The Truth About Sequels: How To Improve On Your First Book

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Writing one book is an amazing feat, one that depends on an incredible investment of time, energy and talent. Sometimes, though, the work that goes into that book creates a world, story or cast of characters so rich that you want to go back again. At this point you’re considering a sequel.

Writing a sequel is a difficult endeavor that can pay off big time. It requires an even more in-depth appreciation of what made the first book great than it may have taken to write it, but it can also breathe new life into a story and open the door to myriad possibilities.

Whether a sequel is appropriate or not depends on the story and the author, but if it’s something you’re interested in then there are things you should consider about what makes a sequel great. That’s if you are sure, because the most important thing to know about writing a sequel is…

You don’t have to

Sequels are famously a gamble. When a reader revisits a beloved world, there are three possible outcomes:

  1. They end up loving it even more.
  2. They end up feeling the same way.
  3. They end up disappointed.

Unfortunately option 3 is by far the most likely – unlike with first books, readers approach a sequel with expectations. If those expectations aren’t met then they’re disappointed, if they are, then they’re hardly surprised. Only when these expectations are exceeded, or even challenged, can a sequel become a bona fide success.

In fact, a sequel is only worth your time if you’re aiming for option 1. As much as option 2 doesn’t hurt your work, it still uses two books to do the work of one. A sequel that doesn’t alter someone’s feelings about the world of the original is a waste of time, time that you could be spending on creating a new story that will invite its own love and interest.

Before setting yourself the goal of a sequel, reflect on whether you believe there’s a new story to tell, a new plot to unwind, that’s really worth your time. It may be that you just want to revisit a particular world or character – or even that it seems easier than creating something new – but that alone isn’t worth the risk of hamstringing the first book with a perfunctory sequel. No, the only kind of sequel that’s worth writing is one that improves the story.

So how can that be done?

A story unto itself

Sequels are often unhelpfully described as continuations of an original story, but for most authors this is inaccurate. Yes, some writers begin a series knowing that they’re going to tell one story over multiple books, but a sizable chunk of sequels are decided upon after an original is plotted and finished.

In this case, sequels are better understood as new stories set in a familiar world. The first and most important question to ask yourself when writing a sequel is ‘what brought us back?’ There has to be an inciting incident – a cast iron reason – why this world once again demands your attention (not to mention that of your readers). If you can’t answer the question, if you’re just going back because the world is there and you like it, then it’s unlikely you have enough for a sequel.

If, on the other hand, you know exactly why you’re going back, then try and remember that as you write. Whatever has happened, it’s enough to justify an entirely new story. This is true both in the content of the story and in the way it’s told. Yes you need a complete, satisfying plot, character arcs and new discoveries, but you also need to build reader interest, persuade them to care about characters and establish the stakes of the story’s conflict.

A sequel needs to have its own raison d’être, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the original.

Act and react

While it’s important to tell a new story, don’t forget that the reader is partly on board because of their ties to the original. A sequel must be a new creation while simultaneously functioning as a reaction to the original story.

Jasper Fforde does this well in his Thursday Next series. In The Eyre Affair, protagonist Thursday Next combats and kills villain Acheron Hades, re-establishes a relationship with Landen Parke-Lane and traps a corrupt executive within a book. In the sequel, Lost in a Good Book, Thursday comes under attack from Acheron’s sister, Aornis, while a time traveller erases Landen from time as a way to blackmail her into releasing the executive.

Lost in a Good Book’s conflict and characters are all tied to The Eyre Affair, but they’re also the components of a new story. Aornis is a new character whose abilities and motives have to be explored, but she appears organically from the events that have gone before. Likewise, Thursday’s relationship with Landen ties into the new challenge of undoing the time traveller’s meddling.

The sequel story is therefore new, but happens because of the original. This is one of the most common ways of beginning a new story in an established world; exploring the consequences of what went before.

Of course this is only a way of establishing a sequel as a fresh narrative – there’s a long way to go from here before a sequel can feel like a story in its own right, but thankfully there are also a lot of tips on how to make this happen.

Make the world new again

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of a sequel justifying its own existence is the world of the story. The rules and reality of your story’s world – be they the relationships between characters, the technology of an invented time or the races in a fantasy realm – have already been established and explored, so why should the reader feel excited to revisit?

The answer, of course, is to see something new. This may sound counter to the idea of revisiting a world – why go back somewhere if only to see it change – but in stories ‘new’ actually takes two forms:

  1. Narrative change: Alterations are made to the status quo of the story’s world or characters. For example, an important character dies or a war breaks out.
  2. Perceptual change: Alterations are made to the way the reader sees the story’s world or characters, or the aspects of these to which the reader is privy. For example, the story shifts to a new character or place.

These forms are not mutually exclusive and they often overlap, with few better examples than J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

In the original Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry is inducted into a school for the teaching of magic. He meets a varied cast, learns secrets about his own past and explores both the school and the wider world of magic. This is all well and good, but Harry’s adventures continue over seven more books, each of which covers a year of his schooling. Rowling is therefore faced with making the world feel fresh every time the reader visits, and does so by making many changes of both a narrative and perceptual nature.

In the first book, Harry is new to the wizarding world and Rowling uses his ignorance to continually confront the reader with new experiences. Harry is introduced to many races that have ‘always’ existed in his world – such as house elves, dementors and giants – but which are new discoveries to him perceptually. Rowling also uses the school setting to deftly invoke perceptual changes – the reader is not privy to all of Harry’s classes and he learns new things each year, which means new books can explore new areas of his schooling, such as Divination in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or the yearly teacher changes for Defence Against the Dark Arts. Rowling even cleverly introduces events which happen on a less-than-annual basis, meaning that huge events like the Triwizard Tournament and the Quidditch World Cup can be framed as recurring events while also being introduced to the reader as new experiences late in the series.

Rowling also uses narrative changes, mainly through the rise of the dark wizard Voldemort. Voldemort begins as an immediate antagonist, but his rise to power changes the wizarding world in subtle ways as dark forces stage attacks and eventually take control of the government and Harry’s school. In this way, Rowling has the reader continually discover new aspects of her world even as it changes around them. Harry goes to the Quidditch World Cup – a perceptual change, since it’s a common event that the reader is seeing for the first time – but it is attacked by dark forces, a narrative change to the status quo as Voldemort rises to power.

Harry Potter is an extreme example since it has so many sequels and such a fantastical world, but this is the lifeblood of any successful sequel – as you write your own, ask what you can change about the world but, equally, what you can change about how the reader experiences it.

Be conscious of viewpoint

Viewpoint is an important aspect of a sequel, since it represents a change that authors often forget or ignore. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is frequently an ingénue, experiencing things for the first time along with the reader, but even he gets used to certain aspects of the world around him. In her sequels, Rowling therefore adjusts the viewpoint over and over again, communicating more and more familiarity with the magical world. This works well because it mirrors the experience of the reader who, like Harry, is no longer new to the setting.

[bctt tweet=”Viewpoint is an important aspect of writing a sequel that authors often forget or ignore.”]

This isn’t the only way to go, but it does highlight how viewpoint has to change between original and sequel. Often, it can help to write a character who is in many ways a stand-in for the reader – someone who doesn’t know the plot, and whose experiences clue the reader in on what’s going on. This is fine for the original, but in the sequel it’s not quite accurate – the reader is no longer new to the world of the book, and the viewpoint and even events of the story should adjust to accommodate this fact.

Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist of The Hunger Games, in which she is forced to fight for her life in an annual death battle held by her nation’s tyrannical ruler. Katniss, like the reader, is new to the inner-workings of the process, and so experiences the game as a series of surprises and split-second decisions made from immediate observations. Her opponents, like her, are operating by the skin of their teeth. This works well, because the viewpoint of the story matches the reader’s expectations.

In the sequel Catching Fire, this wouldn’t work – the reader now knows how the tournament works, has witnessed the intricacies of participation, and so can’t connect in the same way with characters experiencing it for the first time. Author Suzanne Collins avoids this by having the sequel tell the story of a special celebration of the games. In this story, the tournament is populated exclusively by characters who have survived it before. It is the reader’s second experience of the Hunger Games, and so the viewpoint changes to that of characters for whom this is also the second go-around.

This means that rather than encountering each new aspect as it occurs, the characters think ahead – Katniss brushes up on useful skills and develops a media strategy. This keeps pace with the reader, who is also thinking about these aspects ahead of time.

Again, this is just one way of adjusting the viewpoint to fit the reader; the important thing to take away is that the reader’s viewpoint has changed and this has to be addressed in some way. Alongside how you can change a world to make it fresh, or show the reader new parts to hold their interest, it’s essential to consider how their relationship with the world has changed and what that means for the way you write your story.

End somewhere different

I mentioned earlier that a sequel should be a new story in a familiar world rather than a continuation of the first story, and a big part of this is where the sequel is going.

[bctt tweet=”A sequel should be a new story in a familiar world rather than a continuation of the first story.”]

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is the sequel to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the original story, eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka organizes a competition where children are tested for their suitability to take over his factory and business, with all but the destitute Charlie failing his myriad tests. In the end Charlie is named Wonka’s successor, and the two set off in an amazing glass elevator to retrieve his family from squalor and introduce them to their new lives.

This first book leaves the protagonist in a far better position than when he started. He begins the book destitute, able to afford only one chocolate bar a year, and ends it as the owner of a globally successful business. In a poor sequel, this new life would be challenged – Charlie’s ownership of the factory would be in question, or its success might falter. The problem here is that the end goal is one the reader has already seen accomplished. The sequel would have no unique goal of its own, no further success, just more problems added to a situation that the reader already considered resolved.

This is not the case in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. In this book, Charlie has the chocolate factory, but is accidentally transported to a space station, where he defeats the Vermicious Knids, who intended to invade the Earth. At the end of the book he is invited to the White House, gaining worldwide accolades. The stakes here are identifiably different to those of the original book – instead of his own future, Charlie’s goal is the safety of Earth. The reader gets a new conflict that’s strengthened by the conclusion of the previous book – they like Charlie and want to see him succeed, while being entertained in a new way as he pursues a different goal. The key word here is ‘different’ – although saving Earth is a taller order than owning a chocolate factory, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your character’s new goal has to increase in scale.

Investment over scale

It’s common advice that for a sequel to succeed it has to be ‘bigger’ than the original. This addresses the stakes of the story; that the threat posed in the sequel must be more severe than that in the original story. At first glance this seems to be the case in all the books I’ve mentioned so far – the Thursday Next series moves from stopping a war to saving the world, Harry Potter begins by combatting a single teacher and ends up facing down an army, and Katniss from Hunger Games goes from wanting to survive one tournament to disassembling a government.

[bctt tweet=”For a sequel to succeed it has to be ‘bigger’ than the original.”]

It’s certainly the case that ‘bigger’ is an option, but impact isn’t a simple matter of scale and hewing too closely to this advice can cause problems. The issue is that making every book ‘bigger’ often leaves the author with nowhere to go. At a certain point the stakes can’t be raised, at least not believably, and many authors feel stuck. This doesn’t have to be the case, since what is actually needed is a sense of difference and progression.

The plot of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban involves Harry trying to discover more about his past while attempting to navigate the escape of a magical prisoner who seems to intend him harm. While the stakes are high – multiple characters’ survival is on the line – they are not significantly larger than those of the previous book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Here, again, multiple characters risk their lives, and the threat of a monster free within the school is if anything more dangerous than a shadowy convict.

What is different is that the reader is now more invested. They care far more about Harry’s life and past, as well as in the backstory of the world around him. It’s accurate to say that Harry’s life is threatened in both books, but it’s important to understand that Harry means more to the reader in Prisoner of Azkaban. This is true of any decent book – having watched a character struggle through one set of challenges, the reader should be more invested in their success than when they were first introduced.

This is what’s at the core of making a sequel ‘bigger’, and why the scale of events doesn’t have to change dramatically for the reader to get more out of the character or world. One of the most notable tragedies in the Harry Potter series is when Harry loses his godfather. In terms of scale this is a minor death – the reader doesn’t spend a huge amount of time with the character – but for Harry it is huge, representing the loss of a life he always wanted, and which was within his grasp. The reader feels this so deeply because at this point in the series they understand Harry’s bond with his godfather, have come to like the character, and can fully appreciate what’s been lost. Compared to this, the moment in the original Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where Harry himself is nearly killed pales in comparison, despite representing far higher stakes on paper.

Making a sequel ‘bigger’ than the original story is about identifying what the reader cares about. Consider where you asked them to invest their interest and care in the original, and how these areas can be mined for drama in the sequel. Yes, it’s satisfying to follow the possible destruction of a city with the possible destruction of a world, but it may be that your reader actually cares about the people who saved the city.

Prepare for more

Writing a sequel is particularly difficult when you didn’t write the original with continuation in mind, but there’s no need to fall into this trap twice. As you write your sequel, add new elements to the story. New characters, places or events can be added not just to improve the story and make it unique, but to prime for further stories down the line. Many of the series I’ve mentioned above add characters in their sequels who become assets later on. Aornis from the Thursday Next series turns into an antagonist who spans several books, while Harry Potter adds characters like Dobby and Luna Lovegood who the reader comes to care about on their own merits.

This isn’t restricted to characters; the Thursday Next books gradually introduce the idea that all of literature exists in a parallel reality – in which the protagonist ends up having many adventures – and ‘horcruxes’, items on which the plot of the Harry Potter series eventually hang, are encountered late in Rowling’s series.

It’s essential that these additions have a place in their introductory story – don’t add useless things just to invoke them in later books – but now that you’re thinking in terms of sequels, try to give yourself places to go. Stock your story with people, places and events that the reader can invest in, and it’ll be a long time before you’re forced to justify a story by increasing its scale.

Get writing!

Sequels require their own set of skills and tricks to pull off, but they can be incredibly rewarding for readers and writers alike. A world which justifies a reader’s attention over and over again is a rare and valuable thing, and a place that will never really leave those who invest in it.

For more on succeeding with sequels, check out How To Write A Book Series That People Finish Reading and How To Write Compelling Character Arcs In A Series.

What sequels do you think surpass original stories and why? Let me know in the comments.


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