The Challenge of Writing a Sequel
Your first book is done! Congratulations and you have come to find, after many submissions and endless edits, that an agent wants your manuscript. Eventually, it becomes a best-selling book, on all the must-read lists. People love the story and want to know what happened after the book ended. What happened to the characters? Where did their lives go from the point where the story ended? What will happen to them in the future? The only one who can answer these questions is you, the original creator of the story that hooked all these people in the first place!
Not a bad problem to have. I, myself, do not have that problem… yet. I hope to one day in the not-too-distant future. But even though none of my novels has been picked up and published as of this writing, I have still written sequels to some of them. There are multiple reasons I have for writing these sequels before the first has had the chance of being read by the public.
The main reason is that I like the characters in my stories and want to know what happens to them myself. I have no idea until I start the book and see where their lives lead within the story. It’s fun to revisit characters from one of my novels as they are set in a future time so it’s nice to see what their lives are like. Could be 6 months later, could be 8 years later, it all depends. Either way, it’s always nice to know what has happened in the interim. There is a comfort there, a bond with them that can only be had by the author. To find where their lives have taken them, if their families have grown or if anyone has passed on, it’s always nice to find out what they’re all about. So much to create, decisions to make for the characters & their lives, and a past to create for the time between stories. Not only that but when I have ideas for the sequel, I want to get those ideas down on paper and I get sucked into the story so I have to write it.
Other reasons include that I can use the time to alter things in the first book to help make new developments work in the sequel. If the original book were published, I would not have that luxury. What I do have is time to write so why not a sequel? Or two? Another reason is to challenge myself, which brings me to the reason for this post.
When writing a sequel, it seems obvious but I feel it’s important to stay away from rehashing the first story. It’s not as easy as it seems and we have all seen movies or read sequels that don’t stray far from the original. Boring, in my opinion, as we have been there and already seen or read that. With that said, the sequel will have some of the same elements as the original story. Those elements would be the characters, maybe a consequence of something that took place in the first book (paralysis from a car accident) or the main premise for the book (dinosaurs in Jurassic Park). Outside of the static elements, the book needs to find its own story that does not resemble or mirror the original. That story has already been done, no reason to do it again.
Come up with a new, exciting plot, new characters to introduce, and maybe even a new protagonist or antagonist. It should be a different story but it also makes it harder to repeat the success of the first. In the first story, the main element (dinosaurs) is fresh to the reader and quite possibly a mind-blowing element. In the sequel, that element is no longer new, it’s old hat (although still very cool). We know there are dinosaurs but what could make the story come to life again with these dinosaurs? Maybe a new, stronger, meaner, nastier dinosaur than anything seen in the original story. One that could possibly kill everyone’s favorite dinosaur and characters from the first story. Or a completely new setting. Some new element needs to pull the readers back in again, like when they first found out there were once again living dinosaurs in our world. In the second Jurassic Park, they brought the dinosaurs to America to exploit them and of course, the T-rex got loose and wreaked havoc within the community. A warning of what could happen if something of that nature were not contained to a remote island with no way of them getting off the island.
It is not an easy task by any means. Your creativity must be at its peak to breathe new life into a story everyone already knows. But it is also so much fun to push yourself to find this new element that can be as mind-blowing as the original. Tough goal but so satisfying when you can achieve that goal. In my sequels, I feel I have taken the stories in new directions. There are the static elements and static characters but new surroundings, new faces, and a new, completely different plot. Introducing new characters can be the catalyst that takes the story to places you never even knew possible.
Two of my original novels will be 3 novel series, one story will be 2 novels and another I am shooting for at least four or five in the series. Writing a sequel is hard enough but writing the third in a series is even harder. I’m not sure I’ve mastered this but by having the same mindset you need to have writing a sequel, you can make the third every bit as different and entertaining as the first and the sequel. You must approach it like it is a whole new story with some familiar characters. The one story I am hoping to make into a 4 or 5 book series but it stresses me out to think of how I’m going to keep the flame alive, original, and compelling. I really am going to need to kick it up a huge notch if I hope to achieve that in a successful way. But what a great challenge to have! I’m all for it and look forward to wracking my brain to come up with something original for each sequential novel.
One word of advice I have read is that agents advise against writing sequels to a novel that has not yet been published. The reason is simple; the first has not been published and there is no guarantee it will be. Even if it is, it may not take off so a sequel would not be needed. I get the agent's viewpoint, don’t waste valuable time writing something that may never be needed. But my opinion is this. Write it to stretch your own mind, to help you practice your writing, and a “just in case” scenario. I found much joy in writing the sequels I have written.
I do understand the agent’s perspective and agree with it but if you do not have any other ideas for new novels or you have the time, what will it hurt? Not only that, if your first book gets published but doesn’t sell enough to warrant a sequel, you still have an audience that may want to know what happens after the first book. Maybe that could be a self-published book? There are always alternatives to traditional publishing these days. Not only that, but the practice of writing can also only strengthen your writing muscle for whatever comes next.
Give it a try, write a sequel, and challenge your brain to figure out where the characters have been since the original story, how their lives have changed, and what the newest conflict is to bring your story to life. It really is a lot of fun to try to come up with a sequel and something that everyone should try. Even if it does not work out the first try, at least you tried and can learn from why it did not work out as you’d have liked. Start on draft number 2 and go at it again. You will find success if you keep trying!
Happy reading, happy writing!