Picture this – You’ve just completed your masterpiece, your raison d’etre and you’ve sent it out into the big bad world. Firstly, give yourself a pat on the back. You are Awesome. You’re the man, even if you’re a woman. You are a bona fide bad ass.
But what happens after that? You’re faced with a blank page, with zero words and zero ideas. That cursor blinking at you, waiting, hopefully, tentatively…waiting for that next masterpiece…
What are you prepared to do?
I think people reading this will be in two camps. The first will be all too ready to write the sequel, desperate to get back into their world and their favourite characters. The second camp will feel daunted by the immensity of the task. How can I top my last novel? How can I raise the stakes? Where can I go with these characters? Well after reading this article, with a few choice examples, I hope the first camp will take step back and think for a moment and that the second will have a jumping off point into writing that dreaded sequel
There’s a real trend going on in both YA and MG that calls for not just sequels or trilogies but sometimes entire series with a novel count reaching double digits. Curiously in the adult world of writing, there is far lower propensity towards writing sequels (outside of fantasy and science fiction which as a law unto themselves). Very often however there will be a stellar opening novel, a lacklustre second or “bridging novel” and a final book to tie things up. So how do you the prospective sequel writer avoid this?
Does this story need to be told?
This is a serious question. Does your sequel fundamentally, and wholly, irrefutably have to be told? Or are you just cashing in on an established world, characters, and fans?
I think for many people this is a difficult concept to wrap their heads around. After all you love your characters, your world, one which you may have spent months or even years crafting. But that still doesn’t answer the question – does this story need to be told?
You see technically any story can have a sequel, after all time is always passing; characters have lives that are as continuous as our own. Hell, you could chronicle someone forever if you wanted to. But that doesn’t mean you should.
Think about this – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I think we can all agree it was an incredible novel, and at its end there was a definite conclusion, with a high threat level. The second novel was even better than the first, but why? It’s not because Chamber of Secrets expanded the cast, the setting, the depth of the magic. It’s because it added to the story, and the character arc. It took the two central characters from the previous novel, Harry Potter and Tom Riddle and greatly expanded our understanding of them, thereby enhancing the first book. The book was necessary, it wasn’t tacked on, and it was its own entity.
Now compare this to Terminator Salvation – a very, very good example. It built upon the previous three films, it expanded the cast, the story, the setting, a complete continuation of the Terminator story…but there was no character arc. Instead of building upon its predecessors, to become something even greater, it used them as a crutch to justify its own existence. It couldn’t stand on its own, and felt entirely superfluous and unnecessary. Sure it was a good story, with some good characters, but by its end you learned nothing new about John Connor or the war. Nothing changed, the film was entirely pointless.
So when you come to writing your sequel, yes you can always expand the cast, the setting, the bad guys, the love interest, but ask yourself…really ask yourself – is this book necessary. Is it essential, and if it isn’t then maybe you shouldn’t write it, perhaps you should write something else.
Well now that’s out of the way, here some excellent techniques and plot devices that can supercharge a sequel to make it seem less like a continuation of an overall story, and more of a self-contained adventure, that can stand utterly on its own.
1) Jump to the awesome part
Instead of opening your novel with lots of exposition of the first novel, with lots of “how do my characters feel and reflect on the events of the past novel?” or “I need to catch up my readers on what’s happening,” just don’t even bother. Jump ahead to exciting part, don’t mess about. Nothing bogs down an opening like exposition, and it’s not the events that create the characters anyway – your characters are brilliant in any situation, the events are secondary. So why not turn the clock six months, a year, five years into the future, cut out all that boring stuff and jump straight in.
Trust that your readers have read the first novel, and if they haven’t it will just make them curious to read it when they see how amazing this novel is!
a) A New Hope to Empire Strikes Back (six month break)
b) Percy Jackson series (typically a year)
c) The Godfather (Decades pass)
2) Introduce a new protagonist
If you have written a good novel, then you will have written a character arc. For the lay person, this means your character undergoes events that change him or her, so that the person at the end of the novel is different to the person at the beginning. For example they start off brash and eager (perhaps they’re a farm boy…) and they end up acquiring skills etc and becomes a master or lets go of revenge etc
Now you might be struggling to write this character again, I mean there’s no arc right? No problem! Introduce a new protagonist! Set it in the same world, same enemies, but why not introduce someone new for the readers to get behind? If you are really awesome and want a challenge, why not write someone completely different from the original protagonist? This is an exciting technique, which can re-energize a flagging series and give an interesting change of perspective.
a) Legend of Korra – Calm, collected Aang replaced by brash and energetic Korra
b) Heroes of Olympus – replaced Percy with three brand new heroes after Percy’s character arc is complete
c) My favourite example Golden Sun. For those unfamiliar with Golden Sun the first game has a group of heroes pursue a group of antagonists across a land to stop them from accomplishing their goals. The second flips the script and has the original antagonists become the protagonists, and the original protagonists now the antagonists, giving an amazing new perspective. One of my all-time favourite examples of brilliant story-telling.
Golden Sun – Epic
3) Plot the story from the start, rather than the end.
What does this mean? Well, firstly bear in mind that this is a very advanced writing technique, one that requires an incredible amount of imagination and foresight, and quite a bit of self-belief as well. But before you write a single word, craft out your entire story, in its entirety and understand it. In this way, knowing the ending, you can write accordingly in terms of the plot, but more importantly the character arc. You can leave clues and red herrings, set up future protagonists and antagonists etc. The benefit is that anything you write after the first novel will not be superfluous because it will all have been accounted for, the downside is that this can be quite a challenge for writers, and understandably is not a very widely used technique – but I highly recommend it. I’ll only give one example of this, as it is a truly astounding one, that too five years of plotting to create and that is of course Harry Potter where JK Rowling famously wrote the last chapter before her first word. And we all know how that turned out huh?