work well for it.

    I guess the deciding factor for me is that my favourite genre of yours is the short story … and these are primarily standalone.

  8. Sam Tomaino says:

    By all means, feature whatever story arc you have in mind. I like the supporting characters of the PCU and I’d like to see there stories develop a bit.
    I am obssesive about reading an author’s connected novels & stories in order. I even did that with John Dickson Carr for whom it made no difference. In many mystery series, it does and since they usually list the other books somewhere, that’s no problem.

  9. Anne Marie says:

    I vote for continuing.

  10. KAREN says:


  11. Helen Martin says:

    (Love the artwork)Story arc in the background because people’s lives move and we are interested in all the PCU characters and how they’ve become what they are, but stand alone so you don’t have to have read in writing order.

  12. Joyce says:

    I agree with Simon. Nicely put. The draft cover is thrilling.

  13. David says:

    Just finished B&M on the Loose. It had two story arcs — the reforming of PCU and the fantastic Mr. Fox. Still, the novel was very satisfying. I worry about new readers discovering the series in the middle of an arc. I always recommend Full Dark House as a start in the series because if someone reads a later one, the fate of Mr. Bryant in the first story is no longer a mystery. Anyway, I’m moving on to On the Loose and hope these tremendous tales keep coming. Thanks so much for the series so far.

  14. BangBang!! says:

    I like them as they are. As others have said, if you can pick up and read then more people will get involved. That equals more sales for you and more readers to carry on and get you more commissions so we can all enjoy the stories for ever! For ever I tells ya!! Oh and you can put in loads of little titbits about our friends that we can pick out.

    Is it titbits or tidbits?

  15. Gretta says:

    Am I the only one who finds the thought of Arthur paddling about in the sea disconcerting? And without his shoes and socks! He’ll catch his death.

    Anyway, unlike Sam, I *can’t* read series in order. Just finished 10 Second not long ago, having read Water Room, 77 Clocks and Victoria(in that order) previously, and I like the fact that while in Victoria there were a number of allusions to 10 Second, there was nothing that gave the game away to me. Ditto, I introduced a friend of mine to the world of B&M by cunningly inserting various Arthur Bryant quotes into my Facebook status :), and she started with 77 Clocks, which she loved and was able to get into straight away.

    Which is my long-winded way of saying: Stand alone, but with a hint of story arc(like that regarding John’s daughter). 🙂

  16. I.A.M. says:

    I’ll join with the rest and say that the balanced approach of the B&M thus far (over-all arc, but not specific enough to the case in the book that one needs to read everything prior to this published volume) is the way forward.

    Granted, being told “do the same thign over and over for us” doesn’t give you much room to challenge yourself, does it?

    Still, you did ask

  17. noonski says:

    I would have to agree with just about everyone else and say that I like a story arch as long as it’s not the main theme of the story. Granted, buying e-books can make buying series books in order easier (since bookstores often are missing some titles in a series), and I prefer reading things in order — not just for the story, but, also, for character development, as well as seeing how an author (hopefully) grows with each story. Yet, it’s nice to be able to read things out of order as well.

  18. regina says:

    continuing! (perhaps throw in some footnotes or a preface for the uninitiated.)

  19. Wayne says:

    I like both! Er thats not very helpful, is it? Noonski hits the nail on the head. Story arch is good but also you need to have some individual stand alone stories With character development taken as read. Also if you have continuing story lines you don’t leave room for stories set in the past prospective, i would like to read about some of the early cases B&M have tackled. Not just as by the ways in other books.

  20. LJ says:

    I am now reviewing for “The Strand Magazine” as well as many other sites. Unfortunately, UK publishers don’t send books to US reviewers and I hadn’t started reviewing for them (they accept reviews of books I buy), when I’d read “Bryant and May: Off the Rails.” Here is my review from Amazon.UK:

    However, to answer your question, I love the way your books are done. While each is a standalone, there is a continuing history and continuity. Part of what I appreciate is that new readers are given ample character back-story so they don’t feel lost.

    A story cliffhanger can cause me to stop reading a writer. And, of course, there is the tragic incidence of Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman) who left one of her characters severely wounded at the end of her last book when Ms. Franklin passed away. We will never know what happened to the characters except in our own imaginations.

  21. Karyne Corum says:

    First, I have to say, who could not be a regular reader of Bryant & May? But in answer to your question about story arc versus stand-alone, the one existing in the Bryant and May series is hardly so rigid that you can’t veer off of it for a bit. There are books in the series that vaulted back to cases from the past that had very little to do with the present crisis of existence for the Peculiar Crimes unit. Those who love the series, as I do, will read it, no matter what the context. In the end, I don’t think it’s about how the characters get on, its that they get on at all. A good author asks that his readers trust him or her to get them to the end and satisfy their need to know as well as their pleasure in following the characters to whatever written fate awaits them. A great author has inspired enough of that to have readers trust him or her, no matter what. I think you should know you fall into the latter category.

  22. Jules says:

    As I’m sure you’re aware, so many of us just completely enjoy the B&M sagas for being exciting, totally captivating and altogether unputdownable! Whilst the more avid reader amongst us loves the often intricate and occasionally camouflaged references to previous case files, acquaintences, history etc, I have first hand knowledge that new readers enjoy these stories equally without being carried along through our favourite investigators lives. Having introduced my brother to B&M (who, I might add, initially “pooh-poohed” the warblings of the Mighty Mr F as “nonsensical drivel” rude!) he has now raided my bookcase and worked his way steadily through everything I own from Roofworld to Demonized…yes, I DO own them all! However, my dear sibling discovered my stash of B&M books and read Seventy Seven Clocks first, the great buffoon! My point is that he loved it anyway regardless of knowing very little of our heroes history, and as such, is now eagerly awaiting the next instalment. The one thing we now agree on, apart from the fact that the Mighty Mr F does NOT spout “nonsensical drivel”, is that should any of these tales ever make it to the screen, Michael Gambon would play a most magnificent Arthur!

  23. madmary says:

    I started reading the B&M books (or rather listening with the wonderful Tim Goodman) and chose one of the books at random. I have now listened to three more and am on my fourth. All out of order and it doesn’t matter one jot. They are all marvelous books and I can’t wait to get them all.

    One question are they all in audible form? If not why not?


  24. admin says:

    Hi Mary –
    The remaining Bryant & May audio books are now available

  25. madmary says:

    Oh thanks! And Hi! I can’t wait to listen to them all. I would read them if they weren’t in audible form but I’m hooked now on the way they are read.

    Thanks for a wonderful series.


  26. Julian says:

    I have enjoyed all the B&M stories and I am quite happy that you make references to the previous novels as I have read them in order.I do like the fact however that you can read them all as standalones.Thanks for a very enjoyable series!

  27. Thomas Boland says:

    I have enjoyed the Bryant & May books as standalone reads but with the comforting knowledge that I will see these folks again. I reckon there are some unique challenges in reconciling the story arc with the standalone notion especially when it comes to consistency of character. But I’m sure you find these fellows pretty much take care of themselves by now. Well, Bryant needs a little help from time to time.

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