Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Your Book 2: The Sequel That Didn't Suck

One of the pinnacles of writing a manuscript, is achieving your own satisfaction. We are often our hardest critics (at least we should be), and being able to read your own work without throwing furniture through windows is a real benchmark. Having reached this threshold, with a publishing deal under your belt no less, you are ready to bask in the glow of your accomplishments.

Aaaaand… Done! Okay, stop loafing. Time to get back to work.

You've got to write a follow-up now. Somehow you got the crazy idea to tell the publisher that this was the first in a series and that means you are now face to face with the daunting task of writing a sequel that doesn't suck.

But, hey! Sucking is what sequels do best! Sure, there are writers who pull it off, but there are lot of others who… uh… don't. Your clambering readers want more of your world and your characters, but the mounting pressure to not disappoint them is overwhelming. What's the secret?

That's been the subject of my own recent research. Here are my findings:

There are different kinds of sequels
We never intended for our books to become a series,
but after 'A' was so popular, our public demanded 'B,'
and the rest was history!

Formulaic: Some writers operate on a plot schematic to which they only make minor tweaks from book to book. This is common in genre fiction, particularly in thematic mysteries.

Continuous: These stories pick up where previous volumes left off. Here we find cliffhanger endings and plots that span multiple books. These are common in fantasy.

Protag-Centered: Similar to formulaic stories, but with less emphasis on formula. These are stories that utilize common elements from book to book to tell different stories. The central cast is usually the same. Suspense thrillers do this a lot.

New Character: Often a series will choose different protagonists from one book to another, and so tell a different story in the same world. Protagonists in previous stories will act as supporting characters now. This is common in romance novels and historical fiction.

Spin-Off: Not a sequel, per se, but worth mentioning. These are stories that tell a completely new story with few if any of the original cast, but loosely connected by details particular to the series.

This list is not exhaustive, but it covers most of what I've run into. None of them is right or wrong. They all have their strengths and their struggles. But they're all after the same goal. And that brings me to the next point.

Sequels are about the experience

The reason readers engage in sequels is not to rehash the same story they've already read. Too many parallels may make a book feel like a carbon copy, and that's not exciting for anyone. Even formulaic sequels have to have a few unknowns or there's no suspense to keep the pages turning.

Maybe this is why sequels can be so dissatisfying.

The best sequels, in my opinion, are the ones that keep crucial elements from the original and combine them in different ways to produce the desired emotional effect. They give me the similarities I'm looking for, but without rehashing. It's the impact I'm looking to duplicate, not the details.

Sequels should have a purpose
...And then they lived happily ever after.

Until my car payment was due.

Not every story needs a sequel. A sequel should accomplish something for the characters and the world they inhabit. Good sequels engage a character from a new angle. Perhaps the consequences of a previous story -either good or bad- have thrust your character into new circumstances in which she cannot proceed as she has before. Her footing is off, and she must learn different ways to cope. Or, maybe you've got unresolved conflicts remaining from the previous story.

Whatever the case, you need something to justify a new story beyond My Fantastic Book II: Return of the Electric Bill.

Sequels play on your readers' expectations

One advantage sequels hold over their predecessors is an existing set of tropes you can play upon. Your readers are now familiar with the localized symbols and metaphors from your previous works. With a little misdirection, you can use this to your advantage.

If your previous antagonist was a dubious car salesman, and you introduce another car salesman in a future book, your readers will distrust him immediately. But maybe he's an ally. Or, maybe you reintroduce the original antagonist, but put him in a more favorable light. The point is you're taking your own tropes and turning them on their heads. It will keep your readers on their toes.

Sequels don't have to be lousy

Sequels are an opportunity to tell a great story. You have tons of groundwork already laid. You have characters with at least one book's worth of development. You have a universe ready to go. You have an eager readership (since you did your job the first time around and left them wanting more).

Altogether, that leaves a lot more room in your word budget to spin an amazing yarn. So, go wild!

And check out these resources for more information on writing your best sequel.

The Truth About Sequels: How to Improve on Your First Book

Five Rules for How to Write a Sequel

Ten Crazy Realities About Writing a Sequel


April Moore said...

I hadn't thought about the various types of sequels before, David! This is great information for any author contemplating a series. I think it's a pretty amazing thing when an author creates a character or storyline that readers can't get enough of--talk about job security!

Kristin Owens said...

Great information - especially as I dive into my own book two. I hope by using your post it shan't suck. thanks David

David Sharp said...

Thanks, April. I've never thought so much about sequels as I have in the last several months. I'm astounded at how much there is to them, but it's also an exciting new challenge.

Kristin, I do not doubt your sequel shan't suck at all.

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