Here We Go Again! (How to Write Sequels)

Hello again! So, the tone of the blog is changing, just a little. Initially this blog was set out to record my journey through self-publication and events, hopefully help others who had little or no idea how to start, a helping hand I wish I’d had. Of course, there’s that desire to do more and, as I’ve found out, these days ‘Hybrid’ publishing is where it’s at.

So, onto the blog. You finished writing your book, great, where do you go from there? Sequel? Sequel! I mean, in most instances a sequel is a pre-planned thing, you were going to do it anyway, already had the ideas rumbling around and so-on and so-forth. Just recently I submitted what I’d considered a ‘stand-alone’ adventure, entitled ‘Riding the E-Rail’ and the publisher responded with: ‘Yup, great! When can we have the next one? Maybe a Trilogy?”

Call me crazy but, when offered a three-book deal my immediate impulse is to say ‘Yep, no problem!’ and it got me thinking, since I’d pretty much written off that universe and started moving on to the next project, how I go about writing a sequel. Personally I think it’s important, in any series, that the first book is something that, even if the reader doesn’t want to pick up the next installment, that they walk away having had a fully realised story experience. Now, there are two ways to go about a series. You focus on the meta-plot, works best for short-runs of trilogies, but the main events are the events, the Meta-plot. That’s what you follow, supported by sub-plots and character arcs, think Tolkiens ‘Lord of the Rings’. The other approach is one that works for serials, a format of episodic stories along a shared formulae with the meta-plot rumbling along in the background, occasionally taking centre-stage as the story demands it, aka ‘The Dresden Files’ by Jim Butcher.

Either way, once the first book is out, a planned sequel (or an unplanned sequel) largely runs off threads. A series is, after all, just an extended story, the beginnings and endings of each installment marked by narrative crescendos. So you look for the unresolved, the natural progressions, or consequences, of the characters actions and relationships in book one. Widen focus into how the actions of your characters affected others in the wider world. Your job here is to rebuke the ‘Happily Ever After’ trope, life goes on and the past events impact on the present. That said, you also have to be mindful that the next installment doesn’t seem ‘contrived’ or ‘forced’ (the two key words used about failed followups). Certainly I think there are good reasons why some sequels succeed and some fail. Aliens (James Cameron-1986) worked because it switched up the formulae from Alien (Ridley Scott-1979), but then, successful horror franchises like ‘Jaws’, ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ make their bank by doing the same thing over and over and the audience (myself included!) love it.

It’s the ongoing elements that can make-or break a series. Setting, Situation, Protagonists, Antagonists. The developing relationships between these factors make the story. If you change too much, you risk losing your audience, you don’t change enough, you become ‘staid’ or ‘predictable’. one thing that I think is essential to any ongoing property (or stand-alone for that matter) is staying faithful to the characters. They might change over time, growth and development is an important part of the best character arcs, but it should be based upon their experiences. The biggest turn-off for me in a book, is when a character does something that’s either monumentally stupid for no good reason, or does something inexplicably out of character. I’ve read books when the author has spent a page setting up ‘the one thing we don’t do!’ a massive in-world taboo or crime, only for the MC to go ahead and do it in the next scene on an apparent whim. I mean, I knew they were going to do it, it was explicit in setting up the ‘Law and the whole of the Law’ over that previous page, but it’s the absence of any serious motive, the lacklustre reasoning behind the ‘why’ that can make me put a book down and not pick it up again.

No part of the franchise is exempt from change but, it has to be established that it can be changed. Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and subsequent spin-off shows, established that no character was safe, ever. The cast (though not 100% changed) has gone through massive upheaval via death and disappearance. Sliders by Robert K. Weise and Tracy Tormé, or Stargate SG1 by Brad Wright and Johnathan Glassner changed the setting week to week. Of course, if you took a ‘Walking Dead’ approach to ‘Stargate’ half-way through a season you’d quickly lose the fan-base. The audience likes a surprise, but they also, kind of want to know what they’re getting. From character death to a relocation of Setting or a change of Situation, unless the ‘Out of the Blue’ nature of the change is the whole point and the characters have the rest of the book to deal with it, ever significant event should be treated as just that, significant. A character death can be the most impactful event you can inflict upon your readers. I’ve read some that were stirring, heart-breaking and handled with exceptional skill for maximum effect. And then I’ve read some that dropped the ball so completely that I never picked up the series again. It’s especially important in a series where the audience has more time to get invested in the characters to carefully consider the weight of a characters death.

There’s more, I’m sure there’s more but I’ve rambled on long enough. Whether you planned it, or it kind of crept up on you, a sequel or sequels are a chance to spend more time in the worlds and with the characters you’ve created. It’s great that you (or some one close to you) felt that your world had such promise and I urge you to get in there and make the most of it. I think the trap in writing a series is becomes ‘that thing you do’, I want an ending in sight, I want an exit clause because, more than anything else, I want to visit all the worlds in my head, and I want to take you to them too. I may return to previous projects in later years but, for now I’ll be hopping the Stargates, I hope to see you out there too.

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