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Dear Story Nurse,
How do you write a sequel? Should I even write a sequel?
I’ve got an essentially-complete YA secondary-world fantasy and a couple months ago I got smacked in the head with the realization that it could easily be book 1 in a trilogy. I’ve got the broad plot strokes and themes of book 2 (and a few in book 3, for that matter), but every time I sit down to start the outline for book 2, I… end up working on something else.
Part of it is that if book 1 is sitting on my hard drive doing nothing, what’s the point of writing a book 2 that will do the same thing? (I’m working on book 1 not just sitting on my hard drive doing nothing, but that’s not necessarily relevant here.) And if book 1 ends up not doing anything, it’s a waste of time to write book 2, right?
The second one is that I have never written a sequel before. I googled “how to write a sequel,” because that’s what the internet is for, but the advice was manifold and contradictory. I did pick up the idea that sometimes you can jump straight into the plot at the beginning because you have all of book 1 as backstory now. But how closely is it expect that book 2 matches book 1 in pacing, tone, themes? Is it strange to jump from sort of a standard fairy-tale-based pseudo-medieval sword-and-sorcery story to something that more closely resembles a portal fantasy? Is it okay if I dump my entire cast of characters from book 1 down to 2 familiar names?
Am I thinking too hard here?
Anyway, any advice you have would be welcome.
The answer to “am I thinking too hard” is almost always “yes.” Also, no writing is a waste of time if it’s writing you want to be doing. It’s fine to just go ahead and write for yourself and see what happens, without stressing about marketing (which is really what these questions are about). It’s also fine to listen to whatever part of you is nudging you away from that possible book two and move on to something else. But if you’d like more detailed advice on sequels, read on.
How and whether to write a sequel depends greatly on what kind of project you’re creating. Broadly speaking, groups of books tend to fall into one of these categories:
- Serial, in which a single person or group’s overarching story is broken up into pieces. Those pieces might be story-length or novel-length or anywhere in between. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a serial of this sort: you stay with the same characters all the way through, and the series has a very clear arc. The individual novels have sub-arcs but those don’t matter so much.
- Divergent, in which episodes loosely follow on from one another but take different approaches and don’t always involve the same characters. N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy is a good example: they all have characters in common, and there is a single plot thread that runs through all three books, but each one has a different focus and a complete story. The books can’t quite stand alone, but if you pick up the third without reading the first two, you won’t be entirely lost.
- Shared-setting, in which all the stories take place in one world (though they may happen in different parts of that world) and events in one story may influence another, but the individual works have few or no characters in common, and each story is self-contained. Many romance novel series work this way.
- Episodic, in which a protagonist goes on a series of self-contained adventures without much in the way of larger change happening. Sitcoms and cozy mystery series often have this structure.
There are some mixes and blends of these forms—for example, the Discworld series is broadly shared-world with a number of groups of works that follow more of a serial or divergent model—but that’s probably not a thing you need to worry about right now. All you need to know is, if you decide to write more in your current setting, which of these forms would you like your series to take?
If you’re writing a serial, then yes, your readers will expect each book to have roughly similar pacing, themes, etc. But you don’t have to write a serial. It sounds like you’re more interested in writing several standalone stories of different types that happen to have a setting and perhaps some characters in common. This is a perfectly fine thing to do.
It’s very useful to know up front that you want to write a shared-setting series, because you’re going to have to set reader expectations appropriately (this is where the marketing comes in). Readers—and agents and publishers—have the default expectation that fantasy works are either standalone or serial in nature. So don’t call the series “The Adventures of Robin Hood” if Robin is only the star of book one and then barely appears in future books; your readers will be confused and disappointed. A name like “The Sherwood Forest Chronicles” will give them a little more notice that book two might be about Maid Marian solving a murder mystery and book three about Little John and Will Scarlett falling in love.
Having book two written or at least solidly in progress will help with pitching the series to publishers if that’s a thing you want to do, because you’re going to have to demonstrate that you’re capable of writing both a fairy-tale fantasy and a portal fantasy. Also, come prepared with the names of other authors who’ve done similar things. You might point out, for example, that the Narnia books started out as portal fantasy and then took a turn into secondary-world fantasy with The Horse and His Boy, in which characters from Earth only make brief appearances and there’s no travel between worlds. In other words, make it clear that you’re drawing on an established tradition within fantasy, even if you’re not writing a Tolkienesque trilogy. And do read series of that sort to see how other authors have handled bringing readers into a familiar setting while taking a new approach.
If you’re self-publishing, it may help to put the first two or even three novels out in quick succession, which of course requires writing them all in advance and having them lined up and ready to go. Doing your own marketing means you can play up your approach as a positive: “There’s something for everyone in the Sherwood Forest Chronicles, where each story is in a different genre!” (Or something like that. Marketing copy is not my strong suit.) You can use different styles of jacket art to suggest the different genres of the books, with shared visual elements linking them together. And once all the books are out, readers will help set one another’s expectations through their reviews.
Isn’t it nice to know that you aren’t the first person to break out of the serial mold and try this? Readers and publishers might be a little surprised, but they won’t be shocked.
Don’t let book one’s current just-sitting-there state discourage you from writing further. Writing a series means playing a long game, investing considerable time and effort up front in hopes of considerable returns down the road. If this is what you want to be writing, go ahead and write it.