Being a Better Writer: Setting Up for a Sequel

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday again, and you regulars know what that means!

Though I’ll admit this post is a little late. However, those of you familiar with the more obscure areas of US Tax law will likely understand now that I’ve invoked the existence of that system. Yes, today was the day I needed to make sure that my taxes were sent in (they weren’t quarterlies because of fishing money). Those of you who have dealt with the IRS or who do your own taxes understand.

So, that’s why the post is a little late. But better late than never!

Now, I do have one more nice bit of news before we get rolling today. Don’t worry, it’s short and sweet. Colony picked up a few new ratings this weekend (all 5-star) along with this glowing review:

That’s a lot of exclamation points! Thank you for the review, new reader, and may you enjoy the rest of my library!

Okay, with that said and done, let’s wrap up the month of February with one more Being a Better Writer post! Hit the jump, and let’s talk about sequels.

Sequels are a beloved but at the same time oft-cursed element of storytelling. And it’s not hard to see why. For every The Empire Strikes Back or Toy Story 2 there’s at least one Rise of Skywalker. Oft-times, it seems that many are confused by how a sequel couldn’t have been a success. If the original property is great, well shouldn’t slapping a second story together with the same characters and setting be a matter of just that?

Well, certainly Hollywood would like to believe so, with its constant flood of sequels and “soft reboots” that seem to literally only exist on the logic of “X property made millions, so if we make it again, we’ll make at least some of those millions again.”

But time and time again reality has shown that making a sequel isn’t nearly as straightforward as Hollywood or other corporate publishing entities believe it to be. The world is full of failed sequels to stories, follow-ups that didn’t deliver the same experience their predecessor did.

But what if you want to write a sequel? What if you want to step back into that setting or that property and tell another tale? What are the missteps that can be avoided? What extra work might you have to do?

And yes, there will be extra work. One of the first mistakes any sequel can make is assuming that a sequel will only take as much work as the original, or perhaps even less, when this isn’t true. We’ll talk more about this in a moment, but the idea that a sequel isn’t going to take as much work is effectively a torpedo under the water to said sequel in advance.

But before we get talking about that, I do want to address a side-issue before we delve too deeply into nuts and bolts: Planned series versus a stand-alone sequel. Yes, there is a difference. Colony, for example, was written with a larger story in mind, with the first book just being the first third of the larger story in mind. The Lord of the Rings was written in a similar manner, with The Two Towers and The Return of the King actually a publisher split (if I recall correctly) and the whole story intended as one story. The Harry Potter books, again, intended as a series of seven books from the start.

This is different from a story that is stand-alone, and intended as a “one and done” but then is given a sequel later because it was popular or the creator wanted to revisit it. I’m not saying that similar rules don’t apply, but I wanted to make the distinction between something that is planned to have multiple books at the very start and something that was not because the latter is going to need a bit more, shall we say, structural preparation with regards to a sequel than the former would.

Which is what we’re going to talk about right now. See, one of the largest requirements of a sequel is that the story have a place to go to.

Honestly? This is where a lot of sequels go wrong right from the start. Look at any story and there will be a direction to it. The characters might grow, or they may defeat a great evil, or even just learn to stand up to bullies. It’ll vary depending on the story, but no matter what, a good story will have progress.

The problem starts, however, when a sequel doesn’t have anywhere to progress to because the characters and setting already made their progress in the first story Now above, where we talked about series? They tend not to have this issue because the progress achieved in the first story is already conceived as one step in a larger journey. So there is already a plan for the second installment, the third installment, etc. Let’s look at Star Wars for example: A New Hope sees the destruction of the Death Star and Luke becoming a pilot for the Rebellion as well as a force initiate. But his journey—as well as the journeys of the other characters—isn’t over. They didn’t defeat the big bad, they just stalled them for a while. There was still progression that could be made.

Compare that, however, to a stand-alone story like The Martian. Can you imagine a sequel to that book? Where would one even begin? The whole point of the story is Mark Whatney want’s to get off Mars, and by the end of the book, he’s accomplished that. His character arc is complete. Which means that in order to write a sequel to The Martian that the same set of readers will enjoy like The Martian, you’d have to do something really convoluted to put that character in a place where he can once again have that kind of goal, such as stranding him on, say, Venus. Or one of Jupiter’s moons.

And that feels a little flat, doesn’t it? Like the story is just repeating prior beats after dumping everyone back and resetting things? Well, that’s pretty common with sequels where there’s little room to move the story forward anymore. Just “reset” the characters. Have them learn the same lessons again! I’m certain most of you reading this can even think of a few stories that have done just that. They’ve had characters that ended the prior series in love now inexplicably back at square one—sometimes with a plot device like an ex or a relative to force it, other times with no explanation at all. Or there’s a big bad who was the real big bad behind the antagonist from the first story.

Point being, all of these approaches happen because the first story doesn’t have any more room to grow, or have enough room to grow. So the characters or the setting regress in order to make growth appear again.

In other words, the first thing you need to determine when thinking “Hey, I’d like a sequel” is whether or not your story and characters are capable of a sequel. Does your character have any progression to make, or would you have to “regress” them in order to do anything?

Now, there are ways to get around needing to regress characters and stories. Time skips with new characters, for example. But rather than delve on those methods, what I’d like to impart to you is that when you’re writing, if you already know that you want to have a sequel, try and leave yourself openings for a sequel. And if you’re looking at a story you once wrote and would like to add a sequel to it, one of the first things you’re going to need to figure out is how to progress it further. What sort of direction can it take? What areas do the characters have left to grow and progress in?

Because a sequel has to move forward. Good sequels do. Poor sequels regress.

Move things forward. And if you can’t find a way to do that … maybe you don’t need a sequel, as much as some people might want it. Remember, those who want a sequel often aren’t the ones who have to make it and often don’t know what makes a good story. In which case, the sequel in their head may aways be “better” than any real sequel that’s created.

Okay, with that all said … what if you do have the territory to progress to? How then should you go about setting up a sequel?

Now, I’m not going to tell you what to choose for your progression, or how to write it. That’s not what the second half of this post is going to cover.

No, the second half of this post is going to talk about something a bit more straightforward: How do you set the sequel up so that returning readers have the smoothest experience possible?

It’s at this point that I’ll confirm that this particular part of our discussion was a reader request, asking about this very thing. If you have the progression do create a sequel, how do you set up your story for returning or even new readers?

This is actually a tricky question because there’s no real right answer. There are options, yes, but there’s no “one way” to start a sequel to a book.

So what are some of these options? What are some of the ways we can start a sequel story to ease (or not) our readers into things? Well, let’s discuss a few common ones, in no particular order (and with my own names and terms, I might add).

Blind Drop: The Blind Drop is when you don’t make any concessions at all to the fact that the story is a sequel. It just starts, sets its story up (for this book), and goes. At most, the story might reference events that happened in the prior book, but only if they are important/relevant to the story now.

While it sounds odd, for stories that a “sequels” in a universe (even with the same characters) but otherwise 100% unconnected to what came before, this works fine! I’ve read books that do it. There are books that I didn’t know were “sequels” until I saw prior titles listed as sequels on the back flap. So yes, this does work.

However, there are good and bad examples of this. If you’re going to blind drop a reader into a story and they don’t need to have read anything before this, consider that maybe the story should make some elements clear, like who the main character is and what they’re like. No joke, I read a book that did the Blind Drop once, only it forgot to introduce its protagonist, acting as though the book wasn’t a blind drop but a straight “Hey, you read this other book first, right?” I was five chapters in before I knew what gender the protagonist was. It really made things interesting, and not in a great way.

In other words, if you want your reader to be able to pick up the book completely blind, on its own, and be fine, you should be retreading some stuff that a returning reader would “already know.” You may not discuss plot because the book isn’t connected plotwise, but the characters? You should at least cover them and give the “new” reader a rundown.

“But won’t that bug the other readers?” some of you might ask? Well … no, actually. Speaking as a reader who has read books that do this, usually when the characters get introduced it’s either a nice reminder, or something I can slide past really quickly because it’s clear ‘hey, this bit is for the newcomers.”

Straight Cut: The Blind Drop is different from a straight cut, however. The Blind Drop works because the prior books don’t need to be read. What I call a Straight Cut is when one book ends … and then next starts on what would be the next paragraph, making it exactly the opposite and very much a book where it should be on the cover and practically shouted at the reader that it is a sequel.

That’s not to say that this is a bad approach. In way, this is what the Lord of the Rings trilogy had to do when it was split into three. I myself almost did this for Colony, but decided I didn’t want to gamble on an entire second “book” just being payoff for all the setup of the first half.

But it has been done, and can be done. I’ve read sequels that started with the ending line of the book prior. And just in case you were wondering, it doesn’t have to be a planned series. You can do a one-and-done and then later come back and pick things up from there.

Even movies do this. Quantum of Solace, for all its issues, does start very strong by quite literally beginning with the next step from the closing scene of its predecessor, Casino Royale. Watch the end of that film and the opening of Solace and it will feel like a contiguous scene. If you didn’t watch the first film, well … You just have to roll with what’s going on until the new story starts coming out.

So yes, you can do a straight cut. There are books that just roll right into the next paragraph of their story knowing that their readers are going to be right there and not need too much in the way of a reminder—though they’ll often dabble in it just a bit anyway.

It’s a risky plot, personally, but it can be done.

The In-story Recap: This is probably the most common type of sequel experience a lot of us think of when we think of a sequel, IE the story that starts and then, either through a character/plot device that says “Let’s get you up to speed” or the characters recalling just enough of what went on before that the reader gets the general idea.

It’s a recap. It’s either characters saying “Man, remember that?” or thinking about what happened at the end of the last book … I mean, I really don’t feel that I need to summarize this one that much because if you’ve ever read a decent amount of books you’ve probably run into this. It’s basically treated the same way early worldbuilding is, save that rather than establishing the rules of the universe for the reader, it’s establishing for the reader the history that has come before. And that’s pretty much all there is to it.

With one tiny little exception. This is one of those things that often gets used alone, yes, as a lone step from a prior work to a sequel, but also often gets used with some of the other methods we’re about to talk about. In other words, it can be done with a firm hand to give the reader what they need to know, or a light touch that encourages the reader to, for example, flip a few pages back to a recap section itself.

Side Note: This can include, in my brain, flashbacks of any sort that recover terrain covered in a prior book, be it as a dream sequence or otherwise.

Encyclopedia Recap: Ever picked up a book that turned out to be book three or four or even two and seen a bit before the actual first chapter that starts with “The Story Thus Far …” or similar? Or perhaps a “List of Dramatis Personnel?” “A History of X Setting?”

These all to me are filed under Encyclopedia Recaps. They’re purposefully set apart from the “content” of the story itself to lay out to returning and new readers any information that they may have forgotten. Above when I mentioned “light touch” recaps encouraging a reader to flip back to a recap section? Yeah, this is what I was talking about.

And in truth, these can be very helpful. Sands, I don’t think many would have finished The Wheel of Time without the mini-encyclopedia at the back allowing readers to look up information as it came up because there was a lot to remember about that story.

Now, these are perfectly acceptable to put in books, but they do have drawbacks, namely that you can’t force someone to read them—and there exists a sizeable percentage of readers that will not—so if you’re relying on a reader to check back and find that information if they don’t know it … know that some will not, and fewer still (but still there) will actively consider it a mark against the story to have been “asked” to look back rather than told.

Personally? I don’t mind these, I think they work best with at least a light recap in the story itself, but that’s up to the creator. As is, I think these introductory pieces can be a useful tool in the toolbox for some stories, and honestly some really need them.

I do have cautions with this approach, however. I’ve known readers before who, knowing that the creator did recaps of the prior books, would “wait” for the last book and ignore the prior stories because they could just read the recap and “jump to the end.” And as noted above, I’ve seen people consider it a strike against the story itself.

Both of these are in the minority, but it should be noted that not everyone appreciates opening a book to see an encyclopedia entry explaining things. I’ve even known people who refused to read books that did this because it intimidated them!

But these are minor concerns, largely falling into “Hey, know your audience.” But you should be aware that not everyone likes this approach.

Cover Considerations: Okay, this one is less on the writing and style, and more on the “marketing” angle, but it’s an important thing to consider. How is your reader going to know that the book is a sequel even before they open the cover? Do you even want them to know?

You might not. The Blind Drop stories that I’ve read before? They often don’t tell the reader anywhere noticeable that the book is a sequel to another work. They look entirely stand-alone.

Meanwhile, Jungle states right on the cover, below the title, that it is “The long-awaited sequel to Colony” (and yes, though it only took three years to come out, fans will assure you that was a very long time). It’s right there. That book wants you to know “Hey, this isn’t book one. This is book two.”

You can even go further and say that exactly. How many of you have picked up a book that says somewhere on the cover “Book I of the _____ Trilogy/Series?” That’s a great way to inform the reader right away that “Hey, this is the first book, don’t pick up the second or third one until you’ve read this one.”

There’s no right or wrong way to do this. Some audiences are averse to the “everything is a trilogy these days even if it didn’t earn it” and will admit to avoiding covers that tell a reader how many books there are. But other audiences will grab for the books that up front say ‘one of three” because they want a long story … but sometimes only if all three are out, because then they know enough people enjoyed the series for it to be completed.

All of these are valid approached, but if you’re going to have any say in your covers, you’re going to have to think about how to present such information on them for your audience—or maybe how you’ll hide it.

Again, this comes down to knowing your audience. It’s more on the marketing angle, but it’s still important to consider, and unless you’re one of the few with a publisher calling those shots, you’ll need to figure this out for yourself and make a decision at some point.

I think with this, we’ve spoken enough today on the subject of setting up for a sequel. Remember, the key takeaway, before anything else is to first to see if your story has room to progress as a sequel, or if it would simply spin its wheels or even need to regress in order to have any motion forward again.

After you’ve decided this, then you can decide on how to introduce your sequel to your audience. If you don’t know which “method” your audience prefers, well, one last bit of advice: You’re writing what you enjoy, correct? That means your audience will largely enjoy the same things. So write the form of recap you would want in your sequel, and work outward from there.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Setting Up for a Sequel

  1. Sequels — with few exceptions — have a lot of ‘writing into the funnel’ since extremely few of them do better as they go along. With that being said, if the first books sells 100 units and the second is expected to sell 90, that’s a lot better than investing the time and effort into a different book that may only sell 50. In addition, that sequel may only sell 90, but it catches new readers, and it may also sell 20 of the first book, and the sequel to *that* may sell 85/50/30, and so on as the snowball grows. (I’m thinking the Wizard of Oz books may fall into that, along with Perry Rhodan.)

    Everything I’ve written has been ‘One and Done’ with an escape hatch, mostly in the continuation of events with further complications (The HP angle), but Drifting came as a Blind Drop with a complete change of main characters and pacing.


  2. So this got me curious, and with some rough napkin math, “Jungle” has sold about 70% of what “Colony” has. Which is why I don’t advertise it, because I noticed the advertising had almost no effect. Without fail, the majority of the people that read “Colony” start “Jungle” immediately, usually within a few days, and the sales between the two are very consistent. Considering that “Colony” has a three year lead on “Jungle,” the sequel selling about 70% of “Colony’s” number is a pretty good statistic.

    But I’ll bet that tail is the real win, like you said. That snowball really grows. When 7 out of 10 readers of “Colony” currently instantly buy the sequel (I actually suspect it’s closer to 8, but I ran lifetime here), that tail really grows strong.

    Completing the trilogy with “Starforge” should net another leap for all three, I think.


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