I’m not sure when or how it happened, but in the last couple of years or so I’ve been seeking out more and more stand-alone novels and even writing my own. Which is weird, considering I used to snub my nose at stand-alones, and all of the stories I wrote (and planned to write) were plotted out as trilogies.
So what changed? Well, my theory is that I’ve come down with something I’ve dubbed “Sequel Disappointment Syndrome.” One day it struck me that I’ve read very few series that are actually well-executed and deserving of their 3-7+ volumes. To be honest, the majority of series I’ve read have a fantastic first book, but the sequels fall short in comparison and disappoint.
I can’t tell you how many series I’ve come across where I think to myself, “This really would have worked better as a stand-alone.”
And honestly, I would rather read a fantastic stand-alone than a trilogy where book 1 is amazing but books 2 and 3? Um…not so much.
These days, it seems like every book is a trilogy, if not part of a longer series. I can’t help but look back at the wealth of classics like Pride and Prejudice, Dracula, and Wuthering Heights just to name a few, and wonder if their authors were onto something by making them stand-alones. When did we start feeling the need to make everything a trilogy? If these books had been written today, would they have been series instead? And would their sequels have been as good as the originals? One has to wonder.
To Write a Sequel or Not to Write a Sequel?
If you decide your story does indeed need a sequel, I must advise you to write responsibly. As a reader who has been disappointed far too many times with trilogies and series, I can tell you that the last thing you want to do is disappoint your audience.
When a reader picks up your book, they are placing their trust in you, the author. A disappointing sequel can break that trust. It can make the reader question your abilities as a storyteller. If you break a reader’s trust, not only is there a chance they might not pick up the next book in your series, but they might not pick up any other books from you period.
Now that may seem a little harsh, but I can attest to its truth. If an author bungles a series, I won’t rush to start their next one. How do I know this one won’t be any worse than the last? Reading a series is a huge time commitment, and I’m not keen to spend my time on an author who was disappointed me in the past.
As you can see, keeping your reader’s trust is crucial. And to accomplish that, you must show them you know what you’re doing. To help you navigate the treacherous waters of writing a series, here are my tips for disappointment-proofing your sequels.
1. Make Sure You Have Enough Story
I can’t stress this one enough: Don’t write a series because it seems like “the thing to do”; Write one because it will require more than one book to tell your story.
Don’t approach writing a story from the mindset of “I want to write a trilogy” or “I want to write a 7 book series.” You need to shift your mindset to focus on your story first and foremost. Then ask yourself: “How many books will it take to tell this story?” and go from there.
So how do you know if you have enough story to justify a series? This brings us to point #2…
2. Plan it Out
Friends, this is SO important. You need to plan out each book in your series in as much detail as you possibly can. If you’re not a plotter, you need to learn to become one. I don’t believe a series is something you can “pants” with good results.
Now, I know a lot of writers say to plan out your first book in great detail and then have general ideas for the additional books in the series. I’m going to have to say that from my own experiences, I must disagree with this approach.
Why? Let me give you an example.
I used the above method for my first trilogy in high school. The book one came together well, but the next two? They were a complete mess. I didn’t plan them well enough and they were all over the place with no direction and too much filler.
Fast forward to today. I knew my next work-in-progress would be too long for a standalone, and I had roughly plotted it out as a trilogy. By “plotting” I mean listing some ideas for each book as I had in the past.
But based on my last experience with writing a series, I wanted to make damn sure I had enough material this time. I went back and *really* plotted out the story scene-by-scene, dividing each book into 3 full acts. And you know what I realized? My story was actually a duology, not a trilogy.
Now, if I hadn’t realized this until after I had started writing, you know what would have happened? I would have run out of story and had to add filler. That means not only wasting my time, but the reader’s as well. I’ve read series where it felt like the author didn’t plan ahead. This leads to distorted, jumbled plots without clear direction, random subplots, unnecessary characters, and so on.
Now, you probably don’t need to plan out each book scene-by-scene like I did–I’m a little intense. But if you want to write a solid, amazing series, I highly encourage you to plan as much material as you can as far ahead as you can.
3. Don’t Add Filler
When you’re planning your series, make sure every scene, subplot, and character has a purpose and contributes toward the story’s end goal.
Sometimes, it’s going to be hard to choose which characters to focus on. You might create characters who become personal favorites, but don’t really play a big part in the story. You have to learn to control your feelings towards your characters and not give them more page time than they deserve.
For example, although I enjoyed Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, I felt the subplot of Mia and Jordan was unnecessary and felt more like filler. They didn’t contribute a lot to the main story and probably could have been cut (in my opinion).
In short, be purposeful and selective with your main/POV characters and accompanying subplots.
4. Don’t Rush the Ending
One thing I hate more than anything is when an author rushes the ending of a story or series. I always feel cheated when I’m taken on an emotional journey only to have it end with a flat, abrupt conclusion bereft of the emotion I had been enjoying throughout the novel.
The only reasons I can think of for why authors might rush their endings are 1) They were exhausted 2) They were bored with the story, or 3) They were afraid of making it too long.
These are all terrible reasons. Set the story aside and take a break, or write on something new for a while if you must. If books 1 & 2 were 60,000 words and book 3 needs to be 90,000 words to show the ending in-depth, then you write those extra 30,000 words.
But whatever you do, don’t half-ass your ending. You owe it to yourself, your story, and your readers to give your novel a proper conclusion with all the detail and emotion it deserves.
5. Focus, Focus, Focus!
Sequels usually work best if a common thread is woven throughout them. The books in your series should be connected by an overarching goal that ties them together, like so:
In Harry Potter, the goal is defeating Voldemort.
In The Lord of the Rings, the goal is destroying the One Ring.
In The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, the goal is stopping the evil Lunar Queen from taking over earth.
Each book in these series has its own subplots, but the main goal spans the length of the series, helping to tie the books together. As a whole, each of these series is one giant story.
Additionally, the climax of the final book in your series should be the resolution of the main goal. If readers get to your final book and the climax is not the resolution of this goal, it will likely lead to disappointment.
For example, in The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, **spoilers** there is a lot of build up regarding Khalid’s curse, and the end of book one sets up that the characters will try to break the curse in book two, The Rose and the Dagger. But in the sequel, breaking the curse wasn’t the climax of the story. The focus was elsewhere, which threw off my expectations and left me feeling disappointed. By having another event serve as the climax, I felt the story lost much of its power, focus, and emotion. **end spoilers**
Side note: The only series (that I know of) that I have seen deviate from using the same main goal throughout each book with success is C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis focuses on a new goal and story line in each book, and somehow it works well for him.
What disappoints you in a sequel? Do you prefer writing series or standalones? Share your thoughts below!
Stay tuned for Part II!