Getting the sequel right

I’m working on a sequel to Conjure Woman’s Cat. It’s been more difficult to write than CWC. Likewise, Sarabande–the sequel to The Sun Singer–was harder to write than TSS. I don’t think my difficulties with sequels are unique to me.

On the other hand, some writers produce multi-book series with the same characters and similar plot lines, so whatever drags me down while working on a sequel must not bother them or they’d go nuts by the time they get to the third or fourth book in a series.

The books grew more complex as the characters aged and advanced through their years at Hogwarts. A large cast of characters with conflicting motivations and loyalties also kept the books fresh.
The books grew more complex as the characters aged and advanced through their years at Hogwarts. A large cast of characters with conflicting motivations and loyalties also kept the books fresh.

With a sequel, what can possibly go wrong?

  • When everything is said and done, it might lack the unique freshness the author achieved in the original book.
  • The characters don’t seem to be the same. I’m not talking about character growth, which is good; more like their being apples and oranges different than they were in the first book, ending up as different people.
  • The events, descriptions, voice, and mannerisms had to be consistent within the first book. With the sequel, there’s always a danger that the author will inadvertently change something or contradict something from the original without even noticing it.
  • Some of an author’s favorite phrases and descriptions might get into the second book to such a great extent that readers feel they’re reading the same book twice, or a hastily written sequel in which the author plagiarizes himself.

If you’re a writer, perhaps writing sequels bothers you for other reasons. If you’re a reader, you’ve probably found yourself disappointed with some of the sequels you read because they didn’t live up to the wonders of the original.

Frankly, I don’t have an easy solution for solving my concerns about sequels. But here are a few ideas.

  • The sequel can focus on a different character than the original. On the plus side, if you take a secondary character from the original and make him or her the protagonist in the sequel, you’re dealing with a lot of new ground. You’re adding information, events and experiences that weren’t mentioned or even hinted at in the original. On the minus side, try to imagine the Harry Potter books focusing on a different protagonist with each follow-up book in the series. This can anger fans, even if you’re not a major bestselling author, because they return to your work wanting to hear more about the character they grew to love (or hate) in the first book. I feel that the dangers here might outweigh the advantages  even though I used this approach when I wrote Sarabande.
  • Knowing your characters in the same way you know real people makes them more likely to seem just as believable and consistent in the sequel as they did the first time out. I have always thought there was something false about making a grid for each character in which I listed his or her traits, motivations, personality, brief history, etc. Sure, this will keep you from changing a character’s hair color by accident in the middle of a book, but I see such grids as somewhat artificial. We know and keep track of our real life friends without needing a chart showing everything about them. If you really know your protagonist, and other primary characters, then I think you can take them into new situations without having to fret about what they would do or say. When you have a real-life problem, you know (usually) in advance which of your friends to turn to for a shoulder to cry on or for practical advice. Knowing our characters in this way helps keep them from changing into totally different people in the sequel, much less doing something that’s (so to speak) out of character.
  • Jane Smiley's "Last Hundred Years Trilogy" takes a family through a century of real and fictional events as the characters age, marry, have children and pass away. New real-life events played off against the characters and helped keep the books interesting.
    Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years Trilogy” takes a family through a century of real and fictional events as the characters age, marry, have children and pass away. New real-life events played off against the characters helped keep the books interesting.

    Keep your notes from the first book. I don’t plot or outline any of my books: if you do, don’t throw those away. I do take a lot of notes as I do research. The flora and fauna living around a protagonist’s piney woods cabin probably won’t change from book one to book two. Keeping the notes reminds you what you said so that the sequel is consistent. When I have multiple characters, I sometimes make a timeline that shows when they were born, when they married, when they had children, etc. If you do this, too, then that timeline will serve you well when you write the sequel.

  • While you may have had certain in jokes and events that were mentioned more than once during the course of the original, the sequel will be fresher if you don’t use the same ones over again. Referring to a few of them in the sequel is so similar to people in real life often telling the same stories many times, that it not only makes the characters real, but it also ties the sequel to the original in a positive way. However, the sequel needs to add new in jokes, set pieces and personalities for the characters to talk about rather than rehashing everything from the original. In some ways, oblique references in the sequel to often-mentioned events and attitudes in the original also adds realism because we don’t always tell the same yarns or remember-whens the same way each time we think of them.
  • While keeping the characters consistent from the first book to the second book is important, I believe it’s equally important for the protagonist to have different challenges in the sequel. Sure, some TV series pit the protagonist hero against similar kinds of bad guys in every episode. This works for a while, but then it gets stale. So, if your protagonist in the first book is, say, coping with the aftermath of a natural disaster, the second book probably shouldn’t show them coping with a new natural disaster. As authors, we need to avoid having our books sound like they all have the same plot, such as a hurricane in book one, a flood in book two, and an forest fire in book three. For every series that works that way, I think there are probably ten that fail.
  • Sequels are also helped (though this isn’t mandatory) if they take place with events, hobbies, avocations, locations, and issues the author knows well. In my case, I have focused on times and places where I lived or worked, giving me a feel for the places and what was likely to happen there.

As writers, we play “what if” with characters and situations. The thing that makes this fun for us is that after we play one kind of what if with a character, it’s boring to do that again whether it’s personal relationships, disasters, bad guys, injustice, or vacation hi-jinks. Knowing one’s characters and keeping a few notes helps us write sequels that are both consistent and fresh when compared to the original books.



6 thoughts on “Getting the sequel right

  1. I recently read a traditionally-published book told from the point of view of a young son whose mother was a police officer. The first book ends with the mother shooting a criminal in the leg to keep him from getting away. The second book begins with the son explaining his mother’s profession and saying that luckily she’d never had to shoot anyone. It was particularly jarring because the first book ended with sample chapters from the second book, so the inconsistency was literally placed back-to-back.

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