Sunday, March 27
Going Once, Going Twice… Writing Sequels
Sequels are hard. Seriously hard. Bang-your-head-against-the-wall-hard. But they’re also amazing learning experiences because you really need to master some pretty tricky writing techniques to pull them off. Like…
You thought dealing with backstory in a regular book was a pain? Try writing a sequel where the entire first book is backstory. And you have to get that information into the sequel so those who didn’t read book one can keep up, but not so much that it bogs down the story and bores return readers. After several failed attempts, I finally found a system that worked for me.
1. Pretend readers already know this stuff
On the first draft of my fantasy novel, Blue Fire, I didn’t try to add in the backstory. I just wrote it as if everyone knew what I was talking about. I referenced past events, past characters, past fears, whatever came up in the natural development of the story. Whenever I got the urge to explain, I stopped myself. But I did add a little “might need more here” note to remind myself that my first instinct was to elaborate at that spot.
2. Explain key info the first time it’s presented
On the next pass, I looked at all those backstory references and asked myself, “Would someone who hadn’t read this understand what I was talking about from the context of the paragraph?” If yes, I left it as it was. If no, I added a little explanation. “Little” is the key word here. A line or two, a paragraph tops, is all you need. If you feel the urge to write more than that, find another spot to slip it in so the backstory isn’t all one big chunk.
3. Check my notes
I also checked those notes where I thought I should add more. Some places I really did need to elaborate and it was indeed a natural place for it. Often, I could add more there, so a quick mention earlier on was all I needed to keep new readers on board. (this happened when the note was close to the first mention of that topic). For example, I might introduce an old character, have a few lines of dialog as they interacted with my protag, then slip in some backstory to remind readers who they were.
You’d think plotting out a sequel would be easy, because you already have this entire story to draw from, but that was as much a hindrance as a help. My first instinct was to simply continue the story as if the book had never ended. Problem was, that made book two feel like something tacked on to the end of book one, and it didn’t have a solid story of its own. While you can do this once you’re a well-known author, when starting out, each book needs to stand on its own. Things I tried to keep in mind:
1. Give the book a book-worthy goal
My first drafts of Blue Fire ended up being a continuation of The Shifter. I kept trying to pick up where I left off. Finally, I pretended I’d never written book one and approached book two as its own story. What was the core conflict? What were the characters trying to accomplish? That made it easier to find the driving story and create my plot.
2. Don’t forget to escalate the stakes
The biggest gaff I made was not having my stakes escalate at all in the first draft. From page one, the risk was, “Nya could get caught by the Duke.” But since it never got worse than that, the story felt flat. It was like book two was a really long climax to book one. I had to go back and start smaller, giving Nya other risks that grew bigger and bigger until the “get caught by the Duke” risk was the climax risk. It had to follow the same escalating stakes structure as book one.
Character growth is important in any story, but when you’re writing a series, you have to pace your growth just like you pace your story. And that includes your secondary characters, otherwise they’ll feel two-dimensional and pale next to your protag. A few tricks I used:
1. Let your characters grow some, but not too much
Nya still had to make mistakes, but she couldn’t make the same mistakes. She had to learn from what happened in The Shifter, and apply that to Blue Fire. But she also needed to keep some flaws that I could work with in book three.
2. Let your secondary characters shine
Sequels are great times to dig a little deeper into those sidekicks and friends. Give them a bit of the spotlight and let them show they’re not just cannon fodder. Giving them a stake in the plot and allowing them to drive some of the story really fleshed out the book and deepened not only their characters, but my protag as well. Nya isn’t in this book alone, so why shouldn’t her friends have their moments? Giving them a larger role also made it easier to come up with plot elements, because I had more to work with to cause trouble, and more for Nya to care about to up the stakes.
I was ready to tear my hair out while writing Blue Fire, but I’m darn proud of it now. It’s a story I worked hard to get right, and it was worth it in the end. Sequels have their own share of quirks and challenges, but if you can overcome those challenges, you might just wind up with a pretty terrific book.
Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Reverie Book Reviews.