For the last seven years, I’ve run a Teen Advisory Board at the bookstore which is a lot like watching a focus group of teen readers. Every month, I hear teens complain about how a sequel isn’t nearly as good as the first book. So when I started working on A GIRL UNDONE, the sequel to A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, I was concerned with how to write a sequel that would satisfy the fans.
Writing a sequel is a totally different from writing a first book. The characters and conflict are established, the world has been laid out, and the fans want to know what happened to the characters. But how do you keep the story fresh and exciting without going astray?
Here are four tips for writing sequels from writers who’ve done it well.
1. Write the same book, but completely new
My teen board members said over and over again that they want the same experience they had reading the first book, but they want to be surprised, too.
Recreating the experience of book one means, according to Rachel Searles, author of THE LOST PLANET, that writers must “remember the rules of your world, make sure your funny characters have funny lines and that their quirks are still there. And…if your first book is fast-paced and full of action, it’s probably not a good idea to fill the second book with chapters of introspective moping and lengthy dialogue scenes.”
The characters must remain themselves ,the world must continue in the way the writer left it at the end of book one, and the writing style has to mirror the first book. But that doesn’t mean that everything should stay the same.
“It’s a balancing act to make the new book feel fresh and different while staying true to the tone and reader expectations established in the first volume,” says Jenn Reese author of ABOVE WORLD. Reese looks at “the shape of the story: how it starts, how it builds, and what sort of internal and external factors lead to the climax. If this shape mirrors the first book too much, it will feel like the same thing all over again.”
The main character can’t spend two or three books doing the same thing over and over in the same way, because that becomes repetitious and boring. Instead, the writer must look for a way to give the main character new challenges, such as changing the external threat or antagonist, or increasing the threat posed by a character’s internal conflict.
Rachel Searles and Kristen Kittscher
2. Grow your characters.
A great sequel isn’t merely the next episode in the protagonist’s adventure. For a sequel to satisfy, the character must continue to evolve, because their emotional growth and success is as important and satisfying to the reader as surviving external threats.
One of the most scathing book reviews I heard from a teen reader on my board involved a female protagonist who turned from kickass in book one to lovestruck and wimpy in book two. It’s okay for a character to suffer a temporary setback, to falter when up against an overwhelming obstacle, but the character must retain the characteristics that made the reader love them in the first place.
The character growth doesn’t have to be revolutionary to be effective. When Kristen Kittscher was writing the sequel to THE WIG IN THE WINDOW, she thought hard about “what habits and ways of thinking my characters had outgrown from the first book–what could they leave behind without it feeling inconsistent? What new challenges are they struggling with?”
As characters grow, they abandon what they might have done or thought. They are more aware and less innocent, but this often leaves openings for new challenges.
Jenn Reese says that the main characters’ “initial needs and wants may be met by the end of book one, so it’s important (and fun!) to ask yourself what the adventure cost them–do they have new emotional or physical scars? Have their feelings for each other changed, either during the events of book one or during the enigmatic white space between books?”
Change can cost our characters, leaving them with scars as well as triumphs. A character can become less trusting or joyful, abandoning a pastime, place or friend they once loved.
But emotional growth can’t leave behind who that character is at the core. Caroline Carlson of THE VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES series explains,
“I don’t want my protagonist to struggle with the same emotional challenge over and over from one book to the next, because she needs to show real growth over the course of the series. On the other hand, giving her an entirely new emotional arc in each book would feel jarring. So I think about my protagonist’s core emotional desire–like a need for acceptance, love, or respect–and try to show that core desire through a slightly different lens in each book.”
3. Use those secondary characters.
By bringing back minor characters, the writer can create continuity while also spurring the main character to grow. Kristen Kittscher spends time “thinking about which minor characters should reappear and why–how can they illuminate my main character’s changes? What consistent, necessary roles do they play?”
Caroline Carlson uses returning characters strategically, saying, “When I need a new character, object, or plot twist to appear in a sequel, rather than creating something entirely new, I look back through earlier books for “throwaway” references or very minor characters who can be brought back into the sequel in a more purposeful way. My hope is that this strategy will give the whole series a sense of consistency and connectedness, plus it creates the illusion that I’m a much better planner than I really am!”
And a series allows a character time to interact with several secondary characters and to grow. Jenn Reese explains that “One of the greatest joys of writing a story that spans several books is that you can give some characters the chance to change more slowly–and sometimes more profoundly–than if you’re trying to do it all in one book.”
4. Plan ahead, but mess around.
Writing a sequel means not forgetting what’s come before, especially when it has to do with character details that readers are likely to remember.
“I had to be much more meticulous in my planning to make sure all the usual story elements were there as well as to account for all the threads left hanging from the previous book. I couldn’t have gotten through it with my sanity intact without keeping a storyboard, a timeline, and a character bible updated at every turn,” confesses Mary Elizabeth Summer, author of TRUST ME I’M LYING
While sequels are often written under insane deadlines that make writers want to write, write, write, Skylar Dorset, author of THE GIRL WHO NEVER WAS says, “Don’t be afraid to “waste a day *not* writing the sequel and instead just re-reading bits and pieces of the first book. Because you would think you would know what you wrote and it turned out that nope, my continuity on little issues was ALL over the place.”
But at the same time, use a new story as an opportunity to have some fun. Throwing the main character a curve ball, can be thrilling for the writer. Kathryn Rose, author of CAMELOT BURNING says, “What really helped me write book two was thinking ahead to what options my characters would have down the road. Sometimes it was some extra planning, and sometimes it was as simple as looking at the characters’ strengths and weaknesses now that they’ve been introduced to the reader, and screwing with them.”
Thank you to all the authors here who shared their wisdom and insights.
Catherine Linka is the author of A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and its upcoming sequel A GIRL UNDONE, May, 2015. You can read the first three chapters of A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS at www. catherinelinka.com