THE ART OF THE SEQUEL by Miko Johnston

As you are reading this, the third novel in my A Petal In The Wind series is about to be published and I’m starting to write book four. I’m in good company. Since the founding of The Writers In Residence, I’m proud to say that seven of our eight members have published at least one book. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many of us have written or are working on sequels.

 

And why not? As Jackie Vick confirmed with her post last week, sequels are a great way to win readers. Like the best movie or TV series, book series attract audiences with interesting characters we get to know over time. Series offer engaging stories as well, that make us laugh, or cry, or worry, or all of the above.

 

You may think it’s easier to write a sequel than a completely new novel. After all, you have your characters developed, your tone set, and your readers hungry for more. Maybe, but if you’ve ever remodeled a house, you know that sometimes it’s easier to start from scratch. Like remodels, sequels have their own set of challenges. Here are some to think about:

 

1   How much of the story bears repeating?

All books, whether sequels or not, should read as a stand-alone – anyone who hasn’t read the previous book or books in the series should be able to figure out what’s going on. Characters and situations have to be reintroduced. However, you don’t want to bog down a sequel with too much repetition from the earlier books. Finding the balance between too little and too much is tricky. A good rule of thumb: include only what relates to the sequel’s plot and avoid frontloading your first chapter with backstory. Throughout the early chapters, recap with a paragraph or a few sentences to reintroduce, or update, the reader to the characters – who they are, what they look like, and what they’re doing.

An excellent example of this technique is Daniel Silva’s description of one of his recurring characters, Eli Lavon. A tracker, a.k.a. street surveillance artist, Silva reminds us that Lavon “could disappear while shaking your hand”.

 

2   How will your characters grow throughout the series?

Comic strip characters rarely change or age over decades, but most writers of successful series account for how much time, if any, has elapsed between books. Each sequel will show characters aging and all that it entails – coupling and break-ups, promotions and job changes, births and deaths. In the Miss Marple series, Agatha Christie describes one minor character as a teenager in her first book. In her eighth, the same character is mentioned as being grown up and in a successful career.

 

3   Are you staying in the same realm?

Whatever you write, you should maintain a consistent genre throughout the series. Readers will be thrown if in later installments your cozy mystery suddenly turns gritty, your political thriller morphs into satire, or spacemen appear in your Regency romance. If you want to write something significantly different from your previous novel, make it a stand-alone.

It’s fine to tweak sub-genres; sometimes you must. For example, my historical fiction series, A Petal In The Wind, begins with my protagonist as a child. In the second book she’s twenty-two, so I added a romance element. However, every book in the series is a love story, only it’s not romantic love in book one.

 

4   Is there more to the story?

Some stories can be told in under 400 pages. Others require more time to develop. Series abound in genres like thriller, mystery, and sci-fi, where the characters continue to save the world from evil, solve another murder, or explore a new planet. Historical fiction series follow a group of characters through an era or period of history, while characters in contemporary fiction series deal with the challenges of our modern age. Romance often appears as a sub-genre in sequels, like Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series.

Often publishers will not accept manuscripts that exceed a set word count, citing higher printing costs. Many readers and book clubs won’t touch a book that’s too long. If your manuscript is over 100,000 words, consider splitting it into two books. If it’s well over 100,000 words, you’ve got the beginning of a saga.

 

5   How do you connect the books?

If you plan to serialize your novels, is it going to be a limited series, such as a trilogy, or open-ended? Limited series are appropriate when you’re tracing characters over a period of time, such as a family saga, a finite era like a war or political reign, or, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries, you have a pre-set number of books in mind. Action/adventure, mysteries, covert ops, and political thrillers can be open ended, for there’s always another bad guy (or gal) to catch, or another adventure to be had.

Aside from the continuing characters, sequels should leave some story threads untied, to be picked up in a later installment. Other characters may disappear for a while, only to reappear a book or two later.  Or a clue in book two may not come to roost until book four. Little nuggets like that give pleasure to the faithful reader.

 

 

Once you know what to do, the next step is figuring out how to do it successfully. We’ll look at that in the next installment, which will post next Monday.

10 thoughts on “THE ART OF THE SEQUEL by Miko Johnston”

  1. Some great points here. I have read squeals that spent half the book rehashing the prior book. It will bore the reader who read the first book and it might not sell that first book to the reader of the second book. Making it almost a stand-alone is great advice. And I do like leaving some loose ends that just might entice the reader to buy the next book and the next. If there are returning characters, they can be the ones who can mention stuff that happened in the past (the prior book). It adds information in a subtle way. Nice post.

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    1. Great tips, GB. And I agree about sequels that repeat too much information. As boring as that is, when there’s too little information, it’s frustrating – who are these people? Finding the right balance is key.

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  2. Excellent post. This is like reading a textbook on writing serial books – you have the reasons for every rule. Thank you. Since I am the bookless member of the group, I’d better get cracking on book one before I can go on to book two, three or twenty-six. But… there just seems like so many OTHER things to write!

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  3. Lots to think about here. Writing a sequel (or sequels) seems so challenging, and I’ve seen some sad instances where it was done badly, with that dreaded front-end-load of backstory. If only those authors had followed your advice!

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