I know a lot of writers writhe in angst over writing sequels or second books in a series, but I think I’m in the minority here as I actually much prefer writing sequels to the initial book. In this week’s blog, I hope I can help you to make writing sequels a little easier in the future.
As per my usual writing caveat, what works for one writer doesn’t work for another, so take all writing advice with a grain of salt.
Why I like sequels and struggle with book 1:
Book one is a blank slate. I have no idea who the characters are when I start writing, or what I know of them is very fuzzy until I’m a decent way into the manuscript. This means, there’s a lot of stopping and starting to figure out if what I’m doing seems out of character for them or that I need to take another look at their backstory to make sure what I want them to be makes sense. By the end of book one, I know who these characters are. I know their personalities and desires, so when I’m setting up book two, the internal growth thread is significantly easier.
With sequels, we have the basis of the world, we have the foundation for the main characters (or most of them) ironed out, and parts of the plot might even be ready to go before drafting book two because they appeared in book one. I worry more about people not liking book two as much as book one than I do the actual writing of book two. There are also some tips and tricks I’ve learned while writing my first book series, which had 3 different pairings that rotated between six books. The books were not a continuous series, but the plots were interwoven into each other along with the growth of the main cast.
While this advice may not be super helpful for books that have totally disparate casts within the same world, a continuous or linked series would probably benefit from the tips below.
Create a “story bible”
As I write my books, I grab the important information like character descriptions, major setting descriptions (or at least the locations of those descriptions), and a reverse outline of book one (with a timeline) and dump them into a document. These catch-all documents are often referred to as story bibles. If you aren’t sure what to include, there are plenty of resources for building story bibles, including various apps. Having a story bible makes it super easy to locate important information later, and I don’t have to read the previous book a hundred times. I still reread the last book before writing the next one to remind myself of how the characters speak and interact, but this cuts down on having to find things constantly.
Trust me when I say nothing is worse than belatedly realizing that a major plot point cannot happen in a later book due to a reason or conflict in an earlier book. If you’re writing a linked series or one that bounces between characters, keep track of timelines especially.
Be careful that this doesn’t become a time suck or procrastination method. I find it easier to grab the info as I write or when I finish the book, and I only add niche items when I absolutely need it. Keep in mind that too much random info will make it hard to pick through, and it will be useless to you unless it’s very well organized.
Follow the Threads
This is something you should think about while writing the first/previous book, though sometimes they pop up unintentionally. Threads are basically loose ends or questions that are left unanswered at the end of a book. Sometimes newer writers think they need to wrap-up absolutely everything in a book, but if that book is intended to be a series, it makes sense to leave smaller questions unanswered in order to get readers to want to go on to the next book in the series.
As a caveat, this doesn’t necessarily mean the book should be a cliffhanger. I’m not a huge fan of cliffhanger endings unless your books are coming out very close together or it’s a traditionally published continuous serious. They generally frustrate audiences as they lack closure.
Threads, on the other hand, are minor mysteries or side plots, little things that seem important and get carried through the book or brought up at the end only to go unsolved or unanswered. With The Reanimator’s Heart, some threads might be how might Felipe change now that he’s undead or whose heart was it in the jar? Besides those, there are also little hints of things in both main characters’ pasts that could be important later.
Why are threads important for sequels? Well, for one, they help to figure out the plot or shape of subsequent books. The character development from one book to the next should make sense and should build off each other. Readers reading your book in sequential order (aka the vast majority of readers) will be excited to see the things you mentioned in book 1 appear in book 2 or 3. It makes your choices feel purposeful, rather than accidental. Even if you’re bad at playing the long game, this helps to create cohesion.
Sequels are siblings, not twins
Much like eyebrows, sequels are meant to be siblings of the books that come before and after them, not twins. What I mean by that is we need growth between books, but the books need to stay true to the tone and general feel of the others. You shouldn’t have a large genre leap or one book be super tragic and the next silly. You can certainly have a very dark book 2 where it feels like hope is lost before they triumph in book 3; that shift in tone is a logical one. If you mess around with genre or tone too much between books, you will turn off readers who liked the preceding book but will feel cheated by that sudden change.
On the flip side of this issue is sequels becoming twins. This is what happens when books in a series are too similar. Often, the problem is caused by not enough character development or plot movement happening between books. With certain genres, like detective fiction, we expect varied plots with a fairly stable main character, but in the vast majority of genres, it’s expected that your characters will grow and change. If you make that change too slow or have them move forward and then revert to how they were at the beginning of the previous book, you will frustrate your readers because they will end up reading basically the same book arc-wise.
This is more like conjoined twins, but a sequel is also not book 1 broken into two books. There’s a difference between the plot/character arc of a series running over two books (a duology) and snapping a single arc like a breadstick into two books. It throws off the pacing horrendously. If you have a proper duology, each book has a properly paced arc that also fits neatly into the series arc. Micro and macro arcs, so to speak.
To keep these issues from happening make sure your characters grow, your tone/genre are similar or compatible, and that each book has a separate arc but also ties into the larger arc of the series (especially if it’s a continuous series).
Just remember when working on series and sequels that book one laid the foundation for all future books. When in doubt, reread the previous book(s) for inspiration and guidance on how to move forward.