Writing a Sequel: The Toughest Job in the Biz

So you’ve written your first novel, and you loved it so much you want it to continue. Well congratulations, and welcome to writing anxiety, party of one. What is it exactly about sequels that they so often never quite live up to our expectations? The sophomore slump is mostly a self-fulfilling prophecy, getting so nervous about a follow-up piece that you fail to meet expectations. This process can lead to quite a lot of pitfalls that you will want to avoid. What are they? Keep on reading to discover the top five mistakes that authors make when writing a sequel.

1. Hitting readers over the head with a backstory already established in book one. Sometimes this is unavoidable, being mandated by a publisher or the like, but I will never get over my small grudge against Ann M. Martin for the fact that every single Baby-Sitters Club book had the same second chapter. What a headache! Although I know the point is for a reader to be able to pick up any book in the series and know what is going on, it feels mildly insulting to those loyal readers who already know what is going on. You must treat your sequel as it’s very own story, a fresh new slate. It is of course okay to offer up bits of backstory if the plot is impossible to follow without those details, but be mindful of the readers who are already with you. If the story is interesting enough, being slightly vague could encourage a new reader to go back to the beginning. 

2. Not following the rules that you established in book one. As mentioned above, book two should be its own work to a certain extent, but the characters should not go completely rogue, unless it’s for a very good cause. Some readers will be very invested in book one and should a character go from having electric blue eyes to brown ones accidentally or with no explanation, it will not go down well. Little details like this may seem innocuous, but continuity is extremely important for world building. It can be difficult to get everything precisely right, especially when there are a million details on the cutting room floor from your first novel. It is a good idea to keep a running list of small details that you are sure about each character, a bible if you will, to refer back to over time. This will make it easier to keep things straight, and avoid disappointing a fan. 

3. Not taking enough risks. It can be really easy to convince yourself to follow the same patterns as the book before. After all, you liked it enough to be inspired for a sequel, right? But your readers won’t necessarily like reading the same plot over and over again. Things should be familiar, but not too familiar. Of course all of this is easier said than done. Think of it as visiting an old friend—they are still your friend, but they will have changed a bit, had some new experiences that they would like to share with you. Expanding upon your characters, especially characters that are more minor in the first novel, is a great way of adding familiarity. Depending on the book series, you may even choose to focus on an entirely different character, say your protagonist’s best friend. This is a common choice in romance especially, and it is nice to remain in a familiar world, but have new personalities to play with. 

4. Not planning well. When it comes down to it, there are two reasons for a sequel. One, because you simply had too much story to tell in the first book and you need to get the rest of it out. And two, because the story won’t leave you alone. Plotting is essential to making sure you stay on the right path. If you didn’t start out planning on a sequel, have a sit down with yourself and think about what else you’d like to do. Planning out a book is important, but so is planning out a series. If you think you’d like to turn your series into a trilogy, think long and hard about what story lines are worth it. Do one plan for the entire series, and then one plan for each book. This will make the process less overwhelming, and you won’t find yourself with major plot problems later. 

5. Writing a second book just to get to the third. Back to square one again—remember that each book needs to stand on its own. The second book of a trilogy is your classic middle child, and it should be treated delicately. Of course it is important to have the ending of book three in mind, but book two should not be a means to an end. Explore things, get to know the characters more deeply, and move things in the right direction. It’s been mentioned plenty of times before, but book two really is the hardest. This shouldn’t stop you from having some fun with the work, and who knows, it might even become your favorite of the three. 

Writing a sequel is tough, often tougher than writing a fresh novel in the first place. Take a little time, think things through, and use these tips as a starting block. To all those starting out, good luck!