Just when you think you’ve figured out how to write a book, you realize you have to learn a whole new set of rules for how to write a sequel.
You’d think writing the second book in a series couldn’t be that much different from writing the first one. They both have a beginning, middle, and end—three acts, all the usual plot points, rising and falling action, etc., etc., etc. (said your best Yul Brynner voice). Even better, you’ve already done the hardest part of the foundational work, right? You’ve already successfully made it through one whole book with these characters, which means you already know what they like for breakfast, how they survived their childhood nemesis, and what their go-to move for bad-guy kicking will always be.
So far, so good. But it’s also true a sequel is a new animal in its own right, with its own set of unique questions and challenges—ones you maybe never even dreamed of when toiling through that first book.
I am now almost a year into my first experience with a sequel—the second in an unexpected trilogy, beginning with my portal fantasy Dreamlander. Having just completed its ginormous outline and now standing on the brink of streamlining it all into a cohesive first draft, I am excited to report it has been an amazing experience. The chief question I’m left with is: Why didn’t I do this sooner?!
I have also learned a ton, about storytelling in general and, of course, sequels in particular. I’ve already written about how to determine the best ideas and approaches for your sequel ideas, as well as how to plan and outline your overarching story throughout the entire series. But today, it’s time to consider how to write the sequel itself.
Reader Lauren Fulton sent me an email on the subject, asking almost all the most important questions any writer can raise about how to write a sequel:
I’m working on a sequel right now and would love your thoughts on how else a sequel differs from the first book. How can we use the relationships readers have already built with characters to jump right in, without having the slow build up of getting to know the cast? Do we need to explain to readers why this story doesn’t have all the elements of the previous one?
Top 5 Guidelines for How to Write a Sequel
Let’s get our boots on the ground and go over five of the most important tactics for how to write a sequel that fulfills (and maybe even exceeds) your readers’ expectations.
1. How to Open Your Sequel’s First Chapter
Honestly, one of the most important questions of any book is—where to begin? Almost all of the same rules for beginning your standalone book’s chapter also apply to your sequel. If anything, a sequel’s opening chapter offers you more opportunities for great hooks with fewer burdens for introducing important story elements.
Historically, the opening chapter has been one of the most difficult parts of any book for me. There is just so much to juggle from the first line on. You have to introduce the protagonist in a characteristic moment that defines him, as well as a scene that introduces or hints at the main story conflict, illustrates the theme, and absolutely thrills readers.
Of course, a sequel’s opening chapter also has to accomplish all of this too, but it’s actually a much easier challenge, if only because you’ve already been there, done that in the previous book. When I originally wrote the first chapter of Dreamlander—the trilogy’s first book—I had to take into account that readers knew nothing about my character or the story world or the premise that people were living two different conscious lives, one waking in our world and another in a parallel fantasy world they visited in their dreams.
I had to open that story with a protagonist who was just as clueless as the readers—which meant it was actually really hard to come up with a Normal World hook that fulfilled all the necessary requirements. (The opening scene that ended up in the book—which I was pretty happy with—was actually an eleventh-hour edit just weeks before publication.)
But guess what? *happy dance* I didn’t have to mess with that in the sequel. I got to jump right into the heart of the story, with a protagonist who was already in the know about what was happening to him and who was, in turn, able to help readers ask all the right questions about why it was happening.
However, your sequel’s opening chapter will also present some of its own unique challenges. The Hook must still be a Hook—not simply a continuation of the final scene from your last book. And even though you won’t have to introduce your protagonist, plot, and theme from scratch, you will have to reframe them in a way that reminds readers where things stand and gives them a foundation for moving forward in this book’s unique dramatic and thematic premises.
You must choose a sequel’s opening scene with just as much care as you used for the first book. What scene will dramatize not just who your character is, where he’s at, and what he’s doing—but what scene will best show readers how the character has changed from Book 1 to Book 2?
You must also determine how much time should pass between books. Sometimes this answer will be obvious, sometimes not. But if you skip too much time, you may find yourself unwittingly jumping over some of the events readers were most desperate to know about in the aftermath of the first book. Take a step back and ask yourself: What is my readers’ most pressing question after the first book? See if you can answer that question or at least acknowledge it in your first chapter, to pull them right back in.
2. How to Explain Book 1’s Events in Book 2
A question I commonly receive is: How to share the events of the previous book in the second book? How much do readers need to know? And how can you remind them (or catch them up to speed if they’re accidentally starting with Book 2) about everything that’s already happened in this story?
Even though this is a common concern among writers, it’s actually an incredibly easy fix. All you got to do is treat the events of Book 1 as backstory. Pretend you’re starting all over with Book 2. Wipe the slate clean. Readers do not need to be told about any of the events Book 1 unless and until those events become pertinent context for what’s happening in Book 2.
Forget those page-long summaries of previous events and focus on what’s important in this story. If your protagonist is stranded on the moon in Chapter 1, then, yeah, you’ll need to acknowledge how he got there. But a simple sentence about that “no good space smuggler Ricardo marooning me” is probably going to be enough.
3. How to Up the Stakes Without Being Repetitious
Just as in a standalone book’s Climax, a series is going to want to save the best stuff for last. This means that, theoretically, the story should get more and more intense and exciting with each new book. If we just keep it simple and say you’re writing a trilogy, this means Book 2 should have higher stakes and more good stuff than Book 1, and Book 3 needs to be higher and bigger still.
But if you did like you should have and gave Book 1 everything you’ve got, what does that leave for the sequels? Just as importantly, how can you give readers more of what they liked in the first book without snowballing into repetition?
There are two keys.
Key #1: Each Book Should Be “Same But Different”
It’s true: readers want more of the same. They loved what you gave them in the first book, and now they’re back for more. But what they really want is to look at the same subject matter, but from a different angle.
This is why Susanne Collins’s sequel Catching Fire featured the Hunger Games all over again, but in an entirely different setting, with different goals and different stakes, for entirely different reasons.
This is why sequels always have the opportunity to be better than the first book, if the author is gutsy enough to take advantage of its opportunities. Sequels shouldn’t be repeats; they should be expansions. In short: the same, but more.
Key #2: The Stakes Must Be an Evolution
And that brings us to Key #2. Discovering new, better, and different stakes for your sequels is all about building off what you did in the first book. Consider how you can take your character’s victories from Book 1 and turn them into consequences. Again, Hunger Games is a good example. Katniss beat President Snow to survive, but as a result, she becomes Public Enemy #1 in Books 2 and 3.
Take a look at whatever was most awesome in your first book. Take a look at what events hurt your characters the most. Take a look at the weak spots they never really had to face and are still covering up. Take a look at your antagonistic force and consider their most likely response in trying to reclaim their losses.
It’s easy to raise the stakes in sequels. Just remember that the more your character wins in her victories, the more she then stands to lose in all subsequent battles.
4. How to Create a Seamless Overall Story
The best stories are those that create a seamless big picture. No matter how huge and sprawling your story will be by the time you write the final book, you still want your series’ ultimate ending to bring the story back full circle to the very first book. That can be tricky (especially if, like me, you didn’t know you were writing a series when you started Book 1).
The Best Way to Write a Seamless Series
Optimally, you will know your series’ ending before you ever begin writing Book 1’s first draft. This allows you to identify all the most important plot questions, characters, settings, thematic questions, and Maguffins. Once you’re aware of which are important throughout the series, you can then artfully sow them into each book in a meaningful way, allowing them to become consequential motifs—road marks along the way that characters and readers alike can resonate with.
The Second Best Way to Write a Seamless Series
However, the above approach may not always be possible. Perhaps outlining just isn’t your thing, or perhaps, like me, you had to wait six years before you even realized there would be another book. In that case, you won’t be able to work your way up from the foundation of the story’s big picture. Instead, you will have to start on the ground floor, pick up whatever pieces seem important and then make sure they’re important all the way through to the end of the series.
For example, since Dreamlander was a standalone book, I basically had to cook up a whole new conflict for the sequels. And yet, I still wanted them to create the effect of a (generally) seamless overarching trilogy. This meant the new conflict I created for the sequels had to be built upon the leftover pieces of the first book. I had to figure out a way for Dreamlander‘s events to be, not so much a complete story unto themselves anymore, but rather the First Act in a larger story.
This pursuit of cohesion will be just as true of the smaller elements in your story. If certain settings, goals, or Maguffins were important in the first book, then you will want to find a way to, optimally, return to these elements in the second book—or, at the least, acknowledge them, so they don’t end up feeling like loose ends.
5. How to Continue Developing Minor Characters
If you want even the smallest elements of your story to play a role in creating a seamless big picture through your series (which you do), then this is doubly true of your supporting cast. In her email, Lauren went on to ask:
I’m finding myself trying to justify why many minor characters from the first book aren’t featured in the second one. They’re around somewhere, but just not that important for this plot!
Lauren’s dilemma was also one I faced in planning my sequels. I had some very new and exciting new roads down which to take my protagonists. But doing so required leaving behind some of the minor characters from the first book. Here’s what I discovered:
First rule of sequels: Yes, try to include as many elements as possible from the first book in the later books.
Second rule of sequels: Never force previous elements into a later book, just for the sake of cohesion.
So how can you meaningfully include old friends from Book 1, but in a way that matters to the story without interfering with that story? Here are four approaches:
Although not ideal, you can still achieve the desired effect of tying off your loose ends simply by letting the minor character appear briefly in a very short scene. It lets readers know you didn’t forget about him, while also allowing you to acknowledge his whereabouts during the events of this book.
Even better than a one-time cameo appearance is a two-time “framing” appearance. Even if a minor character is extraneous to the main events of the plot, you can still keep her grounded within the story by giving her an appearance (or, even better, a job to do) in both the beginning and the end of your story.
3. New Roles
Often, a minor character might appear in Book 1 to fulfill a specific role, which then expires with that book. But the character himself needn’t expire. Just give him a new role. Tony Stark had no need of a bodyguard after he became Iron Man, so Happy Hogan instead became Pepper Potts’s driver in subsequent stories.
Finally, if you find yourself with an unnecessary character on your hands, you can always give them the chance to become necessary by letting them die a meaningful death. It’s win-win. You can stop juggling that extra piece, and you get a powerful scene that motivates surviving characters.
I had to write nine standalone books before I got to find out what a blast sequels are. Hopefully, you won’t have to wait quite so long. Sequels eliminate many of the challenges of a standalone book, but they also come with their own exciting new experiences to work through. Figuring out how to write a sequel can take your writing to the next level. Join me and see for yourself!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think are the easiest and hardest parts of how to write a sequel? Tell me in the comments!
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