Last week, I published Abigail Abernathy: All-Night Analytical Engine Analyst as part of Joe Konrath’s 8 Hour Challenge. Several readers asked me to write more about Abigail and her misadventures at the Royel Trading Company, so I’ve decided to turn Abigail Abernathy into a series. Most of her new adventures will probably be short stories, but there may be some longer works later on, depending on demand.
Ever since I started writing my first official sequel, I’ve been thinking about sequels in general and the bad reputation that seems to surround most of them. It seems like every year, we see more and more sequels, especially in the worlds of video games and movies, and a good number of them are terrible.
I don’t want any of the followup stories I write to be terrible, so I thought about some sequels I didn’t like and tried to analyze what exactly made them so distasteful. When I had my list, I ran it through the lens of every writing workshop, lecture, and craft book I’ve gone through to see if there was anything that could be done to avoid those traps and write something good. Here are the results.
Keep Your Characters Consistent
Many sequels, including popular franchises (I’m looking at you, Pirates of the Caribbean), take established, usually beloved characters, and completely change them for the sequel. Past beliefs, motivations, and personalities go out the window if they don’t serve whatever new plot device the writer wants to establish in the sequel.
In the case of the Pirates movies, one example is how dramatically the three main characters were changed in order to create an artificial love triangle. The idea was to ramp up romantic tension for the sequel, but it came across as forced and unnatural.
That doesn’t mean that characters don’t change. They need to constantly grow and evolve, but in order to be believable, it needs to be an organic process, rather than just smacking a character with a fall-in-love-hammer because the sidekick turned out to be more popular than the lead.
Keep Your World-Building Consistent
This is known as continuity when applied to TV and movies, and doing it badly can break the illusion of being in the story. It basically means that when you establish something about your world, you don’t change it without explaining why. Series that are long or complicated are prone to developing continuity issues, so great care needs to be taken to avoid them.
One example would be two cities are described as being fifteen miles apart in the first book, and then thirty miles apart in the third book. The reader is left to wonder whether the city somehow managed to pick itself up and move (entirely possible in fantasy or scifi, depending on your tech/magic rules), or whether it was an oversight on the part of the author.
A great way to handle this is to keep a sort of bible for your world as you write. Whenever you establish something about your world, whether it’s where a character is from, a historical event, a law, or a quirk in your magic system, write it down. Your readers will remember, even if you don’t, and an inconsistent world can take them out of the story.
Write Something New
Some sequels are little more than the same story rehashed over and over with a different coat of paint. Readers loved the first book, so they’ll love the second one if it’s basically the same story with a few minor changes, right? Maybe. Probably not.
Take the sequel in a different direction than you went in the first book. Explore a new aspect to your characters. Take them to a different area of your world. Show off something new and exciting that your readers haven’t seen before. Keep them engaged. If your readers want to read the same story again, they can always re-read the first book. Give them something different with the sequel.
One interesting tip I got in a writing workshop was to take what the hero or heroine did to “win” in the first book, and somehow twist it so that it broke something else that needs to be addressed in the second book. The Sword of Truth books by Terry Goodkind do this very well.
A common problem with sequels is that there is always the temptation to end on a cliffhanger in order to sell the next story in the series. On paper, it seems to make sense. Write a book with a cliffhanger ending, and readers will pick up the next book in the series in order to find out what happens next.
The danger in doing this is that you run the risk of angering your readers. When you buy a book, you expect to get a complete story. If you get to the end and find out that it stops before you get to the climax, you’ll probably be angry because you find out that you only got half the story and have to wait months or years to find out what happens next.
There are always exceptions to the rule, such as The Empire Strikes Back, which don’t technically end, but are still very successful and beloved. The problem is that these are exceptions. Maybe you or I will be that exception too, but probably not.
Hold Nothing Back
This follows the idea of not ending on a cliffhanger. Many authors plan to write a series and come up with all sorts of cool ideas for events, characters, and twists, but for one reason or another decide to hold off on them until much later in the series. Why not, instead of holding back something cool and exciting, write the best book you can before worrying about the next?
Raise the Stakes
Every sequel will be inevitably compared to the previous titles in the series. This goes for the characters as well as the stories. If your hero saved the world in the first book, facing him against a couple of unpaid parking tickets in the second book isn’t likely to create the same level of tension. Unless they’re self-replicated, flesh-eating, zombie unicorn parking tickets or something.
Hold on a second while I write that one down.
Okay, so your hero saved the world in the first one. This means that the next challenge he faces needs to be as big, if not bigger, otherwise there won’t be any tension because the possibility of failure was never in doubt. If you want to keep your readers hooked, they need to care enough about the characters and recognize a high enough level of danger to legitimately worry whether or not your hero will be able to succeed this time.
That will make the payoff of glorious victory or catastrophic defeat that much more exhilarating and/or tragic.
Be Friendly to New Readers
Not everyone who buys book two or book three will have read the earlier books in the series. Or a reader may go months or years between reading one book in the series and the next. Make it easy for them by providing them with a bit of backstory as to what has happened up to the point of your new book, but do so in a way that is interesting, engaging, and adds to the story.
Epic fantasy is especially fond of the lengthy prologue, in which the world forms from the stars, cools, develops life, cities, civilizations, goes to war, then stops for nachos on the way to the next war. Twenty pages later, we rage…the beginning of the story. Some readers love lengthy prologues, but it is better to avoid them for the sake of those who don’t want to read five chapters of history before they get to the good stuff.
Instead, have the characters make some contextually-sound offhand remarks about the story so far. Work it into the current narrative. Keep the story moving forward, but touch back on the earlier stuff so people know what’s going on. Just don’t spend a long time doing it.
Don’t Rush It
Some people feel that writing a sequel is easier than writing a new story because you have already established your world and main characters. I would argue that in many cases, it is actually harder to write a good sequel because you have already established your world and characters. Having already established them means that you need to not only come up with something new and interesting for them to do, but you also have to remain consistent with what you have already written.
Writing quickly does not necessarily mean writing badly, but rushing through a sequel without taking the time to ensure that the story is interesting, the characters continue to grow, and that everything is consistent with what you have done before is a recipe for disaster. By no means should you spend ten years polishing and re-polishing until you don’t know what the story was about when you started, but you should put enough time and effort into it to get it right.
That about wraps up my thoughts regarding sequels, the potential pitfalls a writer is likely to face, and the tips for writing sequels that I am keeping firmly in mind as I figure out what sort of misadventures Abigail Abernathy is likely to face next.
So, what do you think about sequels? Have you ever read/watched/played a sequel that was a huge disappointment? What about one that just blew you away? Make a not in the comments below and we’ll talk about it.