Sunday, March 27, 2011

Going Once, Going Twice… Writing Sequels

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.


  1. Really interesting article, Janice. I had read on another blog (sorry, can't remember whose) that book two needs to start as close to the inciting incident as possible just like book one, wether that's a year or a month after the end of book one. That point really stuck with me. As will yours. Thanks.

  2. Me again.

    What do you think of major cliff hangers at the end of a book in a series? I ask because I just finished book two in a trilogy. I really, really liked it, but the ending left me with wanting more, waaaay more, which also left me unsatisfied and just a little PO'd. Now I need to wait at least a year to find out what happens next.

    What are your thoughts on this technique?

    I know book one needs to be as stand alone as possible because, well, who knows if the editor will want book two. Are there different rules for the second book?

  3. Great pointers here! I have written a few sequels and have definitely struggled with backstory in at least one of them. :D

  4. I think you've said it well. You do have to give the reader enough information in a sequel that harks back to book one so he/she won't be lost. Difficult, yes, but writing IS difficult, whether the book is a sequel or not!

  5. This is super great advice! Thanks Janice. I have a book that could become a series, so if that happens I'll be back to review this post!

  6. Even though I read this the first time you posted it, I'm learning from reading it again. Sequels are hard and this advice is so helpful.

  7. Great advice. I have an agent now, so I'm looking at writing a sequel for my novel. I have a very loose idea of events, and have been struggling with how to add in back story and the best way to increase the stakes. I think I'll be referring back to this post as I work through this process.

  8. Thanks for this post. Most of my story ideas come in series groupings, so this is good to know. Strangely though, for my WIP it was the overall series conflict (or the very vague idea of it) that came to me first, and then I had to go back and figure out an issue for the first book.

  9. Great post. Lately I've been thinking about what goes into a sequel with regard to one of my stories. Thanks!

  10. Paula: Most welcome. A sequel works pretty much like any other book, just with some extra baggage to deal with. Every story needs an inciting event.

    There are different rules for sequels, and it depends on what stage of your career you're at. Debut authors need those books to stand alone as best they can, established authors can get away with major "stop in the middle" cliffhangers. You can leave *some* things hanging (I do in Blue Fire) as long as you wrap up the core conflict. If there's no sense of resolution at all, it's a lot harder for a new author to sell the novel.

    I personally don't mind an ending that leaves me dying to know what happens next, but I don't like it when they aren't satisfying. If it feels like the first part of a book, and nothing is resolved at all, that does annoy me. Those, "What? That's IT? You ended it THERE???" type endings.

    Trisha: Thanks! I think backstory is probably the toughest to deal with.

    Ann: Totally. Good thing it's so much fun :)

    Elle: Thanks!

    Natalie: Nice to hear it holds up on a second read, thanks!

    Beth: I hope it helps. There are more posts on sequels, backstory and stakes. Here are the quick links:




    DuskRose: That'll probably help since you know the end and full scope of the novel.

    Paul G: Perfect timing!

  11. I'm hoping to need this post for reference at some point over the coming months!

    My problem is that I didn't keep proper notes first time around so I'm going to have to go through the entire book and create a file just for characters and how they've changed...

  12. That happened to me between Shifter and Blue Fire. I had to go back and create everything so I was prepared moving forward.

  13. Hi Janice! I JUST tweeted about this conundrum the other day-- especially the backstory problem. How to avoid boring readers who've read book one, while making sure new readers understand what's going on! I'm happy to say I inadvertently followed you advice and zipped through first draft without worrying about it. Now I'm on my first rewrite-- and it's tough!

    I'd also say that backstory doesn't just include the first book's plot, but all the world building (I'm talking fantasy here). I've been trying to find fresh, succinct ways to make sure new readers have a rich experience.

    Sequel should be easier, right? I know these people! I know my way around this world! Maybe not...your comments on character growth throughout multiple books and plot escalation have given me new issues to mull over!

    Thanks and will be tweeting this one! :)

  14. Thanks! Gads, the world building issue is a whole other posts, LOL. How to show the world without using the same images or phrases. It's a challenge.

  15. Hi Janice--I just tweeted the other day asking for links to a great blog on this very subject. I ended up searching google and found your article--it's perfect. I wrote my first novel this year and now I have the second of four to work on. Your suggestions make this seem possible so big thank you!

    I've also become extremely interested in your books (I love fantasy fic) so I'll have to purchase them for me--:) Xmas can be fun! I tweeted this so hopefully others can benefit, too.

    Thanks for putting this together,

  16. I love when that happens! Welcome to the blog. Most welcome, and grats on the novel. :)

  17. Thanks, Janice, for your very helpful article. I'm about to start the third novel in my series and I wasn't at all sure about how I should approach it. Your advice has really helped me get unstuck. At least I'm thinking along the right lines now. Awesome! Cheers!

    1. Oh good! You just made my day, thanks :) Best of luck on book three!