We live in a world of sequels. In large part, the sequel is a rather modern invention. Jane Austen wrote no sequels to her beloved Pride & Prejudice (we had to wait until 1949’s Pemberley Shades for that). Dickens wrote no sequels, although his chronic serialization was, in its way, a precursor. And it took To Kill a Mockingbird fifty-five years to get its sequel.
Nowadays, however, we have sequels coming out of our ears. Better than that, we have prequels, interquels, midquels, sidequels, parallel stories, spiritual successors, companion pieces, reboots, and remakes. We love sequels. We love series. As readers, we love the opportunity to revisit familiar worlds and characters. We love getting to re-experience the same thrill an original great story gave us. As writers, we love all those same things–plus the commercial marketing opportunities that series undeniably offer.
The world of the sequel is something I’m only just recently exploring for myself. Unlike about 90% of the writing populace out there, I’ve yet to write a sequel. But that’s about to change. I’m embarking on the new adventure of writing a totally unforeseen sequel to my portal fantasy Dreamlander.
It’s fantasy, right? So why wasn’t I thinking of a series right from the minute I typed “The End” on the first one? I’ve always wanted to do a sequel for it. I’ve played around with sidequel and prequel ideas, since I was stumped for a good old-fashioned sequel after tying off the loose ends on the first one (how can you top stakes that threaten to utterly destroy two worlds? how can you send your hero back to a place he left only to prevent worlds-ending catastrophes?).
I’ve been waiting all this time for the idea that would allow me to move forward. Now that it’s here, I’m going to share some of the questions I’ve been asking myself to help ensure I write a sequel that’s not only as good as the first book, but–I hope–better.
Can You Outdo Yourself? (And What That Really Means)
The very first question you have to ask yourself when considering a sequel is, “Does this book have the potential to better than the first one?” In short, can you outdo yourself?
Sequels are notoriously weaker than their predecessors, to the point that exceptions to the rule (such as Pixar’s Toy Story 2) get extra press not just because they’re good stories, but because they break the mold. If you can’t outdo the first book, then why even bother writing a second?
However, it’s extremely important to realize that outdoing yourself is all about coming up with a better idea, not a bigger and better version of the same thing you offered in the first book. You want to evolve your original idea, enhance it, explore it–rather offering more of the same, just because “well, readers liked it the first time.”
In Your Idea Machine, screenwriter William C. Martell expounds:
On an idea level, compare Speed to Speed 2…. The first film was made on a medium budget (a bus driving on the freeway, hitting an occasional car or barricade barrel of water)…. Speed 2 was an expensive flop…. Or compare The Matrix to either of the sequels… or Bruce Almighty to Evan Almighty. The first films have great ideas that work on their own without big special effects or casts of thousands or giant sets. The sequels all try to outdo the first, not by coming up with a great new idea, but by throwing money at a second-rate idea. Instead of being clever, they added more explosions and bigger explosions.
Good sequels take the characters and ideas of the first story, and instead of retreading the same ground, they evolve these elements into something completely original. Consider Marvel’s Captain America movies or Brandon Sanderson’s ongoing Stormlight Archives series. The sequels are vastly different from the original stories. Why? Because they’re not simply switching out the villain and repackaging the same conflict. They’re building upon the foundation of the first and reaching for something new.
Do You Have Enough Story for a Sequel?
This is why it’s so important to evaluate whether or not you actually enough story to write a sequel. It’s not enough to really, really want to keep writing about these characters. You have to create an explosive plot in which they can move forward. This is why it took me forever to be able to do a sequel for Dreamlander: until recently, I had no story!
Why Are You Writing a Sequel?
Before deciding how to write a sequel, consider the following motivations.
Bad Reasons to Write a Sequel
- Money: Yes, series are a much better marketing opportunity than standalones. No, this is not, in itself, a good reason to write a sequel. Don’t believe it? Please repeat after me: Phantom Menace, Phantom Menace, Phantom Menace.
- Pressure: But everyone’s writing sequels! I need to write sequels too! Did Cormac McCarthy write a sequel to The Road? Did William Golding write a sequel to Lord of the Flies? Did Emily Brontë write a sequel to Wuthering Heights?
- Path of Least Resistance: New stories are hard. We have to reinvent ourselves with the changing process for each new book. Sometimes it’s just easier to keep writing the same ol’ thing. Note: I said easier, not better.
- Too Much Character Love: It’s also hard to say goodbye to beloved characters. But just because it’s hard doesn’t necessarily mean the journey really isn’t over.
Good Reasons to Want to Write a Sequel
- Passion for Characters and Story: Although love of your original story isn’t in itself a good reason to write a sequel, it’s still a tremendously important factor. If you aren’t still crazy about these people and their world, then you definitely have no business writing further about them.
- Reader Interest: In itself, this is also not a reason to run off and write a series. But if your readers are entreating you for a sequel, that’s not only a sign that the commercial opportunity is there, it’s also probably a very good indication there’s enough meat left in this story to create some juicy ideas.
- New and Interesting Ideas: And that brings us to the single best reason for writing a sequel. You have a shut-the-front-door awesome idea for a new story. If you’ve that, you’re golden!
What Should Your Sequel Be About?
How do you find a great idea for a sequel? If you’re dutifully trying to avoid rehashing the same scenarios in your new story, then what should you be writing about? Your first and best opportunity for making this book completely new and interesting is to focus the sequel on dealing with the consequences of the previous book.
Few stories tie off their loose ends perfectly. Even victories create consequences. Your character’s world at the beginning of the sequel will be completely different from how it was at the beginning of the first book. And, if it’s not, you have to ask yourself if that first book really ended the way it should have. (The possible exception, of course, being “episodic” sequels that purposefully maintain the characters in a basically static environment, with only the particulars of their new adventures being different. Mystery series are often set up like this).
What questions did your first book raise? If your protagonist fell in love, where is he in his new relationship? If he endured horrible events, is he suffering from PTSD, guilt, or physical ramifications? If he laid waste to New York City, à la Superman, then how is the Big Apple reacting to this mayhem?
The best sequels are built upon initial books that progress their own plots and finish their own arcs in ways that allow the new ones to ask new questions while still maintaining the best aspects of the originals.
The second Captain America movie is completely different from the first one, largely because it shifts the timeline to sixty years later. The protagonist remains the same, but the situations he faces are completely different.
Sanderson’s sequel Words of Radiance maintains the same overarching conflict as its predecessor Way of Kings, but the protagonists have evolved to the point where their inner problems are different and more complex than previously.
Where Will the Character’s Arc Go?
Even if you have the perfect plot idea, you still have to consider the inner path your protagonist will follow. Ask yourself:
- Where will your killer new idea take your character?
- What was his character arc in the first book?
- Did he complete a change arc? If so, will this new book allow him to hold onto the Truth he learned in the first book and now follow a flat arc (such as we see in Thor: The Dark World)? Or will he be faced with a new Lie to overcome?
- Or perhaps he didn’t complete his arc in the first book? Will the sequel be, in essence, the Second Act of his arc?
- If your character followed a flat arc in the original, will he maintain that throughout–as is often the case in “episodic” series?
The Inherent Dangers of a Sequel
In writing a sequel, you have the opportunity to create something that will delight readers. You’ve already convinced them to invest in your story world and your characters. Providing them a sequel becomes not just “another book” for them to read, but a personal gift from you to them.
But, inherent in your readers’ dedication and excitement lies the huge potential pitfall of disappointing them. Their very expectation means you have to offer them something above par.
You also have to be aware that, unlike with your first book, yours is no longer the only imagination at work here. The more readers like your first book, the more they’re going to spend time imagining your characters’ further adventures for themselves. It’s very possible that whatever they imagine might just be better than whatever you imagine (scary thought!)–or at the least, that they might prefer their imaginings to yours. (How many times have you watched a movie trailer, imagined an awesome story for yourself–and then been disappointed by the actual offering in comparison?)
To some extent, this is just one of those subjective aspects of storytelling that is completely unavoidable. You certainly didn’t please everyone with your first book, and you’re certainly not going to please everyone with the sequel. But it’s important to be aware of the trust your readers are putting in you and the high expectations they’re bringing to the table. Don’t let that scare you, but also don’t take their enthusiasm for granted.
Writing sequels is an exciting business. I’m absolutely giddy with all the juicy possibilities for Dreamlander that are flooding my imagination now that the gates have been opened. If you believe you have a potentially awesome sequel idea, unleash it! Pour yourself into creating a sequel that’s even better than the first book. Not only will your readers go wild, you’ll also end up improving your craft in ways you never imagined.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you written a sequel? What are your best tips for how to write a sequel that’s better than the first book? If you haven’t written one yet, would you like to? Tell me in the comments!
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