Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On Sequels

Any of you who witnessed the pathetic amount of whining I did last year know that writing sequels is ... rather hard. (okay, fine, if you follow me on Twitter you've seen me back to whining again)

I'm sure there are a few lucky authors who breeze right through them, but most of the authors I know STRUGGLE. Especially with book 2s. But honestly, I'm working on a book 3 right now and it's fighting me every step of the way. And I think I've finally figured out WHY.

I've already done some musing on this subject in a post I wrote last year, after I'd survived my first "book 2."  And at the time I wrote that post, I thought I knew what had made that process so difficult. But while all of those things definitely ARE a big part of the challenge, as I've continued to write sequels I've realized that I'd only begun to understand what made the process so excruciating. It wasn't until my husband made me watch a sequel to a movie that I'd been specifically resisting--without really knowing why--that I FINALLY figured it out.

Here's the thing:

For the most part, at the end of a book, the characters are in a "good" place. Things aren't perfect--and obviously there's more story to tell. But unless it's by one of those evil authors who ends on a ginormous cliffhanger with no sense of closure at all, the characters and the world have all ended at a point where readers can be mostly satisfied to let it rest--for a while, at least. 

And then ...  everything falls apart again in the sequel. 

THAT'S why I'd been resisting seeing that particular movie. I didn't *want* to watch everything get ruined again. Especially since I had very specific FEARS and HOPES and EXPECTATIONS based on what I already knew of the story. And honestly, I feel the same way when I read most sequels. There's always that moment of, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! when everything falls apart, and I have to fight the urge to skip to the last pages to see if things are going to work out okay.  And sure, you can have that feeling with a "book 1" as well, but I personally think it's especially painful when it's characters you're already attached to and have already gone on a journey with. 

And yet, the bad things *have* to happen in the next books, otherwise the story is going to be really boring--plus problems always get worse before they get better. So really, what you need to do as an author when you write a sequel is work extra hard to establish TRUST between you and your readers. You have to find a way to assure them that even though you're going to break their hearts in certain ways, it's still worth going along for the ride. And that is NOT an easy thing to do. 

I know this is the point where you're probably hoping I'll give you some sort of magical formula that will make it sequel writing easy. Sadly, I'm not sure that exists. But I can tell you what *I* finally decided to do, and it has helped me a little. 

I've read a LOT of sequels lately (writing is reading, after all) and I've noticed a pattern in the ones I thought were done best. They all had these moments in the plot where I started to think, "Noooooooo, PLEASE tell me the author isn't going to do THAT!!!"And then... the author DIDN'T do it. The love triangle I was fearing. The brutal death I'd been praying wouldn't happen. Whatever my WORST fears were did get hinted at enough to make me start to worry that the story was heading that way. And then, the author went a totally different way. An equally brutal way at most times--but somehow it felt less painful because it was a surprise.

I think that technique is effective for three reasons: 
1) Playing upon reader expectations is a surefire way to build killer tension 
2) When you go a completely different way, it keeps the reader guessing and keeps the plot fresh and unpredictable 
3) When you *don't* do what the reader is fearing, it helps them to TRUST you, and stick around when you put them through all the horrible evil things they never saw coming (have I mentioned writers are evil?) 
So THAT has become my goal when I build the plots for my sequels. I try and figure out what I think readers are going to fear most as I go into the story (which isn't that hard to do. Usually it's all the same things I fear) and then I try to shape the plot in a way that makes them wonder if I'm going to go that way. And right when it's starting to look like, "oh noes--SHE IS!" I go a different route instead.

It's NOT an easy thing to do and it hurts my brain a lot (like, a LOT, lot) but I get SUPER gleeful when I get messages from my beta readers saying things like, "If thing X happens I am NEVER SPEAKING TO YOU AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!" followed a bit later by, "Oh, good, we can still be friends--BUT WAIT, WHAT DO YOU MEAN THEY HAVE TO DEAL WITH THING Y???????" so hopefully that means I pulled it off. I guess I won't know for sure until my sequels are out there in the wild (which in EXILE's case is only one week away now--holy cow, how did that happen???).

But I thought I'd throw this info out there anyway, in case it's helpful to any of you. If nothing else, maybe it'll explain why you see me whining about sequels so very very much, and why I disappear down the drafting rabbit hole and struggle so much as I fight my way back out. And why I eat so many cupcakes. That's the best writing advice of all. EAT MORE CUPCAKES.

*places an emergency cupcake order and goes back to drafting KEEPER 3*


  1. As I'm sitting here writing - in the full-on cupcake needy throes of writing a sequel - I'm so thankful you posted this! It's a really great reminder to always try to surprise the reader and you might have just saved me from making a mistake along those lines. At least writing book 2 is keeping me from obsessing about whether people will love book 1 enough to follow them here. Cause yeah, that fun little worry is on my mind like whoa. :)

  2. I've written sequels, but I was too caught up in the "ARRRGGGH OBSESSED" feeling to really struggle with it. :P I do struggle when I've left an unfinished something too long between writing sessions, though.

  3. You haven't given us a formula, but this is a great tip on how to make a sequel good. I think taking the story in new directions and introducing new characters also helps in many stories too.

  4. I'm sorry. Thing Y is happening? I can never trust you again.

  5. This is such great sequel advice! Even though it sounds like it will make my head hurt, too. Must get cupcakes. :)

  6. I agree with you about writing sequels 100%! It's hard but when it's finished...wow. It feels like a major accomplishment. I think sequels are also hard because you have to make sure all the facts you set up in Book 1 are the same in Book 2. (Hair color, height, personality, etc.) There is a lot of double checking. Triple checking. 'Cuz I hate it when I read a sequel and they don't get something right! ;)

  7. Great advice on sequels! Makes a lot of sense.

  8. What a great post! Some great advice in it!


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