The Most Useful Thing I’ve Learned (So Far) About Writing a Sequel

(originally posted at Through the Tollbooth)

For the past several months—or possibly the past several centuries; it’s sort of hard to tell—I’ve been writing the second book in a trilogy. If you’re wondering whether writing a sequel is easier or more difficult than writing a stand-alone novel, I am here to tell you with complete confidence that I have no idea. The only thing I know for sure is that no book comes easy, and this one hasn’t been much of an exception.

To be fair, writing a sequel does have its perks. When I sat down to write the first draft, I already knew my main characters and their world. I was intimately acquainted with everyone’s personality quirks, backstories, neuroses, and food allergies. I didn’t have to worry about figuring out the story’s magic system, since I’d already hashed that out in the first book, and I knew exactly how long it would take my characters to travel cross-country via train, horse-drawn carriage, and pirate ship. I even knew where my plot was headed, since I’d done my best to set my characters up for further adventures at the end of book one.

Emotionally, however, I was stumped.

I mean, my emotions were okay—or at least as okay as the emotions of a debut author writing a second book under contract can possibly be. But at the end of book one, I’d brought Hilary, my protagonist, to a stable and happy emotional place. She couldn’t remain stable and happy all throughout the sequel, could she? No; that would be boring, and it wouldn’t give readers a reason to care about her adventures. Would I have to tear Hilary down again? Would I have to undo all the emotional strength she’d built up in the first book? That didn’t seem right, either; I didn’t want to write the same story twice or cancel out everything good that had happened in the series’ first installment. Just as I’d designed the plot of book two to build and expand on the events of book one, I wanted my characters’ emotions to build and expand in a natural way. But I had no idea how to accomplish this.

At this point, for probably the millionth time, the superheroic community of Vermont College students and alums came to my rescue. Even though I’m no longer a student, I still rely on my MFA program friends to offer smart perspectives on the craft problems I’m wrestling with, so I handed off the question to them. “Hey,” I said (more or less), “I’m working on this sequel, and I have no idea what to do with my characters’ emotions. Should I give them something new to struggle with? Should they just repeat the same old struggle they overcame at the end of book one? Can I please, please, please write a book in which no one has any emotions at all? ‘Cause that would be much easier.”

I got lots of great responses, but there were two in particular that helped me see the emotional trajectories of multi-book series in a new and really helpful way. Val Howlett mentioned that in some of her favorite series, the characters’ emotional struggles aren’t fully resolved at the end of each book. Take the Harry Potter series as a familiar example: Harry is constantly wrestling with the loss of his parents, though that wrestling match takes a different form in each of the seven books. “In all the series I’ve loved,” Val said, “there were these emotional needs that were big enough to grow and shift, but remained at the heart of the series.” In other words, a good series has an emotional core that runs through each of its books. That emotional core is part of the connective tissue that holds all the books together and unites them as a larger work.

Val’s response helped me decide that I needed to return to the core of Hilary’s emotional struggle in book one—her desire to earn her dad’s respect—but I still wasn’t sure how to do that without making my sequel repetitive. Jessica Leader gave me a great solution, though, when she said, “When the author pans back to show the reader and the character the bigger problem, it mirrors the process of maturation: at first, you can only see your world, but gradually, you gain the ability to think about your place in it, and then the world itself. So there’s built-in character development at the ready!”

That’s when it clicked for me: Each book in my series could focus on the same core emotion, but it could look at that emotion in increasingly broad contexts. If the emotional core of my series was Hilary’s desire for respect, maybe she’d search for that respect first (in book one) from her family, then (in book two) from her immediate community, and finally (in book three) from the community at large—and from herself.

This concept of an emotional core that expands in scope from one book to the next has been incredibly helpful to me as I structure my series. I know I’ll be able to apply it to future stories, and I hope it’s useful to other writers, too. Most of all, though, it reminds me that a writing community is priceless, and that when we don’t have the answer to a tough writing problem, it’s not the end of the world. It’s probably just time to start brainstorming with our friends.

2 Responses to “The Most Useful Thing I’ve Learned (So Far) About Writing a Sequel”

  1. Linda W

    Glad you received such excellent advice. And I’m glad you have a plan. In so many second books I’ve read, the main character undergoes such a drastic change, that I’m ready to stop reading the trilogy. (This is usually where the love triangle rears its head for the sake of conflict. Ugh.)