Writing Sequels, by Sarah Alderson
I am busy in sequel land at the moment (the sequels to Fated will be out soon) and it got me to pondering the issues that arise when you write a story that continues beyond one book.
How do you plot? How do you sustain story arcs? How do you maintain your readers’ attention? How do you grow and develop your characters? How do you know when to stop? How do you avoid middle book syndrome?
While I write and edit my sequels I’ve also been reading a few other YA sequels and almost invariably being disappointed by them. So, how do you try to avoid the pitfalls when writing sequels?
1. Please remind your reader
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you know your characters and can visualize them and their back story and all their adorable quirks that your reader is going to remember them too.
Assume it’s been a year since your reader last entered the world of your book, and in between they’ve not been eating, sleeping, dreaming your plot and characters, they’ve been reading other books. Probably lots of other books. Your characters have warped and faded and maybe even disappeared completely from their minds. So you need to remind them who they are, what they look like and what their key character traits are. Also remind them of what happened in the previous book.
But whatever you do …
2. Don’t go crazy with exposition
That basically means don’t spend the first ten chapters or so laying out in painful detail everything that happened previously. Yawnfest right there. You need to scatter the information, and in a way that doesn’t make it seem like you are scattering the information purely for the sake of the reader. Nothing more cringeworthy and eyeball-rolly than exposition.
Your characters need to remain consistent. Unless of course fifteen years have passed and they’re now on a different life path. What is it with books where the character seems to have undergone a personality transplant in between books? That’s not to say characters shouldn’t show growth, but generally the reader wants to see the growth happening, not be witness to it after the event.
Did someone pass a law that every YA book now has to be part of a trilogy? What is that about? My Hunting Lila series is 2 books. My Fated series is going to be 4. I have several standalone books coming out.
Consider what works for your story but whatever you do don’t automatically assume three books is a must. I think a lot of times people just assume they need to write three and then end up with a middle book that sucks because there’s not enough story.
Every single book should be able to STAND ALONE. Someone should be able to pick it up who hasn’t read another book in the series and be able to get into that book without too much difficulty. Each book in a series needs a beginning, a middle and an end. The middle book is not the one where you just fill space until the finale can happen in book three.
5. Endings; to cliffhang or not to cliffhang?
Which brings me to point 5. To cliffhang or not to cliffhang? Generally speaking it’s best not to cliffhang but to wrap things up in a way that ties up most, if not all, the loose ends but leaves the door open for a sequel if you want to write one.
I’ve toyed with this cliffhanging dilemma a lot. In Hunting Lila we end at a peering gently over the cliff point but far from hanging off the actual cliff. In Losing Lila and Fated we’re nowhere near the cliff edge – both books were meant to end there (but leaving the door open just a smidgen in case). In Severed however I changed it up a little. At the end we’re clinging to that cliff with just our fingernails.
People hate cliffhangers as a general rule, but I felt that I could afford to do so because I had enough goodwill in my fans to trust me on it, and also because book 3 is coming hot on book 2’s heels, meaning readers won’t be dangling an entire year.
6. Plotting over books
If you haven’t yet got my point, plot each book to be standalone. But with sequels the major issue is continuity. How on earth did JK do it? I take my hat off to her, because it’s a headache to plot just one book, let alone a whole series.
I wrote all three Fated books before the first one was published because I wanted to make sure the plot was hole-free the whole way through. It took a lot of time and effort to do that (when characters can see the future and there are prophecies involved it sure took some planning).
So my advice? Make sure you do your planning across all the books before you publish the first if you possibly can.
But above all that, before you even begin the daunting task of plotting out a whole saga, ask yourself whether your book really needs a sequel.