Write a Sequel That Doesn’t Disappoint: Part II

Learn 5 more ways to write a sequel or series that leaves readers satisfied!In my last post, I shared with you 5 ways to disappointment-proof your series. Today, I’m back with Part II, as promised! (Psst, if you missed Part I catch up here!)

So without further ado, here are 5 more tips for making sure your series kicks butt!

1. Follow Through on Your Plants

No, I’m not talking about gardening here. “Plant and payoff” is a technique where a piece of information, object, character, etc. is planted in the story and is later revealed to have significance (the payoff).

This is also similar to “Chekov’s Gun,” a technique named after the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. He wisely said that if you put a gun on stage in Act I, it should be fired in Act II. He also reasoned for the opposite of this technique: if you don’t intend to fire the gun in Act II, don’t put it on the stage in Act I.

Everything in your story must have a purpose or significance. Why? Because if it doesn’t, it could lead to confusion or disappointment in readers. Savvy readers pick up on planted details and file them away for later as they read, knowing that if the author is mentioning it, it will probably be important later. They expect you to use them.

If you spend time talking about a ruby ring the reader will think, ‘this must be important’ and make a mental note of it. But if the ring never comes up again, at the end of the story they might be left scratching their heads wondering why you bothered mentioning the ring at all.

My point is, don’t add unnecessary details that will be wasted and unused. Every plant must have a payoff, or it has the potential to do more harm than good.

For example, in The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh, **spoilers** it is planted that the heroine, Shazi, has dormant magical abilities. This leads readers to expect that Shazi’s magic will be of significant importance in the plot. Especially when in the sequel, The Rose and the Dagger, she tries to learn how to use her magic.

Unfortunately, there’s no satisfying payoff for this plant. Shazi’s magic doesn’t play a significant role and could have been left out without hurting the story. To apply Chekov’s Gun to this: If you don’t intend to use your heroine’s magic in book II, don’t introduce it in book I. **end spoilers**

2. Continue to Develop Your Characters

In your sequel or series, pay attention to your characters and make sure they don’t remain stagnant. They should continue to grow and change as a result of the challenges and experiences they encounter in each book. You don’t want your hero to be the same at the end of your series as he was at the beginning of book one.

You can also continue to deepen your characters by:

a) Revealing more about them and exploring their background

b) Continuing to deepen the relationships and conflicts between characters

All of these techniques are used in Game of Thrones, and its part of what makes the show continue to get even better as it goes along. The characters continue to adapt, evolve, learn, and change heart, making us wonder who they will be by the story’s end. Plus, the conflicts and interactions between characters keep us interested and riveted.

3. Foreshadow Your Plot Twists

Plot twists are fun, but if you’re going to have a plot twist you must make sure you set it up properly for your readers (This goes back to #1 with plant and payoff). But if the point of a plot twist is to surprise readers, then why should you plant clues or foreshadow?

Plot twists should be surprising, yes, but the last thing you want is for them to feel random. Foreshadowing means playing fair with readers and giving them the chance to figure out the plot twist. They should feel like if they had been paying closer attention they could have figured it out.

Clues and foreshadowing allow readers to look back and think ‘oh yes, that makes sense now, I should have realized that!’ (Or for more perceptive readers, ‘oh yes, I suspected that might be coming!’). What you don’t want is for them to look back and think ‘where in the world did that come from?’ Think of foreshadowing as the evidence that supports the surprise so the reader will believe what you’re revealing to them.

In a series, pulling off plot twists might mean foreshadowing or planting clues several books in advance. That’s why planning out your series is extremely important! Know your plot twists ahead of time, and sprinkle hints throughout your books accordingly. Otherwise, you’ll rip the proverbial rug out from under your readers and leave them feeling confused or frustrated.

(Side note: If you need examples to study, both J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin are masters at this)

4. Increase the Hero’s Difficulties

As your series begins to reach its end, things should become harder and more complicated for the hero as your series heads into its climax. His situation should become more dire, the consequences of failing more severe, the chances of succeeding more slim. He should face more obstacles, as well as strong opposition from the villain.

All of this serves to increase the tension of your story and make the hero work to achieve his goal. This will lead to a more satisfying conclusion because it will feel like the hero “earned” it.

What you don’t want to do is make things easy for him. If readers aren’t worried about what the outcome may be, they will lose interest and the climax will lose its umph. So don’t let your hero win every fight, overcome every obstacle with little effort, or face off against against a villain who’s a pushover. Otherwise, your climax will fizzle.

5. Stay True to the First Book

Finally, in some way you want to stay true to the heart of your original story. Sequels aren’t about being bigger or better; when readers want a sequel, what they really want is to once again feel the same experiences or emotions you gave them in the first story.

For example, in Harry Potter, we fall in love with the wonder and magic of the wizarding world, and are endeared by the themes of loyalty and friendship. J.K. Rowling carries these themes throughout the books, and these concepts are the heart of the series.

Examine your first book for its heart and themes. Figure out what readers will feel and experience emotionally. Then, continue to give them that emotional experience throughout your series. If you keep readers emotionally engaged in this way, it will be hard for them to find your series disappointing.

What do you look for in a sequel? What do you find disappointing? Share in the comments below!

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Write a Sequel That Doesn’t Disappoint: Part I

Writing a series is a challenge. Writing a darn good series? That's even more challenging. Learn how to write a sequel or series that leaves readers satisfied.I have a confession to make, friends: I’m getting worn out on series.

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.

Why?

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.

Ever.

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!

Ready for Part II? Click here!

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