Thursday, February 23, 2012

Three Ingredients for Writing a Successful Sequel

Guy Harrison is a Phoenix area-based author raised in Philadelphia. Once an aspiring sportscaster, Harrison has worked in public relations in higher education for the past six years. Agents of Change is his debut novel. He currently lives in Chandler, Arizona with his wife Lindsay and their two cats.

Thanks again to Lorhainne for having me.

As I embark down the road of plotting a sequel to Agents of Change, I must say that I am officially stumped. There are so many directions in which I could take the story; how do I plot and, therefore, write a sequel as good as the first installment?

In doing research, and in thinking of what my sequel must have, I have compiled a brief listing of three main ingredients I think all sequels should possess if they are to be just as good, if not better, than their predecessors.

#1. Up the Ante - In a sequel, the conflict that arises in the first installment needs to escalate. Simply put, there needs to be more at stake in the sequel than there was in the original, especially if your plot is a continuation of the first book.

Some sequels can get away with not doing this because they’re simply a standalone story involving characters brought over from the first book. Most of us, though, like ongoing sagas or trilogies (think Twilight, Harry Potter, and Star Wars).

In the original Star Wars trilogy, for example, the conflict escalated in The Empire Strikes Back from a band of rebels battling an evil empire to a son trying to reconcile his own fate with that of his father’s. The central conflict goes from your basic good against evil to a conflict with many more layers.

You have to raise the stakes in a sequel. Otherwise, the story feels stale as a rehash of the first book. I would venture to say that this is perhaps the most challenging element of writing a sequel.

#2. The Sequel Should End on a Sour Note - This one is especially true for those of you writing trilogies. Obviously, if you’re just writing a sequel with no plans to write more than two books, you can kindly disregard this element if you so choose.

If you think back to some of our favorite trilogies, both in film and print, usually the second installments are the darkest of the three, ending in a more dour tone that carries the story into the third book.

At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke loses a hand and finds out the bad guy is his father. Also, Han Solo is captured and taken back to Jabba the Hutt. The simplest way to put it is that the bad guys won in Empire. In Back to the Future II, Marty McFly and Doc Brown succeed in their mission to retrieve the sports almanac from Biff in 1955. Unfortunately, before they can celebrate, the time machine (with Doc inside) is struck by lightning sending Doc back to the Old West. Although Doc isn’t dead, it feels as though he is. Both of those saddening turn of events carry these sagas into their respective third installments.

If you’re not at least strongly considering killing off one of your characters in the sequel, then you’re not doing your job as a writer.

#3. Don’t Be Afraid to Introduce New Characters, Settings, etc.

It has been suggested that when you get stuck while writing a standalone novel, you should never be afraid to introduce a new character or a new item. We call these plot devices; they help the author move the story along.

When writing a sequel, it’s almost inconceivable that you can write a good story while simply carrying over all of your plot devices from the first book. As your characters continue their journeys, they’re bound to meet new people or encounter new roadblocks and solutions. Adding new plot points helps keep the story fresh as well. This, as I stated in the first ingredient, is vital.

One caveat about introducing new plot devices: they must be consistent with everything you wrote in your first book. It sounds obvious and should go without saying but it’s easy, I think, to add something without considering its consistency with a previous work. So, if you wrote in your first installment that one of your female characters has never had a boyfriend, don’t try and build tension in the second book by bringing in her long-estranged high school sweetheart…unless she lied in the first book, in which case it would still feel quite cheap.

Those are the three key ingredients to a successful sequel. Writing such a story can be daunting, but the successful writer isn’t one to back down from a challenge.

What do you think? Are there any other key ingredients that should be added to this list?

Guy Harrison is the author of Agents of Change. Available on Amazon.
An amiable corporate manager by day and a fledgling matchmaker whenever he can get around to it, Calvin Newsome’s new dream job falls into his lap when he’s recruited by a secret worldwide organization whose agents use uncanny abilities to empower and influence everyday downtrodden individuals. Disaster strikes, however, when an elaborate scheme leaves Calvin as a prime murder suspect…and his new employer is presumably to blame.

With the authorities on his heels and his life left in ruin, Calvin uses his new powers to blend in until a journey for freedom becomes a quest for peace. As the agency’s rival organization threatens the security of all of earth’s inhabitants, Calvin teams up with unlikely allies and battles startling enemies hellbent on unleashing their power in a twisted version of justice, innocent lives be damned.


  1. I'm not a fan of any book that leaves you with the need for a 'sequel'. I feel like I've been cheated out of a story, only to have to wait for 'the rest of the story'. Just my personal opinion, of course, and i know there are many who like the trilogies and ongoing sagas. So if you have to do it, I would say it would be important for your characters to have developed since the first book. As you say above, they are 'continuing their journeys' and therefore, should have already learned a few things along the way.

  2. Lorhainne, enjoyed your guest's comments—thanks for an interesting blog, Guy. I'm dealing with a sequel as well and understand Kelly's frustration (our story endings should be satisfying to our readers, even if we hint at future developments/obstacles to come). I agree with your observation that we must up the ante for our protagonist, (My book one is a "coming of age" story, so lots of room yet for her to grow as a person :)

    All the best

  3. Ladies, thank you for your comments. Kelly, I completely agree with fact, your point could be an addendum to my post. Sequels are nice but your first book has to have an ending so satisfying that it the reader feels like they read a book that could stand on its own. Obviously, we want the reader to come back for seconds (or thirds) but I think we as writers sometimes get caught up in writing series instead of good individual books.

  4. I will have to agree that a better device than a cliffhanger ending is to have a strong, happy ending. I feel this is a better way to encourage readers to pick up your next book, without feeling manipulated.

  5. I will have to agree that a cliffhanger ending is not the best way to encourage reader loyalty, as readers will often feel resentful and manipulated. A resonate, happy ending will, in my opinion, make readers feel better about purchasing the next book in a series.

    The counterexamples in famous works are there, but I feel they often happen because the writer is already thinking more about the third book than the second. And remember, Tolkein didn't even plan on braking up his book into three parts.

  6. With a sequel to my first book due on store shelves in a few short weeks, I can add something to your list. Backstory.

    In general, no one likes info dumps in books that rehash what's already happened, but in a sequel the author is challenged to provide some backstory in an entertaining and interesting way. Not everyone will have read the first book, so plopping them down with a character and situation they don't yet understand can be daunting without a little supportive backstory. Not a lot, just enough to orient the reader.

    Writers are so programmed to omit backstory for the sake of pacing that it's easy to forget how useful it can be.

  7. I am currently writing the sequel to my debut humorous novel Mini Skirts and Laughter Lines. I have taken your advice to heart! I was considering killing off a character now I certainly shall -and enjoy doing it too.
    Thank you for an interesting post that has come at just the right time for me.

  8. Thank you for all your wonderful comments, everybody! I agree with everything everyone has said so far. Karen, you make an excellent point. Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of writing a sequel is toeing that line between rehash infodump and keeping new readers abreast of the characters and the story.