The problem with writing sequels

Picture of Elizabeth Moon booksI’m in the midst of writing a sequel and I’m finding it difficult. So I’ve stopped for a moment to try to understand why it’s difficult and what (if anything) I’m doing wrong.

I love series of books because I’m taken back to a place I already know and/or characters I’ve met. Like a favourite sweater, it’s comfortable. I can sit back and relax, and enjoy the trip. I know readers don’t want to wade through backstory at the start of the next book, even though they might not have read the previous book, and I’ve taken care not to do that.

The plot is the issue. A well known example of a series of sequels is The Lord of the Rings. Leave aside the fact that Tolkien always saw his book as just one story. I remember listening to (I think) Peter Jackson describing the way the odds rise from one book to the next. At the end of book one, a company of several hundred orcs capture Pippin and Merry, having sustained enormous losses at the hands of Aragorn, Legolas, and Boromir. In book two, thousands of orcs besiege Helm’s Deep and it is only the last-minute appearance of additional troops, and the involvement of the Ents, which prevents a wholesale slaughter of the Eorlingas. In book three, the odds rise once again. Tens of thousands of orcs, men, olifaunts and the dreaded Ringwraiths are pitted against the white tower and its numerically inferior forces. Once again, help comes from unexpected quarters to save the day, but though the battle is won, the war is not yet over.

Take another example, Elizabeth Moon’s ‘Vatta’ books. In each novel (there are 5) Vatta faces larger odds and her own forces grow until the final confrontation.

So it seems one ‘rule’ of sequels is you have to up the ante. I did this myself with the Iron Admiral books. In book one, Conspiracy, the galaxy is threatened with the return of a deadly virus which could kill the alien ptorix, which would inevitably cause an inter-species war. In book two, Deception, I came up with an even worse calamity and when that is diverted, the battle is won, although the war is not yet over. I’m told Deception worked very well as a sequel, so I’m kind of stuck with the notion I have to turn the screws, so to speak.

But does it always have to be like that?

Does anyone know of any well-loved sequels where this didn’t happen? Where it’s just a well constructed second story with the same characters? What would you expect if you were to buy the sequel to Morgan’s Choice? I’d really love to know.


About Greta van der Rol

I'm an author of fast-paced, action-adventure novels, mainly space opera - although I've been known to write in other genres. I live not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoy photography and cooking when I'm not bent over the computer. I have a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping me in my writing endeavours.

Posted on 12 November 2012, in Iron Admiral, Morgan's Choice, On writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Ooh…same characters. That’s a toughie. I have three more or less stand-alone novels set with brothers, but the same bad guy is behind all the shenanigans…and we don’t really get to see his downfall until book three (which hasn’t been released yet). So, yeah…same characters….

    Yep, sorry Greta! You’re gonna have to slam them harder than you did the first time. Is this a trilogy or a duo?

    Good job! Keep on!

  2. Hmm. Read this, did some laundry, bagged meat for dog food. Made a coffee. Still thinking about the question and also thinking about sequels. I’m with you, I really really like sequels. And i can’t think of any that don’t raise the stakes in some fashion. Some to a ridiculous level some in a more subtle fashion. Unless it’s one of those historical sagas, where each sequel is the family a few generations down the road.
    I suppose you could keep everything the same but {{yaaawwwnnn}} that wouldn’t hold anyone’s attention for too long. Sort of like wearing the same thing to school year after year. Yeah, I went to one of those schools for a couple years. Even then, most of the students did everything they could to individualize their uniforms in some fashion.
    Maybe that’s where sequels differ. Some are the same people in different, more dangerous, situations. And some are the same general area but different people. Such as the town sagas. People love going back to that town, sitting on a park bench, watching the kids on the playground. And for some just going back to the town is enough. For the rest of us, we want a new set of problems in that old town. Depending on the genre, we want an alien invasion or a cheating wife or maybe the Mayor comes out of the closet and I don’t mean with a new suit.
    So I’d say bring it on. Get Morgan in trouble again. Make Ravindra see more of the complexity of her character and force him to be less of a pompous ass. I love it when she makes him face his own arrogance! In the meantime I think I’ll start a re read of all the books. If I read kind of slow maybe you’ll be done writing by the time I’m done reading. One can only hope!

    • Read… really… really…slowly. Thanks for the input, Mon. An alien invasion is looking on the cards. Just… how to make it plausible

      • Well I do have a bit of writing to do myself. I didn’t know where I was going with even loose sequels so I dusted off an earlier story and was slammed by a multitude of ideas all at once for sequels. Sigh. No. Time. For. Anything.
        Alien invasion, hmmmm??? Yeah, that could work. Something to band Morgan’s people and Ravindra’s together.

      • Yes, that last bit was the idea. All humans together. Wait for the next book.

  3. Elizabeth Naylor

    JD Robb’s In Death series is an example of a series that took around 35 books to work up to the big one. Author noted this difference with title of “New York to Dallas” rather than the usual “… in Death”. Every book revealed just a little more about key characters and also added interesting secondary characters, with the occasional big action sprinkled thoughout the series.. For me, mysteries fall into this continuing adventures / what if this happens type of series. The pitfall is that it’s easy to start seeing later stories as a variation of earlier stories, especially if there is little character growth. Although too much character and/or story change can kill a series for me.

    I also enjoy Bujold’s Miles Vorkosgian novels even though the last several books have fallen into an “up the ante” type of series. Wen Spencer’s Tinker series looks like it’s going to be an up the ante with the hints being dropped about the 4th book. Lee & Miller fall into this category when you look at the overall arcs in which the separate storylines occur. Althoug, eventually as reader you get to the point of wondering “what can happen next – rocks fall, everyone dies?

    With Morgan’s Choice, it seems possible to go either way because there is still so much about the characters and worlds to be discovered. I guess one of the questions is whether the overall story running through all the books is visible to you or if the characters are defining the story as you write. Besides the continuing relationship of the main characters, it would be interesting to see how the 2 different worlds react and change as knowledge of the other society spreads.

    this is a dilemma, makes me happy that I’m a reader and not a writer. after all that rambling I’m not even sure that I addressed the questions. time to call it a night.

    • Oh, very much make it up as I go along. MC by itself I had originally seen as 2 books but it didn’t really work and was a silly notion, anyway. However, at this point I can see this one giving me a third book. Don’t know about any more – but who knows? Like you, I don’t like the notion of getting ridiculous with your situations, or just rehashing a previous plot. I have to be careful with that.

      The character thing is very important. There’s a lot to play with in that respect, for both Morgan and Ravindra.

      Thanks for your input. It all gives me lots to think about.

  4. An interesting issue, Greta. I hadn’t thought about it in quite this way.

    The Lord of the Rings is clearly a single story – and it clearly wasn’t developed in Tolkien’s mind when he wrote The Hobbit. He created the full backstory to The Hobbit through some years of thought, and that backstory was what allowed him to up the ante so much in LOTR.

    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is at such a high level of cosmic drama that it doesn’t allow much room for the subsequent books to be other than variations. The series is successful, but not in a developmental way, only in the comfortably familiar town saga way.

    I’m not properly familiar with Harry Potter, but it seems Rowling had the full backstory in mind from the beginning, and could develop the intensity gradually, as a single story.

    Star Wars – the original trilogy – appears to have been a single story, each episode raising the stakes. Its justified success led to the chaotic commercialism of unfortunate prequels, Disney acquisition, and god knows what happens next.

    Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy was complete and it deepened with each book. The additional three that she added 25 years later are (like LOTR) an example of a richer, darker, deeper work being fashioned from years of pondering on a simpler beginning.

    I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong about it. But if you deepen it from Book 1 to Book 2, I suspect you should only be doing that if you have a full backstory in mind which will allow you to meet the reader’s expectation that the challenges will increase in each subsequent book.

    If you don’t deepen it from Book 1 to Book 2, I suspect that the reader’s expectations will best be met by keeping it at that same level of comfortable familiarity forever, like Simenon and Agatha Christie.

    Thanks for the question!

  5. Greta I think it’ll be ok with the tension already present. The fleet won’t like a powerful Admiral showing up, nor will they necessarily know they can get back plus the whole culture is different so it won’t be easy. I think the personal stakes of their relationship WILL be ramped up. Even if the universe isn’t in peril.

  6. Writing sequels is tricky, but enjoyable. I’m always thinking ‘what next’ when writing the current book.

  7. I expect sequels to answer any questions left hanging and yes, they should up the ante re main character I think.

  8. When do you decide that now is the time to write the sequel? I’ve had many of the readers who loved my first sf novel asking whether there was a sequel (I left the possibility decidedly open at the end) and all of them wanted to know, ‘when can I read it?’ I haven’t even written it yet! Is this because I want to see if FIVE PERCENT is a commercial success first or am I just mulling over the practicalities of writing another novel (short stories are so much . . . shorter) at this point in my life?

    Wow. Just writing this little comment is making me itch to start on the sequel. Perhaps it was a case of out of sight….

    When do other authors write the sequels – or rather, when do they decide they’re going to write one?

    • For me, it was a bit of both. ‘Morgan’s Choice’ was doing fairly well and several people asked if a sequel was coming. So I wrote a short and that sold well. Time to bite the bullet. Besides, I like Morgan.

      For you? Go for it. People love sequels.

      • Interesting discussion. I think sometimes we write with the idea of sequels from the beginning and sometimes the sequels sneak up on us as we’re writing, and realize how much more we want to do with our characters

      • What I like is when people want us to do more with our characters ๐Ÿ™‚

      • It’s very tempting to put the short stories to one side and start right away but just for the time being I’ll wait for the response to the first in the series (Five Percent) when JukePop Serials’ beta launch goes alpha in a couple of weeks. There are loads of potential readers worldwide who have difficulty getting hold of free books in English and we’re expecting a good response (fingers crossed it goes viral). Having said that, even if the site’s slow to garner enormous support, I know I can’t keep the sequel in much longer and soon it will burst out of its own accord!

  9. I write a series and I find it simply awesome and the only way to go. For me, as for Tolkien, it’s because I’m writing one long story with breaks.
    The story is actually a romance, and a mystery of finding family and their role in revenge, and a story of one woman overcoming her past…within solving a series of separate and unrelated crimes as the vehicle for both the romance and the central character drama.
    I need a lot of books to do this, at least five to get to the solution I sense on the horizon but don’t quite know…so in answer to your question, I think you need a broader, deeper story for your character and a fully realized character development arc that takes several books to achieve–then the books become segments or pieces toward a completed puzzle. I totally disagree with the up-the-ante theory. That’s just artificial drama. Its in a character’s growth and development across books that readers become truly enamored and invested.

  10. Interesting post. I wrote Man on the Balcony with no thought of a continuing story until prompted by readers who fell in love with my two main characters. Saying goodbye to my characters was even sad for me. First book, girl meets boy, girl loses boy, and they find each other for the happy ending. However, the sequel, Maggie’s Retreat, got them into a lot more trouble. Yet, both books can stand alone. Unless we “kill off” the main characters, their story can continue on. I loved writing the sequel. So, go for it.

  11. It seems to me that once you get past 3 or 4 books the story peters out. There are some series I love and then I am so disappointed and I wish I would have stopped reading at maybe book 3. The plots become repetitive. I do like the sounds of your first two books!

    • Thanks for popping in and giving your drift. I’m beginning to think there’s a difference between a sequel and a series. If you look at Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, Dragonquest is a sequel to Dragonflight. A lot of the others are new characters and new situations set in the same universe. Sequels can certainly go on for two long.

  1. Pingback: The Problem with Writing Sequels (via @gretavdr) | Literarium – The Blog

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