On Writing Sequels

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.


Keeping Characters Consistent

This past week as I was knee-deep in working on The Reanimator’s Heart, I put out a call for blog post ideas because I was tapped. Someone asked how I keep my characters consistent. I’m not sure if this is from book-to-book or from beginning to end of the same book, but today’s post will cover both.

As with all writing, this is covering my process and what works for me. If my way of doing things doesn’t jive with you, luckily the world is full of resources that will hopefully work better. *shrugs* It happens.

My Character Development Process

I want to cover this [briefly] because I do think the way I create characters affects how I deal with consistency later. I am not a planner, at all, when I write, so the thing my stories really start with is the characters. Usually, I have a vague idea of who these people are and what issues they might have.

For instance, Eilian Sorrell from The Earl of Brass began as archaeologist who loses arm and gets a new one that is steampunk in some way. From there, it was an easy jump to say what if the other character/love interest was the person who made the prosthesis. That’s where Hadley came in. I stewed over Eilian for a while. Who in the Victorian Era could afford to be an archaeologist and travel all over? Well, someone who is wealthy, so maybe he’s titled. But would he like being titled? His family probably wouldn’t like him being a globe-trotting archaeologist, so he might not have the best relationship with his societal status or family. These attributes set the core issues the character has, and from there, I can usually see a personality starting to develop. He’s the eldest son but the black sheep of the family. He loves archaeology not for the prizes or accolades (he already has wealth and status) but because he finds learning about the past to be a giant puzzle. It also takes him far away from familial expectations, which is an added bonus.

Now that I have some of the core features of this character, I pick what they look like (sometimes I have that before I get too deep into their personality), but the minutiae of them as a character comes from writing them. Often I just start writing the story and see where the characters take me, and if someone is being particularly stubborn or not forthcoming (*cough* Adam *cough*), I’ll do some free-writing or use scene prompts to see how they would react or what might be lurking underneath. I don’t use DnD character sheets or those 100 question sheets about characters before I start writing them. This is partly because I tend to think of my characters as real people, so I don’t necessarily know everything about them and that’s okay with me. I’d rather give them the room to let me find out more as I work with them. It also keeps you from writing yourself into a corner later.

I can already hear someone say, “But if you don’t know everything about them, how do you keep them consistent?”

Well, you don’t. Not exactly.

Consistency, Not Uniformity, is Key

From the beginning to the end of a story or the beginning to the end of a series, a main character should change**. They shouldn’t be wildly out of character, but there should be a difference in them between the beginning and end, that’s why they’re the main character.

**If you’re writing detective fiction or a thriller or something pulpy with the same main character, this might be less true as they tend to be more static or change far slower than typical 2-5 book series.

When we talk about consistency, we have to be careful that we don’t mean the character must be uniform throughout a story or series. Their experiences in the story should and would change them. They should be affected by what happens to them and their friends, for better or worse. If your character is exactly the same from the beginning to the end, there is a problem. Sometimes this is because your story is following the wrong character, and you need to reorient the story to follow someone else’s journey. Other times, this is because you haven’t looked far enough into the psychological and emotional changes that would befall a character making this journey.

The question you should have is what change is consistent with who they are? Let’s continue to use Eilian from The Earl of Brass.

When Eilian finds out his father has died suddenly and he is now the earl, his reaction is shock. He’s shocked and terribly upset because he and his father never got along, never made up, and he’s grieving for the closure and support he’ll never have while also grappling with the fact that the life of traveling he loves may be over forever due to familial duty. He isn’t a fighter, but his flight reaction is hampered by the fact that he does love his mother and doesn’t want to make things harder for her. Instead, he agrees to go home and deal with it. He’s doesn’t like being the black sheep of the family, so while he won’t conform outright, he won’t make things worse either. Eilian returning home is consistent with who he is. Eilian marrying whomever he pleases (his middle class, independent, capable, masc-ish partner, Hadley) is also very on brand for him, but him standing up for himself to his family is his major change by the end of the story. It’s his experiences in the desert and see what he could lose that gives him more of a backbone. Even having this new title/position adds to that strength in the moment, turning a hindrance into an asset.

Is he still consistently the antithesis of what his family wants? Yes. Does he still do what he wants? Yes. But does his willingness to now face his family instead of fleeing judgment make sense after what happens in the story? Yes.

Confirming Consistency in a Story or Series

  1. Read the entire book over again once you finish. Pay attention to how the character is at the beginning, how they act after the first point of no return, at the midpoint, at the climax, and at the end.
  2. Looking at those points in the story, does the character’s emotional/psychological journey make sense? Do we see a logical behavioral progression? They should be becoming better people or overcoming their issues or even becoming more horrid, but we should see change.
  3. This does not mean we can’t have some backsliding in the middle. Often, there’s a 50-80% plot point where the characters panic and revert to hold habits, which makes sense because progress tends to be 2 steps forward, 1 step back.
  4. If there are moments where your character acts wildly out of character, reel them in. At the same time, make sure all your characters are not reacting the same way. For instance, a quiet character may have a high threshold before they start yelling while a more extroverted or short-tempered character might react more swiftly.
  5. Remember that every major plot point should have some reaction or impact. Some will be long lasting, others temporary, but there should be a ripple effect all the same (some may take longer to come out depending on the character, trauma, etc.).
  6. In terms of a series, all of the above applies, but you need to pay attention to the progression from book to book while still maintaining the core of who this person is. If you have a trilogy or five book series in mind, you might want to think ahead of time where you want this character to ultimately end up. Each book should be incremental change toward that. After each book, see where they came from to get a better idea of where they’re heading in the next installment. I read my entire series/books with those characters before I start working on the next book. It helps to reacquaint me with the characters.

The key takeaways are: reread your work from start to end. Reread it often (with each new book or even when halfway through your current project). Make sure the progression is logical and that there are reactions to actions. And finally, don’t force your characters in a direction they wouldn’t go because it doesn’t make sense for them.

I hope this helps as you all write your characters and work on your series! If there is any topic you would like me to talk about, please leave a comment below.