Friday, May 24, 2013

10 Things to Remember About Sequels

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing a sequel is hard. I mean, really hard. I had no idea the first time I wrote one, and figured book two would be just as easy as book one. It was my first sequel, and I learned a lot doing it. If you haven't faced one yet (or you have and it made you want to pull your hair out) here are some tips on dealing with book two.

1. A sequel should be its own story.

Unless you already have a slew of books under your belt and can get away with breaking one story into multiple books (and let's face it, most of us can't do that), a sequel should be it's own story. It needs to be understandable even if someone didn't read the first one. By that I mean, it should have a goal, scenes to achieve that goal, and a resolution to that goal just like any other book. A common mistake for sequels (especially middle books of trilogies) is that it sets up book three. Instead of being a complete book, it's like one big boggy middle.

2. A sequel should remind readers about book one, without rehashing the whole thing or relying on the first to make sense.

This is a toughy, because odds are, book one ended with a natural transition to book two. You can't talk about the problems in B2 without mentioning B1. Finding the right balance between explaining critical B1 events and keeping B2 focused on the new plot is challenging. What I eventually did was pretend readers knew all about B1 while writing the draft. I treated it just like backstory, because B1 is essentially all backstory for B2. After I was done, I went back and looked at all those backstory pieces. Were they clear in context, or did I need to add a few lines to explain what I meant. While you'll probably have to do some infodumping, (and it's okay in this context), make sure you only explain the bare minimum needed to get the referenced material.

3. A sequel should maintain the same things readers loved about book one, but not duplicate it.

Your first instinct will probably be to do something totally different so it's not the same book again, but then you risk losing everything readers liked in the first place. And since the story is continuing, a lot of similar things will still be happening. Look for ways to approach similar but necessary things from a new angle. Is there a way to add a layer of emotion to it? Add a complication based on what happened before? Did the characters learn anything in B1 that make them approach the same issues in B2 differently? Be wary of trying so hard not to copy yourself that you ignore good ideas just because "I did that in book one." Judge each event and see how close it really is, and if anything new is learned from it.

4. A sequel should reveal new things about the characters and world.

Readers want to keep discovering more about your world and characters. Dig deep to find new secrets or cool new world building to keep them hooked. If you have a book three, it's okay to hold some stuff back (or better yet--use this as an opportunity to plant some seeds for B3) for the next book. However, also don't be afraid of using up "all the good stuff" for B2. Look for opportunities to reveal, and be able to build off those reveals later.

5. The characters should have grown some.

Your characters underwent some tough stuff last book, and they learned a thing or two from it. Don't have them making the same mistakes all over again. Let them make new mistakes, or even have learned the lessons wrong so they make a bigger mistake this time around. It's fun for readers to see characters avoid something that would have tripped them up in the first book.

6. Don't forget your secondary characters.

Book twos are a great place to explore your secondary characters some. Try giving them more responsibility or opportunities to act. Small book one walk on characters are also great resources for characters in book two. Maybe they can fill a role to add depth and continuity where a new character wouldn't.

7. Be careful not to add too many new characters.

It's very easy to add way too many new faces in a B2. Make sure you keep it reasonable, and anyone who shows up really does advance the story and is critical to the plot. Check with existing characters to see if they could fill that role.

8. A sequel should keep raising the stakes.

This is another hard one, because chances are the stakes ended pretty high in the first book. You might be tempted to start off with a bang, but be wary of hitting the high note too early and have no where to go. It's okay for this book to start off lower since it's its own book with new goals. Overall, things will probably be more at stake since events in B1, but you can build toward that instead of starting off there. Just make sure you don't start too low and treat the B1 events like they never had any consequences.

9. Remember book two isn't a set up for book three.

Yes, this is kinda in here twice, but it's important to remember. You probably have some really amazing things planned for B3, and you want to hint about those or get things in order so it all works out right. While some of this is fine, it can easily take over and you wind up with a book that doesn't offer a satisfying ending. It's okay to foreshadow a little, but don't leave readers hanging, or get them to a place that's about to get really good and just stop. Save that great hook as your B3 opening.

10. Remember that almost every writer falls on their face writing book two.

I have this from good authority, so don't stress if your first draft (or second, or fourth) isn't singing to you. This can be a very hard book to get right, but if you keep working on it, you'll get there. And I'm also told that hardly anyone ever goes through it again.

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. Thanks for your great post. I'm just finishing my first book and moving onto to book 2 in my series. I've been wondering how much backstory to include and I think your idea of putting just a few sentences in here or there is a great one.

  2. Definitely an interesting topic. I'm still only starting book one at the moment, but my thoughts have naturally strayed to the idea of a sequel.

    I try to throw away those thoughts as much as possible. I've found that it's too easy for me to start thinking 'Hey, I could THIS up as a hook for book 2, and then it could naturally lead to book 3! Lucrative career, here I come!' Needless to say, that's not very conductive to writing a good novel. If I do ever get to the stage of writing a sequel, I'll try not to even think about book 3 until I absolutely have to.

  3. Oh this is great-such an under-covered topic. I'm going to be writing my first sequel ever within the next few months-once I finish my revision and start querying--but the thought of writing another book within the same series--even though I already know what's going to happen--makes me SOOOOO nervous!!! I'll definitely be coming back to this post! Thansk!

  4. All the posts this week have been so very helpful. Thanks, Janice!

  5. Glad I could help. I figure if folks hear about my stumbles and what I learn, maybe they'll be able to skip those when they get to this point in their careers :)

  6. Great post ... just stumbled on it now! I'm working on the sequel and all of this is ringing SO TRUE. Thanks for sharing!

  7. This is a fantastic list from my perspective as a reader. I'd like to request that all authors tattoo point 1 on the inside of their eyelids. :)

    Seriously, I've blackballed a few otherwise well regarded authors from my shelves for blowing this. There are many book and life is finite. Wasting your readers' time & attention is a capital crime.

    Jack Tingle

  8. Susan, you're welcome, glad you found it when you needed it :)

    Jack, that's one of my pet peeves, too :)

  9. Writing Locked Within was a piece of cake compared to the sequel. Silent Oath was hard! I ended up having to do a complete re-write from scratch before my publisher would accept it.

    As a result, it's a far stronger book, but I've put a lot of work into it in a much shorter space of time to get it on the road to publication. That said, the added work has helped me define the characters and storyline in my head more clearly.

    While Silent Oath does end with an idea of what's to come in the final installment, it's definitely its own book. Important characters are introduced and harsh truths revealed.

    The hardest part has been juggling the balance between too much recap of the first book and not enough. My editor and I hate when a series spends too long recapping a previous book or giving the same character descriptions every time, but I know we need some reference to the first book if it's going to feel like a continuation of Nathan's story, and to keep a reader interested even if they haven't read Locked Within yet.


  10. Suppose it matters, that I wrote book 2 first, and realized it needed a prequel to bring together the protagonist with his side kick?


  11. Personally I'd take a look at exactly what story you wanted to tell with the prequel. If the only thing that really matters is getting the hero and sidekick together, essentially you're writing a novel-length prologue. You'd be better off leaving their introduction in the backstory and weaving details of it into the rest of the story naturally.

  12. Paul, sounds like you had a similar experience to mine. It's hard, but I am proud of what I did with Blue Fire and it was a useful experience to go through. Hard as sequels can be, they can make us better writers.

    R Mac, Paul has good advice. I think it'll come down to why you wrote the prequel. If it's basically a fleshed out setup to make book two make more sense (or to explain the relationship), then odds are it's not likely to hold its own as a novel. But if there's a story there that works whether or not you ever read book two, then you're probably fine.

  13. You're dead on, Janice. Working on Silent Oath was an incredible learning experience. My confidence as a writer has increased tenfold after the work I've done and the lessons I gained.

  14. Excellent advice. All these woes can easily be done away by one little thing: plotting. Eek! Did I just admit that? (<--says the panster.) =) If you have a 3 story arc before finishing book 1, you should be set. Of course, this coming from the woman who has a dozen series planned out and has only written 2 book 2's. Guess I better keep my mouth shut until I've got a little more weight under my belt.

  15. Crystal, LOL plotting certainly helps. Being under contract also plays a HUGE role. The pressure and the usual time constraint adds a lot to it. I thought I had it plotted, but it turned out there were more holes than I realized :)

  16. Some great tips to keep in mind. Thanks for the reminder to make B2 it's own story with it's own development without just setting up for B3.

  17. Great advice, Thanks!

    Do publishers look at stories that are connected by a world and an overarching series arc as sequels if the main characters from the first book are not the main characters in the second? The main characters from book 1 are in it towards the end but not for majority of the book.

    Would your advice change for this type of book 2? Would having a sequel of this type make it easier or harder to sell?

    FYI, the main character in the second book is my Han Solo character. ;-)

  18. Man, are you reading my journal or what?? This post is so timely, it's scary. Like Natalie, I'm starting on book 2 and had the same concern about back story. Thanks so much for these helpful hints!!!

  19. Thanks so much, I needed this!

  20. Jennifer, most welcome!

    Lynn, I know there are series out there like that. It's pretty common in category romance, and I've seen it other genres as well. I'd imagine they're handled differently than a traditional trilogy (I've never written one myself). Each book would be it's own story, so it would probably be easier to write. You'd not have the same pitfalls.

    The series arc would play a role, but it's hard to offer suggestions there without knowing more about the story. I'd guess that the series arc ties the individual stories together? I'd suggest treating it like any other arc and making sure each piece of it wrapped up and moved the plot in each book. Whatever the book is about that also resolves that next step in the series arc. (Does that make sense?)

    As for would probably depend on the genre. Genres where this is more common will be more open to the format. Genres where this is never done will be a harder sell. But the book and series itself will be what sells the book in the end. If it's a great book with compelling characters, it'll likely find a home :)

    Han Solo character, yay!

    LinWash, I have gremlin spies who keep me informed :)

    Lydia, glad I pulled it, then :)

  21. I've never written a sequel! Excellent advice, Janice.

  22. Great post, and timely as I'm getting ready to start a sequel this year. Thanks.

  23. Thank you for this article, it was heartening to read. I am on the "Falling on my face" part of book two right now!

  24. Oo that's a tough one to be on. Hang in there! It's hard, but you'll get through it :)

  25. Argh. Just typed a comment and had it swallowed by the "sign on first" process. Oh, well. Meh.

    1. So sorry :( Blogger's been doing that and there's no way I can turn it off. I've been told it's a Google issue.