It’s no understatement to say that Western art and culture is obsessed with sequels these days. Every blockbuster must have at least one or two continuations of their stories, artists of all stripes are naming their albums with the suffix “2.0” or “Part III”, and even literature’s greats are producing series of at least three or more books with more energy than in previous years.
Plenty of cynics would say that this sequel mania is fueled by a drive for profits, and they wouldn’t be wrong, though there are still several writers, artists, and filmmakers out there that produce sequels not out of greed, but out of a love for what they do and whom they share it with. Unfortunately, those same cynics who doubt the existence of these artists, writers and filmmakers also note that there aren’t enough good sequels out there, and sadly there’s a lot of truth in that.
Since I am about to embark on writing Video Rage, the sequel to my science fiction novel Reborn City, I thought I’d share some of my tips for writing sequels. These tips, though not essential when writing a sequel (or writing any work, for that matter), have been taken from some of the better sequels I’ve seen out there and are categorized into four distinct groups: barest essentials, setting and history, characters, and most important. The right combination of any of these components could help elevate a story from good to great, especially with a sequel.
Barest essentials. If one is to do a sequel, one has to think hard about these components when creating the story. Plenty of sequels have been rocked or bombed depending on their creator’s use of these factors.
1. Is the sequel connected or unconnected to the previous book? This may not seem like a big question, but it actually is. Plenty of series depend on an overarching tale that connects all the books together, and deciding whether or not a sequel connects to the previous book is important to think about. Most writers do answer this question before they even start the first book, but it is still important to think about before you start your sequel.
2. Don’t recycle old material. When we pay for a book on Amazon or a ticket to the latest blockbuster, we hope that it’s worth it, that there’s something new in the story and in the characters, that we won’t be bored in the first five minutes. Of course, we get really annoyed when what we’ve paid for is like Taken 2 or A Good Day To Die Hard, which basically took all that rocked from the previous film or films but not much else. As it turns out, people like something more than what worked in the first film. Yes, it seems like a good idea to use what worked for the last installment for the newest, but in reality there’s much more that is needed to make the story much better, and knowing that is a great start in writing your sequel and utilizing what worked in the last installment correctly, rather than just reusing it.
3. Avoid retcons. If you are unfamiliar with this term, a retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is the alteration of a previously established fact or facts in the continuity of a fictional work (definition courtesy of Wikipedia). Retcons are popular in long-running comic book or TV shows to help new writers continue the story they want to or to accommodate new information. However fans are easily annoyed by retcons and often are able to point them out upon running across them. They will especially cry foul if they feel the retcon was done because of laziness or forgetfulness. For example, in the vampire novels by Charlaine Harris, one character was introduced as a certain shape-shifter, but in the next book that shape-shifter’s type was changed. Many fans wrote letters pointing this out, causing Mrs. Harris some embarrassment.
So in the interest of avoiding embarrassment, retcons are best avoided if possible.
Setting and history. I wrote in a previous article some ways to set up a great world, especially in science fiction and fantasy. For sequels, taking certain approaches to the world you’ve already built up can make the setting seem more real to readers and help them to fall in love even more with the established world.
4. Expand on the world. So in Book 1 you showed us a fantastical world full of magic and wonder. What do you do? Why not show more of it, in terms of places, history and culture? For example, in the Earth’s Children’s series first book, Clan of the Cave Bear, we see the world strictly through the eyes of a small tribe of Neanderthals and the little Cro-Magnon girl who grows up with them and in their culture. In the second book, The Valley of Horses, author Jean Auel expands on the peoples in Stone Age Europe, including different tribes of Cro-Magnon tribes across the continent and their way of life. This gives the readers more of a look into the fictional world of the characters and makes them want to learn more, at the same time causing them to invest more in the story.
5. Go darker. The first Harry Potter book introduced us to a fantastical world full of mystery and wonder and danger. Readers who read the first book tended to see the Wizarding world as somewhat idyllic, full of literal and metaphorical charm and made them want to go there. However in the second book, Chamber of Secrets, we discover that there’s a dark side to the magical world Harry inhabits, particularly in terms of the importance placed in blood purity and how it is wrapped up in Hogwarts’s history.
Showing the dark side of your world, if you haven’t delved too deeply into that yet, can give the readers a sense that this world could exist. Remember, the readers have to be able to identify with the setting, to believe it could exist. And if the darker parts of a setting can make a world seem all the more real to the reader, why not go there?
6. Shake things up with something new. At some point in her Southern Vampire series, Charlaine Harris added the fairy species, supposedly, because she was bored and wanted to shake things up. Similarly, shaking things up can be a great boon to your sequel. By adding something that has never been seen before in the universe of the story, you add all sorts of potential plot elements and ways to change up the story. And the ways to shake up the story are vast and endless: perhaps you could reveal that a character is related to another character in an unexpected way. Or maybe a new technology is available now that changes the entire world of the characters. Perhaps there’s even a new location whose visit will have new implications for the way your characters live their life.
Like I said, anything’s possible if you wish to shake things up a bit.
Characters. Ultimately, any story relies on its characters and how those characters react to the circumstances around them. In a sequel there are chances to expose characters to new circumstances, not just in terms of the world they live in, but also in terms of the people around them.
7. Introduce or retire a new main/supporting character. We are constantly meeting new people and losing old friendships in life. Why not do the same to our characters? Introducing a new character is a great way to explore the changing dynamics of the relationships between the characters, and if you want to get rid of a character or find reason to put them away for a while, a sequel is a great place to do so. In fact, if you retire a character for one book, you can bring them back in spectacular fashion for another book. Either way, it’s a chance to try something new by writing a story with a new character or without a familiar character.
8. Shift the focus onto another character. In the sequel to the 1991 Addams Family movie, Addams Family Values, the movie focused on Uncle Fester. Just one problem: so did the first film, and a sub-story about Wednesday’s first love couldn’t resurrect AFV from the Fester-centric plot that critics ultimately had the biggest issue with.
If you have a story that focuses on a tightly-knit group of characters and no one character is considered the main character or the most important character, it helps to shift the focus from the growth and development of one character to another. After all, no one member of an ensemble cast is more important than the other (or should be, anyway). So juggle the focus every now and then. Every character has a story behind them, and seeing where that story takes them can make for a great story.
9. Change the nature of a relationship. When James Marsters first played the character Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, Spike was a formidable villain throughout most of the season. However in subsequent seasons Spike’s role, becoming a reluctant ally over time and then an essential part of the main cast. Eventually Spike became attracted to Buffy, and later a hero and her lover.
Changing one character’s relationship to another and vice versa can be an excellent way to explore new territory. If you could think of two characters that might warrant having their relationship changed, go ahead and try it. You never know what might arise from such a story.
10. Conflict in a group is always interesting. This is basically the equivalent to Component #5. In the first book, the group usually learns to gel together and work with each other. What would happen if there was friction with the group in the second book? What if two characters were a couple but their friend was attracted to one of them? Or perhaps one of the characters was forced to spy on the group for the enemy, and nobody knew who that character doing the spying was. Sowing the seeds of conflict between two characters, while painful to read and possibly more painful to write (or very fun, depending on what sort of person you are), keeps readers interested and wondering how it will be resolved. I’m planning on trying it in my own sequel. Should be a fun experiment.
The Most Important Of All. There’s only one component in this category, but it’s probably the one you should keep in mind whether or not you decide to use any of the other components.
11. What would you like to see or read in a sequel? One of the best parts of self-publishing is that the author decides what they want to write and can put it out there, rather than having to put out what the publisher feels will sell. It’s the same with sequels. What would you like to see in the sequel you want to write? New enemies? A torrid love affair? Your favorite character moving from the big city to a small town in Idaho? A new species of magical creature? It’s all up to you, and you can do whatever you want.
It’ll probably be better than whatever they’re cooking up in Hollywood right about now.