Being a Better Writer: Crafting a Better Sequel by Using Portal 2 as a Guide

Welcome back, writers! And readers!

I know, I know. I all but vanished after Starforge launched last week. Which, by the way, if you missed it, is finally here, and it is glorious. But after a Reddit AMA and the launch of the book itself, I pretty much disappeared, which was kind of weird, right?

Well, the answer to the why is “I got sick.” Somewhere between working all the extra hours I did to get Starforge out on time and the array of colds and coughs going around right now, I got whammied with a particularly vengeful cold that knocked me out for the entirety of last week. But at least it gave me a chance to catch up on the sleep debt I’d built up during the lead-in to the Starforge launch.

Speaking of which, however, how’s Starforge doing? Well, while it’s still too early to roll out any definitive numbers, just the performance of the first few days suggests that Starforge is very likely my strongest book launch of all time.

Better yet, it’s not slowing down. Sales have continued to roll in over the last week. Constant sales of Starforge and the rest of the trilogy, as well as Kindle Unlimited reads. So much so that a single day over this last weekend accrued more sales than two whole weeks would have earlier this year.

It’s also already pulling in the Five-Star reader responses, which is telling in two ways. First, that it does indeed serve as a fitting and colossal finale to the trilogy as a whole, but also that someone was sucked in hard enough that they finished its entire half a million word length in just a few days from the launch.

Sands and Storms, guys. It was a lot of work, but it looks like it’s paid off. Starforge is the finale you were all waiting for.

If you haven’t checked out the trilogy yet, I highly advise doing so. If you’re a fan of big, grand, colossal-concept Science-Fiction, you owe it to yourself to check the UNSEC Space Trilogy out.

Now then, other quick bits of news before we move into today’s Being a Better Writer. First up: The upcoming price point adjustment. This was slated to happen around Starforge‘s launch, and it still is. But I figured being sick gave everyone a bit of an extra breather. Long story short, I haven’t adjusted the price points of my books in almost ten years (February 2013 to be exact). So one of my projects this upcoming week is a full price adjustment for most of the books in my library.

I will note that I’m still going to be basing my books on the same 1994-inspired values that my prices—with adjustment for inflation—reflected prior to this point, as explained in the original The Price We Pay post on book prices. There will be an updated “Price we Pay” post coming in conjunction with the adjustment, as well as an addendum link to the original post guiding curious readers toward the new price comparison chart.

If you’d rather grab stuff before the adjustment, then this week is your week to do so. I’m aiming to get the new prices out Thursday or Friday, so consider that your cutoff line. Though Starforge will remain the same price, since it’s brand new and already reflects the new price point.

Now, last but not least, what else is coming? Before we launch into today’s Being a Better Writer topic, what’s on the horizon now that Starforge, juggernaut of juggernauts, is out?

Well, I plan to start work on two new novels today, actually. Okay, I’m already working on a new one. It is, at long last, a new Jacob Rocke book. That’s right, a new Unusuals novel! Now, I definitely won’t be able to get it out by the tenth anniversary of the first Jacob Rocke book (as well as my first book overall), but I will likely be able to get it out fairly quickly. No name yet, but if you were one of those readers who loved One Drink and Dead Silver and wanted to see more of the Unusuals setting and Rocke’s adventures, that’s the next book I’ll be working on. I’m still hammering out some of the basic details, but the gist of the story is already starting to take shape.

After that draft gets hammered out, I’ll let it rest while sitting down to work on—and for some of you this will come with an “AT LAST!” proclamation—the next Axtara book, tentatively titled Magic and Mayhem. We’re far from done with either the setting or the titular banking dragoness herself, so look forward to more of that in the future. Speaking of the setting, there was also that short novel I pumped out around September-October set in the same universe about a young fisherman and mermaid that also could be polished up and rewritten …

So yes, suffice it to say that in the wake of Starforge—and as big a book as it was, the wake is pretty colossal—I’ve got plenty to tide me over and work on leading into 2023. Oh, there’s also all those short stories I wrote up over the last year, plus there’s LTUE in 2023, which I just got my schedule for …

Suffice it to say, the future looks bright. Starforge and the rest of the trilogy are tearing up my charts, Axtara just continues to sore and pop up in more bookstores with every passing week, and I’ve got plenty of book projects slated for the coming year. Starforge may be out … but we’re far from done. There’s a lot of adventure coming folks. So though we may be saying farewell to Jake, Anna, and Sweets, there are plenty of friends new and old on their way.

And with that, let’s finally get down to today’s Being a Better Writer topic and start talking about sequels. I know a number of you are likely a little perplexed upon seeing today’s title. After all, Portal 2 is a video game (and if you didn’t know that and are now joining the ranks of the perplexed, bear with me). What could a video game have to offer writers teaching about story?

Well, you’d be surprised. A lot of video games have been no slouch in the storytelling department for decades now, and both Portal titles are no exception. While the story may be presented in a manner that’s different from a book owing to the audio-visual nature of the medium, that doesn’t change the fact that it can be a great story.

But we’re not just talking about Portal 2 today because of how many awards it won (and rightfully so, I’ll add). We’re talking about Portal 2 because despite being in a different medium, it does lay down a very identifiable pattern to follow if you want to create a sequel that exceeds the first in every way.

We’ve talked about the problem with sequels before on this site. Numerous times, in fact, sometimes as the focus of a whole post, other times as a discussion point. But each time it’s been a point of note that what a lot of sequels get wrong about crafting a sequel is “Just do the first story again, maybe with more.” What “more” is varies quite a bit. For movies it usually means more guest celebrity appearances, or explosions. With games it can often mean the same but with new levels slapped in it (usually from the cutting floor of the first title). With books it often means getting the gang back together for another go, sometimes even relearning the exact same lessons as last time.

These are all weak sequels, but they persist because of a common issue, that being that the original concept, be it game, movie, or book, was never written with a follow-up in mind. So when the market says “give us more” the usual response is for the creators to repackage what they already saw success with and shove it out again.

Enter “Round 2: The Sequel.” This is why you’ll read sequel books where characters learn the same lessons again, or regress from their accomplishments and growth in the first book. Or find that the big bad they fought so hard against was—Surprise!—secretly the minion of an ever bigger bad who’s really similar to the last one …

You get the idea. Sequels tend to be really difficult territory for a lot of creators. Writers among them. Time and time again I’ve seen a young writer create a story that is a bit of a hit for them, and react by immediately making a follow-up that is just really the same story as the first, but again.

Portal 2, however, didn’t make that mistake. Instead Portal 2 is widely regarded as one of the greatest sequels of all time. How? Why? And what lessons can we take from it that will make our own sequels stand out against the originals instead of just being a token “Here we go again?” journey?

Hit the jump, and let’s talk about it.

Okay, I do want to start with something clear and up front: Portal 2 isn’t a great sequel because it completely steps away from the original. It very much embraces its heritage. As I’ll explain, you definitely get the experience of Portal in Portal 2.

To clarify and put in different words, Portal 2 isn’t a great sequel because it immediately eschews what made the first Portal work in order to “just be different.” I’ve seen sequels go this route, and without an accompanying narrative reason it’s often a mistake. So no, Portal 2 doesn’t discard what worked from Portal, and neither should your sequel.

In fact, it does the opposite. It takes everything that was in the first Portal and presents it to the audience once again, though with a few twists, such as a new character guiding the way instead of the antagonist from the first story.

But at first, Portal 2 really does feel like Portal, and this is what it gets right from the very start. It still has to guide the audience into the universe. It still has to acknowledge that it is Portal. And while it opens the “view” a little to show more of the setting we got in the first story, the opening chapters of Portal 2 thematically are quite similar to the whole of the first outing.

With a key exception: It’s not all of Portal 2. It’s only the first third. And yes, that first third is familiar, putting the audience through similar “welcome to” beats as the first outing. After all, the audience needs to learn or be reminded about the setting, the “mechanics” of what’s at play (in Portal‘s case that’s the titular portals and how they work, as well as the setting, but in your book it can be reintroducing magic, technology, etc). But even while they’re going through this first third, what’s being given to them is more streamlined than the first time around, as well as expanded. In the first Portal we got to see a little of the setting it took place in. The sequel revisits this, but also gives us a greater view of how it worked and what was going on.

Okay, so it revisits what came the first time around, but with both an expanded look and with greater speed and efficiency (for example, it brings back some puzzles with new coats of paint and refined mechanics). It reintroduces the concepts and the ideas that the first outing laid down, but this time over the course of a more streamlined experience … while also laying the groundwork for the next two thirds of the story.

See, this is what makes Portal 2 such a good model for how to build a sequel: It’s constructed in very easy to recognize chapters and arcs, including a “three part story” that many of us would find very familiar if charted out. And while it does open with “Here we go again” … that’s only to serve to set up what comes afterward. The first outing was fairly straightforward in the goal of its protagonist: Escape the facility by participating in tests. Portal 2 opens with a similar premise: Escape the facility by making your way through test chambers. And so for that first third, there’s definite familiarity with the original story. But again, expanded as there are new characters on display and new ideas being set up.

Because after that first third? That’s when things go into uncharted territory. Yes, the protagonist still has the same overall goal, that of “escape.” But everything else going on around them changes.

But we’ll get into that for a moment. The first bit of what makes Portal 2 such a great sequel is that everything it repeats from the original story is loaded into that front third and uses as setup.

Our sequels should be similar. Yes, we’re going to have familiar elements. Elements of setting, character, and goal. But our sequels should not be just “round two” and repeat the same things only. They are going to have to retread elements: For example, both Portal and its sequel spend some early chapters making sure the audience understands how its “portal gun” functions. Both stories feature similar setups and explanations to show the audience how its Sci-Fi device works and plays into the story. But where the first Portal moves to the end once that understanding is achieved, Portal 2‘s story is just reaching its first climax. Or, in other words, where the first story made that understanding its entire length, the sequel understands “we already did this” and makes it only the focus as long as it needs to while setting up to move onto new ground.

This is a winning pattern. If your first story was about some kid from a farm learning how magic worked just in time to defeat some antagonist, the second story should not be “This, again” in its entirety. But, to aid with onboarding people and reminding them, having the first bit of the story show and reintroduce the audience to the character’s growth and skills as of the end of the last book, by for example showing them using said skills to accomplish something similar to the first title while setting up for the rest of their new adventure that will bring with it new growth … that works.

This is, by the way, why a good number of sequels start out with an action sequence that lets the protagonists show off their skill and talents from the last work: to catch the audience up, deliver something familiar, but also to promise that the story the audience is about to experience is going to go beyond what the last did by setting the climax of the last as a starting point.

And this is what Portal 2 graduates into. At the end of this first third, which has been revisiting but expanding upon what came before, the audience is given the first climax of the story followed by a twist that takes things in a new direction. And by new direction I mean a new antagonist (who was the protagonist’s companion for that first third), a new reveal about the setting that hadn’t been seen before, and most importantly of all, new mechanics.

Okay, I need to explain that one a bit, since it’s a specific term. Mechanics are, for video games, elements or tools that the player can interact with in order to manipulate the gameplay experience. In the case of Portal 2, now that the player is familiar with the portal gun from the first title, the second act of the story introduces fluids that can be used in conjunction with said portals to do all sorts of neat tricks.

From a storytelling perspective, this is our protagonist facing the climax of the first act, discovering that the skills they’d learned in the prior story and refined in the first act of the second aren’t enough, and now seeking and discovering new talents that work in conjunction with the old ones.

I emphasize that last bit because this is something a lot of sequels forget. Too many sequels out there get this far, only to set aside or discard the skills, talents, magic, tools, or what have you that the protagonist had before in order to replace them with something newer and shinier.

This is not the correct way to sequel. Instead, do what Portal 2 does, which is introduce new things that merge with your protagonists’ talents, skills, and capabilities to expand them in new directions.

Portal 2‘s entire second act is this: Introducing its protagonist to several new tools and making them familiar with them as they work their way upward (literally) toward their goal of escape once more. These tools enhance the skills they already had, combining with skills our protagonist had already mastered (as shown in the first third) to create new uses and skills.

Growth, in other words, but growth that builds on what we were given before, rather than just “They learned to love, now they will learn to love more.” These new skills are, as a key point, new. As are the tools.

And while this is all taking place, there’s expansion going to the setting, location, and even the antagonist of the first story, who near the climax of the second act teams up with the protagonist out of mutual self-interest (notably that the new big bad is … a real problem for everyone).

Now, you don’t have to borrow the second-act team up. That’s not what I want you to focus on. What I want you to focus on is that second act of Portal 2 introduces new ideas and concepts while expanding on the characters, setting, and story. Where Portal just showed us the modern-day offices of Aperture Science, Portal 2 throws us through the company’s history, showing the audience the background and what it was like through the ages.

Again, I don’t want you to focus on exactly what Portal 2 did here as much as the foundations it made with its second act. New tools for the protagonists. New character growth. New elements of the story that expanded upon mystery from the first story and even the first act of the sequel (Recall how I mentioned much of act one setting up material that would be used later even as it retaught the audience what was going on?).

Portal 2‘s second act builds … and so should the second act of your sequel. But it builds in a way that meshes with what came before. The new fluids don’t replace the protagonist’s tool, but expand it in new directions and uses. The core of what made Portal Portal, that is the portals themselves the protagonist uses, are still on display. But act two of the sequel moves the protagonist past the heights of the first title’s climax into new territory with new unique uses of their skills. All while broadening its setting and characters past the confines of the first story—which again was fine on its own, but you don’t want to just repeat that story.

Like the talented creators and writers at Valve, the second act of your sequel should serve to expand on what came before, taking it in new directions or making our protagonist(s) learn new things that meld with their prior talents and allow them to be used in new, clever ways.

And once we’ve done that, once our protagonists new skills are ready to go, we can enter the third and final act of our story and head for the climax.

But of course, it doesn’t stay so simple. Portal 2 doesn’t just say “Okay, we got the new skills, now here’s the same climax as last time.” In fact, it does the opposite with some great lampshades, as it “repeated” the climax of the first story in the first act, but with a humorous twist to show how much the protagonist had grown already.

So once the third act begins, it doesn’t just settle down into “all right, back to escaping with our new tools,” IE “the goal is still the same as the first go around.” Sure, it starts the third act with that. But then almost immediately ups the stakes. That new antagonist? Well he’s awful at running the place, and now it’s going to blow up. With you in it. Unless you can stop him. Oh, and he’s got some new tools of his own too, so …

Portal 2 is how you bring a sequel to a climax. All those new tools and tricks, the growth the protagonist has undergone? Well, now the antagonist has some new tricks too, so not only do they need to use these new talents from the second act in ways that were learned there, but they also will need to use them with more new twists and wrinkles. Again, as with the second act, it’s stuff that expands on the use of our protagonist’s talents, rather than replacing them. While the stakes themselves are higher than before. With the first story, the goal was “escape or die.” Now it’s become “Escape or everything goes up in a nuclear inferno.” Which is even worse, since the ally-of-convenience antagonist from the first title doesn’t want the facility to go up in a nuclear explosion. Obviously the protagonist doesn’t either, but the point here is that the stakes are raised from the first outing’s climax. There’s more at risk. More to lose.

And our protagonist needs to use all the skills learned in the second act, both to overcome new variations on the familiar stuff seen in act one (in other words, it pays homage to the first story once again, but uses what was seen there in new ways) and newer, deadlier tricks yet. The antagonist hasn’t been resting, and has worked on their own to create new challenges, growing from the last the audience saw them. And what results is a thrilling finale (and hilarious) that culminates in a climactic battle that is … well it deserves a paragraph all of its own.

See, the climax builds on knowledge that was garnered through the entire journey, as finales should for our protagonists. But it also is reflective of the prior climax from the first story. In fact, the antagonist opens the last confrontation by noting that he’s reviewed all the footage of the prior final battle from the first story, and he won’t make the same mistakes. Indeed, the protagonist is forced to utilize their new skills and talents specifically to go above and beyond what the first story’s finale was as a result, and even lampshades that you’re in effect doing the opposite at some points of what happened the first time around. It culminates in a moment I refuse to spoil (seriously, Portal 2 is usually $5 most sales and will practically run on a phone these days) but perfectly capstones all the stuff the protagonist had learned through the adventure thus far (including a critical line that many might have initially thought was a throwaway joke).

Ultimately, Portal 2‘s final act builds further again, introducing new wrinkles and twists that escalate the threat beyond that of the first title and raising the stakes, all while still forcing its protagonist to use the skills acquired and mastered across the story of both titles in order to succeed.

So … where does that leave us? Well, a lot of what’s been discussed here today is concept. You’ll still need to figure out your story. And your characters. How will they grow? What new thing will they learn? What growth will they have? How will you stay true to the core of your original (Portal 2, after all, is still about the portals) while branching out in new and unique ways? That’s all up to you, and for you to figure out.

But the foundation that Portal 2 exemplifies with its three acts? The way it grows past its initial story and builds in new directions, expanding upon what was laid down in its first outing but giving its protagonist new things to learn and obstacles to overcome that aren’t just tougher versions of what came before? That’s what we should model our sequels on.

It’s a foundation. I covered it here today because it is quite simply laid out. Three acts. Three steps.

A flawless sequel, easily understood and modeled.

So, as you set out to write your own sequel, remember the lessons exemplified by Portal 2. First, while you will need to “retread” some territory, it should be refined and as the first part of your story. First third, fifth, whatever, but it should be to set up what comes after, not to repeat what went before again/

Second, you’ll then want to introduce new things that expand on the story, setting, and talents/skills of your protagonist(s). Be it against a new foe or a familiar one, you should introduce aspects and elements that take things in new directions, even as you keep the “core element” familiar.

Lastly, keep building on those new things as you move into the climax. Let those new tools, talents, skills—all that character growth—mean something for the finale in some way. Have the characters use it. Up the stakes somehow, or try new stakes. You don’t have to be as referential as Portal 2‘s finale was (remember, it is comedic), but you should make it different from the last final battle (or climax). Add a new wrinkle, something.

Again, this is all conceptual work. Foundation-laying. Ultimately, you’ll have to make calls for your story and what serves it best. But if you want to craft a sequel, looking at how Portal 2 managed to create such a perfect one and looking for what it did right is a great first step.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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