How to Write Sequels that Stand on Their Own

Feb 28, 2011

After a month of letting Devs sit without touching it, I'm starting to remember the things I love about it. In fact, I'm getting downright anxious to finish my last round of rewrites. It's still out with a few beta readers, though, and I want to wait until I get the rest of the feedback.

So, I started planning the sequel.

And let me tell you, I was awfully naive about sequels. No prob, I thought. I already know my characters, built my world, and know what I'm going to do with the plot. It'll be a cinch!

I'm sure those of you who have written sequels are laughing at me now. Here are a few things I've learned while starting to sketch out the sequel.

1. You still have to develop character arcs. Yes, I know my characters now. But some of them changed through the course of Devs. They're starting at a different place in the sequel, and they'll have to grow some more. I won't have to start from scratch, but I do still have to incorporate character arcs.

2. You have to deepen the world. I did a fairly extensive amount of worldbuilding with Devs, and some of the details didn't actually show up in the book. Some of the background information just wasn't necessary at that point. But it becomes necessary in the sequel-- and some of it is still a little vague. I'm going to have to work out more of the details, and show the reader the same world they saw in Devs. I just have to make it deeper, and even more real and complex.

3. Even though it's tied to the previous book, the plot must stand on its own. One of my pet peeves in sequels is when the plot feels flimsy, and doesn't have its own beginning, middle, and end. I still have to go through the process of defining the story question, subplots, and structure. I have to have a separate-- but related-- story. I can't have a flabby middle, an unsatisfying end, or a slow beginning. All the same rules of plotting apply.

4. You have to fulfill expectations-- but you still need to surprise the reader. After reading the first novel, your readers will have certain expectations about the sequel. If you don't fulfill those, they'll throw the book into a pyre and dance around it while cursing your name to the heathen gods. (Or possibly something less dramatic.) Basically, they won't be satisfied. You need to fulfill those promises you made-- but if the book unfolds exactly how the reader expected it, you also run the risk of boring them to death. And I think we'd all like to keep our readers alive. So you still need to work in twists, new characters (or change character relationship dynamics), and surprise moments that turn those expectations on their head. It's a fine line to walk between providing satisfaction and surprise.

Basically, writing a sequel is possibly harder than writing the original. I don't plan on actually writing the sequel yet (I'm still working on TUGL, and I've got some work to go on Devs itself), but I want to have the basics sketched out before I start querying Devs.

So, my friends, have you written sequels before? Have any great tips you'd be willing to share? What are some of your favorite book or movie sequels-- or least favorites-- and why?

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Lisa Gail Green said...

Great post! Not something that's often covered.

Golden Eagle said...

Great post.

I've written a trilogy, and I'm currently revising/rewriting the first book--I'll have to be sure to keep these points in mind.

Michelle Merrill said...

You've covered some great points! I also hate it when the sequel can't stand on its own...especially when it doesn't end well and I have to wait another year to get the real ending. Good luck with the next one. I have no doubt you'll create something superb!

Angela Scott said...

Oh, you can say that again, sister. The sequel, I feel is much harder to write. You have to bring something new to the table without leaving the original concept behind. Tough.

Good post. Very nice.

Lindz Pagel said...

Great post! I too am on the hunt for vital info when it comes to crafting solid sequels.

I'm a long way off from even starting to write the second installment of my story, but I like to amass helpful articles as I find them. I'd count this among em'.

Thanks! And best of luck

Abby Annis said...

Good points! I recently started outlining my sequel and it's been a lot harder than I expected, but fun to work on something new with characters I already love. Great post! :)

David P. King said...

Ah, yes. The sequel.
My first book was a stand alone, but when I got to thinking about it, I felt that the story was not finished. Te second turned out pretty cool, but the third killed it. I did not know my arc. It was not thoroughly thought out.

My advice? If your story has the potential for more, plan it out before your first book is done. Even then, write the first book as a stand alone with the potential for more. I have three books that are the beginning of a series, but I haven't started the next installments, and I won't, until they're asked for. They're planned, so they won't be hard to pick up later.

Great post, Shallee!

Kari Marie said...

I haven't written one, but my current novel could end with a sequel in mind. I think you are right, writing the sequel would be harder than writing the first one. You have to deal with all those reader expectations you didn't necessarily have in the first one when they were getting to know the characters.

Great points.

Abby Minard said...

That sounds like great points to have in a sequel. I have an idea of my sequel, but won't start writing it until I know the first will be published.

Maria Zannini said...

I have a sequel coming out in May from Carina Press called Apocalypse Rising, so I can commiserate.

Probably the best advice I can give about writing a sequel is that you have to be aware that some people will not be reading the first book. In order to get them up to speed, you have to reintroduce the world building and the characters all over again.

But rather than do a rehash of the first story, you can weave elements through other characters or events.

For example: If someone had been tortured by the enemy in the first book, in the second book that information might be relayed by showing the character massaging an old wound, or having a different character ask about the experience. This way the information is always delivered fresh.

Julie Musil said...

I've never written a sequel, and to be honest, I didn't realize this side of it. But you're right, it would have to stand on its own, with its own character arcs. Great point.

Jodi Henry said...

Not touching the completed MS is a killer, going through writing/editing avoidance right now myself.

And I've never written a sequel. Plotted a couple but never actually written one. Thanks for the great points and things to look out for.

NO flimsy plots in my soon to be sequel.


Reece said...

It took me a while to get around to reading this, but the wait was worth it. I always love reading Shallee's comments and ideas. My philosophy for writing sequels is 'have the overall flow of events in mind before you start writing the first book.' Basically, if you think you might write a second one, write the first one as a first one and not the only one. There are lots of lame books (and movies, TV series, etc.) out there because the author wrote the story he/she wanted and then decided to write a sequel as an afterthought.

Lydia Kang said...

All this stuff is important, but I don't see much discussion often. Great stuff, and good points!

Stacy Henrie said...

I've never actually written a sequel, more like companion novels with some of the same characters but different settings/stories. Writing a sequel sounds a lot tougher than I thought, but I think your list is great!

Margo Kelly said...

I want to write a sequel, but I'm afraid I'll jinx the process when I don't even have an agent yet. ACK. Silly me. So, I wrote a completely different book for my second ms.

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