Three Thoughts About Writing Sequels

Well, since I’m currently reading a sci-fi novel called “A Closed And Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers, which is the sequel to a novel called “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet“, I thought that I’d talk about the topic of literary sequels and offer a few thoughts about how to write them.

1) Balancing new and regular readers: One of the most challenging things about a literary sequel is getting the balance between making it familiar enough for readers of the previous book, but also accessible enough for new readers who haven’t read the previous book. Both types of readers want completely different things. Fans of the series want to jump straight back into the story and new readers want to know what is actually going on. The classic way of solving this is to give each book in a series a fairly self-contained main story (with some background story arcs continued from the previous book), whilst also adding short plot-relevant recaps to help out new readers.

But, you can do some slightly more creative things with your sequel. Chambers’ “A Closed And Common Orbit” offers a really good example of this – whilst it technically starts a few minutes after the ending of the previous novel, it instead focuses on a different group of characters who appeared near the end of the first book. What this means is that regular readers get a feeling of continuity, whilst the focus on a new group of main characters means that the story isn’t too confusing for new readers.

In addition to this, the novel also caters to new and familiar readers through the careful use of background details. In short, the story will mention and describe various alien species, locations, fictional languages etc.. in enough detail for new readers to get a general sense of what they are. Of course, if you’ve read the previous book, you’ll already know a lot of background details about these things – which instantly adds extra depth to the story, without the need for Chambers to re-explain literally everything again. So, it’s accessible to new readers whilst offering a bit of a bonus to readers of the previous novel.

Deciding how to balance your story for familiar and new readers depends a lot on the story you are telling (for example, a large fantasy epic split into several books should favour familiar readers, whereas something like a series of detective stories should favour new readers), but it is something that is worth thinking about carefully.

2) When to start it: Earlier, I mentioned that Chambers’ “A Closed And Common Orbit” started a few minutes after the end of the previous novel. In that novel, this works really well for the reasons that I’ve outlined earlier. However, it is often better to set your sequel days, weeks, months or even years after the events of your first novel.

Not only does this give the story a slightly more self-contained atmosphere, whilst also allowing for recaps to appear more easily, but it also means that it is a hell of a lot easier to write a dramatic opening scene for your sequel too. After all, if you aren’t limited to what happens directly after the first book, then you can set the opening scene somewhere else or even introduce an element of mystery about what happened between the first novel and the sequel.

And, this is important. To give you an example why (with some SPOILERS), read Jonathan Maberry’s excellent zombie novel “Dead Of Night” and then read the sequel “Fall Of Night“. Whilst both novels are good, one flaw is that “Fall Of Night” begins directly after “Dead Of Night”. The first novel ends with a really gripping, fast-paced and dramatic segment where some of the main characters finally manage to get into and successfully defend a fortified building. However, the opening segments of the sequel lag quite a bit because they focus on the bleak and claustrophobic aftermath of this small victory. Yes, this adds realism and dramatic weight to the story and – as a suspenseful middle section – would be brilliant. But, as an opening, it really isn’t as fast-paced or gripping as you’d expect a typical horror/thriller novel opening to be.

So, don’t be afraid to start your sequel quite a bit of time after your first novel. Remember, just because a novel is a sequel, it doesn’t mean that the opening scene should be less dramatic than one from a stand-alone novel.

3) Cliffhangers: Cliffhanger endings should be used very, very carefully. Yes, traditional large-scale cliffhangers will make readers want to read the next book – but they can often feel like a very cheap or manipulative way of doing this. There is nothing worse than reading hundreds of pages, only to be told “Nope. You’ll have to buy the next book for your effort to be worthwhile” or to get near the end of a novel and suddenly realise “there’s no way this story can be resolved in the ten pages that are left“. It isn’t good! Don’t do it!

Your reader should have some emotional, dramatic or narrative payoff for reading each novel in your series. So, the classic way to handle this is to either restrict your cliffhangers to background sub-plots (and resolve your novel’s main plot) or vice versa. Whatever you do, your reader should feel some sense of resolution when your novel ends. If you have two plot threads in your novel, then only one of them should have a cliffhanger.

And, in some types of book series (eg: those designed to be read in any order), cliffhangers shouldn’t be used at all. I can’t remember the exact title, but I remember reading one of Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels that ended with a very suspenseful cliffhanger. So, I tracked down the next book in the series and was promptly disappointed. Because this series is designed to be read in any order, the next book starts out with a totally different storyline – with the resolution of the suspenseful cliffhanger just being a small and underwhelming background detail part of the way through the book. So, if your series isn’t explicitly designed to be read in order, then don’t use cliffhangers!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful šŸ™‚

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