Sequelitis

I still haven’t figured out how to do sequels. John Van Stry tried to help last week, over dinner, by telling me to write “…what happens next. Even if it doesn’t make it into the book, it’s good for developing characters.”

He had a good point, so I’m trying that. It has worked out some more worldbuilding – quite a lot, rather.

It also feels like I’m writing bad plotless fanfic. Of my own story… *shudders*

Those of you who’ve managed…

Help? How do you do this? Mentally, organization, plotwise…. what do you do to come up with a sequel?

45 comments

  1. I have a hypertrophied Node of Extrapolation, which results in the Stargate method of plotting: *every* offhand remark or loose end WILL come back to haunt us. This is why I will never run out of sequels. And prequels. And I’m not even close to done exploring my little universe (probably an impossible task since I keep learning more about it).

    And more generally — that does seem to be the soul of good sequels: an extrapolation of unfinished business, no matter how throwaway or trivial that was in its first life.

    Real examples, condensed:

    Book 2:
    Adventurers incidentally discover Historic Bad Guy (related to MC) in stasis.
    Adventurers shrug, finish their business, and go home. Small celebration:
    T: Have some wine.
    R: [tastes, chokes] This is from my mother’s estate. (Where he hadn’t been in years.)
    T: Enjoy, it’s the last bottle.
    [Why is it the last bottle??]

    Book 5:
    [Seriously, why was it the last bottle? Let’s find out.]
    Seems Historic Bad Guy got loose, and returned to old haunts while we were busy elsewhere.
    And things went downhill from there. 😀

    And another:

    Book 2, during an argument about, um, genealogy:
    T, being facetious to relieve tension: Take this starveling hill bandit out, and… [alarmed looks from the arguees] …marry him.

    Book 3:
    Both previous arguees: What do you mean, the only way out of this inheritance mess is to marry each other??!

    And thanks to this sort of leapfrogging events, we’re now up to 8… er, 9… uh, 10?? sequels and 2 prequels. At least.

    I should note that these are all One Big Book, not standalone sequels. And I don’t write in order; nor do I outline or revise (rather, I “write into the dark”). And being a freak, I can keep it all in my head. Normal people may wish to do something less… strenuous.

      1. One of these years I’ll actually get …enough… of ’em finished and in a suitable state, at which point I’ll gleefully announce ’em here for all to grab 🙂 It’s “cozy space opera” (that is, a SO setting but the story is at the small personal level) … and keeps expanding as I discover more about my nonhumans. (The first difficulty was discovering that they’re not human. They’ve learned to never tell me anything, as I use it against ’em. 🙂

  2. I actually miss standalone stories being the default.
    Trilogies are great.
    Indefinite series composed of intermingled trilogies and standalones that build on each other can be very good.
    But authors and publishers abuse the hell out of the privilege.
    .
    I can think of one fantasy series that was well over a dozen books last time I checked. It peaked at book 2. By book 7, all the interesting bits had been strangled, and the author was going on political rants while slaying strawmen by the thousands..
    Or another where the same character had to save the world, over and over again.

    1. The worst is when it becomes pretty clear the author is done with the series, but the publisher is not willing to lose their cash cow, and makes the contract for a non-series book conditional on the production of another book in the series the author is So Done With. There’s strong evidence that Anne McCaffrey tried to write Finis on the Pern series at least twice, only to discover her publisher wasn’t having it. Her last few solo Pern books had the feeling that she was just mailing it in (although declining health could’ve contributed to it as well).

  3. Ask yourself what problem or problems does the character have?
    Where are they now?
    What’s their opinion on their problem and where they are?
    New story that is a sequel.

  4. Having an overarching goal that can’t be or doesn’t get accomplished in one book helps me. In my one trilogy, the MC had to accomplish something, but it was really hard and took three books because the obstacles of the moment blossomed into a whole second book’s really bad time. But it set him up for the last book.

    In the series-in-progress, I again have an end-point goal off in the horizon. It’s going to be at least seven books, but it gets to be longer because so much has to happen for the goal to be achieved. I think of it like the A and B plot in TV shows. Then, when you’re thinking about what the long-term plot requires, you acquire plots for steps along the way.

    Now, like Wal-Mart, my brain can run on just-in-time inventory, so I didn’t get the plot for the latest until the day before I started writing it; but in that case there were circumstances, vagaries, and vicissitudes, namely, I didn’t know I was going to be writing that one until in revisions for the previous. Usually, the plot shows up for the next one as I’m finishing drafting the previous one. But that’s because there’s this long-term end goal.

  5. I seem to run to sequels of long story arc (the Cat books, Familiars) or batches of linked stories as well as stand alones set in the same world (Colplatschki). And a few stand alones because I explored the ideas I wanted to explore, and nothing else jogged my writing brain, so I wandered off. *shrug*

  6. I have the bad habit of picking things that can’t be done in one book. The adventures of a ‘Thrope Park Police officer, the story of humanity’s first interstellar war…

  7. I’m not sure if I’m plotting a trilogy of epics, or a simpler more concise story.

    I could definitely do it as a novel or short story if I could force myself to trim out all other stuff I’m in the middle of trying to choreograph. (I think a short might be too little space to develop my main thread of plot.)

    My main plot follows a certain character question, which is definitively settled at the end. If it is really three plots, the character is chasing after the same question through three different conflicts, stressing him in maybe three different ways, and achieving two rewards after the first two conflicts, and the big reward after the last. I definitely need to make him stressed a third way in the last part of the story, related to but distinct from the ways he is stressed during the first two bits.

    To sequel this, I would need to come up with a fresh character question that holds my interest. I do have a backlog of character questions and project seeds for other settings. Enough I’m eager to get to, that I don’t see a reason to look for any way to make a sequel. I have three later events in this setting that I might be interested in covering, but no particulary strong reason to write them out. Everything else after the events of the story I’m happy leaving implied or HEA. Of course, now that I have figured out that having answers to ‘why sequel’ might further derail my attempts to finish this story, I am starting to find those answers. *headdesk*

    I have a character question and setting that I think I could string out into a very large number of stories. Basically, the main character is profoundly driven to find an answer that is not available with the tools that are available to him. I have a sketch of where to fit episodes in the plot of about thirty years of serious effort without access to the tools that I know would be necessary for the complete answers that he seeks. If he ever gets the tools and organizations together, it will be years after the point where a) things are too difficult for me to write b) events have finished developing to the point of “wouldn’t it be cool” that made that project go on the to do list. I may develop more of a metaplot to hold reader interest, but there will be a pretty constant try-have I succeeded-test-eventually nope cycle. He develops close friendships, has a couple of deep enemies that he opposes, maybe starts a family, that sort of metaplot.

    All that said, it has only been two years since I first read Swain’s Techniques, and realized how important character questions are to my process. I know I need them to make plot, and need plot to actually finish writing the story. That hasn’t been enough experience to have figured out everything about how it works for my process, much less have information that would necessarily be useful for yours. That last might be impossible no matter what my experience was.

    1. “Wouldn’t it be cool” should probably be regarded as an automatic cautionary, especially for sequels. It may be cool, or it may be how things go off the rails. Everyone I know who has suffered the throes of horrible revision did so fundamentally because they didn’t follow their original story, but rather, dropped in “wouldn’t it be cool” stuff. (Also, I’m starting to think that “wouldn’t it be cool” happens in part because the _author_ is bored with their original story/concept.)

      I do the exact opposite. Stuff never gets added because it would be cool; *everything* follows (or rather, spiderwebs) from something already in place. This keeps it all coherent and connected, and shit doesn’t just fall out of the blue sky and break the story. (I also don’t structurally-revise, at all. No need, cuz extraneous doesn’t happen in the first place.)

      1. May need to clarify some. The “Wouldn’t it be cool” bit was more or less the initial idea for the whole series of stories. I’d been reading a bunch of different stories, and from them developed a goal that I wanted to read, or write if no one else managed. I made several attempts to figure out a way to achieve that goal, most didn’t hold my attention long, and are abandoned. The one I mentioned has held my attention, and seems possible to develop enough to be worth writing.

        The first story sorta has the problem you describe, and sorta doesn’t. Yes, it is much too complicated, and it would have been better to make simpler choices. But most of that is due to the initial concept, which was only ever vaguely described in my head, and was developed over a period of time when I was very sick. Between the initial problems, and my skill level, it will definitely be a mess. I need to finish stuff before I can know enough to fix my idea process.

  8. “Mentally, organization, plotwise…. what do you do to come up with a sequel?”

    Well. This does not seem to be a problem for me, as sequels just keep coming. They won’t shut up, actually. They clamor to be written down and pout if I’m doing something else.

    I personally want to know what George is doing this week. Is he relaxing? Is he tinkering with the Dodge? Is he pranking Effie with a rubber snake? All of the above? So that’s one thing.

    The other thing is they need a problem or they get bored. The set-up of the series is over-powered artificial intelligence in normal life. One problem that never goes away is the reactions of normal people to the fabulous AI characters.

    You’ve got giant tanks, each the size of a shopping mall with fusion powered weapons, sitting on the Hamilton beach strip. The little human-sized social drone part of it is wearing a very fetching bathing suit, lounging in a beach chair out front sipping an iced tea. And she looks -amazing- doing it, but she’s still a freaking nuclear powered tank. How’s that going to play with the locals?

    So you have lots of latitude to make entire books out of just that. Which of course I did. ~:D

    But here’s the other problem. If George can make giant tanks and AIs smarter than Albert Einstein, one would surmise that the Bad Guys can too. Tech like that doesn’t come from Silicon Valley, right?

    Book 1 solves the immediate threat: aliens! The problem got solved with giant tanks and robot girlfriends. Because George McIntyre is a practical joke playing smart ass.

    Book 2 is taking on the larger issues, what do you do after you find out there’s frickin’ aliens? And what do you do when your fabulous girlfriend is a robot? And fabulous? And what’s the government doing while you’re playing house? And what do the fabulous robots have to say about all this? Is the giant tank going to put up with you leaving your socks lying around? And oh by the way, an alien AI came to Earth 10,000 years ago, she’s been here ever since, and she wants to know what you crazy kids are up to. It doesn’t have to be only one problem. ~:D

    Book 3 is branching out to encompass the local group of stars, and finding the answer to the Fermi Paradox. Which is bad. But you have giant tanks, which is good. And Sarah Hoyt’s cat is nesting on your giant polar-bear-sized dog in the back yard, that could go either way.

    Book 4 is “holy shit we just got sucked into the Fermi Paradox issue! What fresh hell is this?!” Giant tanks meet Cthulhu’s little brother at the gates of Mordor. Megatons-per-second ensue. Plus romantic interlude with gnarly scary werewolf . Because of course there’s a werewolf.

    Book 5, our detective is on much needed vacation in Amsterdam and finds an abandoned shoe. (That one got generated right here at MGC in the comments.) Which leads to another alien invasion by another batch of brand new aliens. Somehow. The giant dog is not amused.

    Book 6, current WIP, Kali the Destroyer shows up for coffees at the local cafe. She’s not -really- Kali, obviously, she’s a semi-transcendent AI come for a holiday on Planet Monkey.

    George is getting a bit testy at this point. He’s had a potentially world-ending problem every month since October, and its only the following April. Somebody is up to something. Currently, Somebody is getting the ever-loving shit blasted out of them from orbit, and Brunhilde is warming up that gun of hers. Plus lippy robot spiders.

    How do you -not- come up with a sequel?

    1. How do you -not- come up with a sequel?

      I’m pretty sure that it involves tying the characters up, gagging them, putting them in a sound-proof room, and making sure that you never, ever look in the windows to allow them to mime something at you. I figure that might shut them up for a day or two.

      I’m with you. The people in my head keep telling me about things that happened to them. I figure this means that I need either to sit down at a computer or to check myself into a really good psychiatric hospital.

      I figure that if the voices ever stop yelling at me, that means that their stories are done, and I can let them be. And start dealing with some of the dozen or so other voices in my head…

      1. “I’m pretty sure that it involves tying the characters up, gagging them, putting them in a sound-proof room, and making sure that you never, ever look in the windows to allow them to mime something at you. ”

        THIS. Sequels happen to me when characters from the previous book won’t shut up.

        1. Try some sort of garage with a foot-thick steel door. That should at least delay it.

          If that doesn’t work, I have no idea.

      2. [laughing] I’ve been told I don’t write fiction; I follow my people around with a clipboard, taking notes.

  9. I have one trilogy – which was mapped out as a single story, but turned out to be so long and covered so much ground that I decided early on that I would slice into three, at handy stopping points. And then, three minor characters appearing in the trilogy seemed like they had their own interesting stories to tell – about the early days in Texas, the war for independence and the realities of being a political hostess in Republic-era Texas, a picaresque adventure in Gold Rush California, and finally, why a gently-born English lady would marry a rancher and come to Texas. Oh, and the first of those follow-on books set up a situation to be covered in yet another volume… I think these things all came about organically. A brief mention, a circumstance, that a minor character had been there, done that … and then I come around to working out that this would be an interesting book of itself.
    Now, the Luna City series is definitely set up as an ongoing serial. My daughter and I plot them together. A plot starts because we think that we had to do something which would involve this or that character … and because we have mapped out each of the thirty or so main or reoccurring characters, we can usually come up with something in their background or experience to hang a new plot development on.
    Don’t know how helpful this will be to you …

  10. Sequels seem to flow naturally from some authors, in your case not so much apparently.
    What I would suggest that might help for you is to put on your reader hat, pick up the source book, and read it as though it were one from a favorite author that you read long ago. In sort try to forget that it’s your work as much as possible. From that aspect look for questions that have not been fully answered, details that cry for further expansion, and situations you especially enjoy that you wouldn’t mind reading more of.
    The beauty of sequels is that you can hit the ground running with so much of the foundation already established. The horror of sequels is that you must track every niddling detail across however many books in that series you eventually write. For should you err in the least, drop continuity with some minor detail and it’s guaranteed that readers will hound you about it forever more.

    1. “The horror of sequels is that you must track every niddling detail across however many books in that series you eventually write.”

      Yes, this is an issue. You have to remember what colour that shop-girl’s hair was in book two, because she shows up in book four.

      Generally I have no problem remembering all that stuff, but the odd time it does force me to go back and find the shop-girl or whatever to confirm blonde, brunette or red head.

      For a plotter or a write-to-outline author, that would be hard. You’d need a really good series bible. For me, I already know these people. They live in here with me, it’s hard to make them be quiet. ~:D

      When you write by the seat of your pants, sometimes the structure only becomes apparent after the writing is over. It’s nice that we are allowed to cheat by going back and changing things at the beginning to foreshadow that which was obvious much later.

    2. I have several series. The longest is 17 books (and about 10 short stories). The next longest is about to become 9 books. What I want to say here is that you don’t have to remember every little detail, but you do need to create a bible and you do want to keep track of those things that are important to a character.

      It’s okay to have characters forget stuff, misremember stuff, or for things to change on them. Because that’s just how life is. Minor details you put in one book are not likely going to be addressed in later books in the series, unless you, the author, decide to make a point of it.

      That long series? I wrote them all in two and a quarter years, one after the other until it was done and yes, by book 17 I was having to go back and look at things fairly often. But how often are you going to write a series that long? I only wrote that many because of the sales. Up until around book 12 I wasn’t having any issues remembering. It was just because I had to tie everything back together in the last three books that it got at all complicated.

      On the other one going on 9, the first book was published in 2014, but it was actually written quite a few years before that. But I pretty much change the local and major cast for each book, which does have a lot of advantages. So there’s a lot less for me to remember now, a decade later.

      So again, there are ways of dealing with that, and I don’t think you really need to remember everything.

  11. This happened to me with what is now the Argonauts trilogy. I deliberately wrote Scent of Metal as a stand-alone. However, the numbers don’t lie–trilogies sell better, and it is easier to write in an already-create world than to come up with a completely new storyline.

    So I thought and pondered. Scent of Metal had a problem plus delicious reader cookies: Ancient abandoned alien spaceship, accidentally slipping out of gear and into drive when Earth humans explore, humans want to go home. (SPOILER: they get home 😀 )

    To expand to a series, I took elements I included as reader cookies and wired them up. Ancient alien spaceship (cleverly disguised as Pluto…) why was it there? (Original reason: I was mad Pluto had been demoted from a planet. New reason: there was a war. Why had all the Neanderthals been carried off into slavery and why were the homo saps left behind? (Old reason: because I wondered why the Neanderthals vanished and it’s cooler to think aliens carried them off. New reason: Homo Sapiens is actually the escaped lab experiment all the late night movies warned you about and the alien war was about obliterating all the evidence of the faction STUPID enough to create them. SPOILER: the aliens were right, humans are nothing but trouble.)

    If you think about it long enough you can come up with a *reason* why all those clever bits of stage decoration are *actually* Chekhovian weaponry. Use plot spackle at the edges, and voila! You have a series.

    1. Eh, depends on your muse. Some writers find it easier when you can make the story’s world to fit the story without the slightest question of consistency with another story.

  12. Wow. Why are you asking that now? Your new book is totally setup for a sequel. See… Oh, sorry you asked for experienced writer input…

    Since my reading is more extensive than my writing I’m going to answer from that viewpoint. In your first two books the problem that was set up was solved. Raina is going to be all right even if she’s going to do things that are dangerous. Ditto for Annika. That is, not everything that happens or will happen makes for a story, even if it is very exciting for the person that is “living” through it. (Quotes because we are talking fiction here…. ) Working hard to build something isn’t necessarily story material.

    However, here you have created a character whose main squeeze is going to accidentally put her in total danger by causing her to physically crash at just the wrong moment. She has to work out a relationship with him in a new country where she is learning new customs, but I think that is the secondary problem to some plot. The Feds still want to kill her if they figure out what happened to that pilot. There is a great cast of characters one of whom can have a problem that she has to help solve. (How about Tom’s wife?) There is a totally fluid situation politically. What about those fisheries? She has expertise there… So there’s no lack of unfinished business.

    Some sequels go chronologically. Others pick up at some new crisis and give us some of the info we wonder about in bits and flashbacks. I think you are going to be number two. I’ve read the book six times since Monday so if you need any more suggestions off the top of my head let me know…. Reader out.

    And all the real writer advice looked pretty good to me.

    1. Hey, I’m completely thrilled to have reader input, too! Thank you!

      I can’t see the characters as something separate and outside of the last story that was in my head, and my head is saying “It’s done. Why would you even want to write more? You finished the story.” So, you’re seeing it in a way I can’t!

      1. What I see in to your response is — that to you the things I’ve mentioned aren’t story material. I’m going to take that to mean that in your head those problems get solved but without a “story arc”. At least the character problems. And “fanfic” might mean writing about ops that get done but again, without problems big enough to need a story. Also, and I’m just as glad about this, it means that Michelle and Alex stay together. So as a fan of this story I am actually happy right now. And why should you write a sequel to perfection? Especially because your stories have a love interest and I personally don’t want you messing with Blondie and Michelle now that I believe they solved their problems.

        However if you insist on a sequel you need at least a minor new love interest and my vote is for Twitchy and Maria. Also you need a problem that forces the Empire and Fed and all the little territories to cooperate briefly so Michelle can be recognized as a threat — all those successful ops, you know. I vote for something stealing the tuna. And initially people can wonder about kraken or outer space pirates before discovering … The truth …( I don’t know what it is.)

        Did I mention that I don’t care what you write as long as you write something?

        1. Is it too early to spoiler?

          Ahem. Since you asked…

          I assure you, any gentleman who memorized passing details and then carries out long-range planning on the order of “In case I get sent back in country, or when I get back on my own, I shall hunt high and low to find the exact brand and flavour energy bar she prefers. More portable, practical, and shelf-stable than flowers”… is not going to let the lady get away.

          Moreover, while he’s human and makes mistakes, he does endeavour to not make the same mistake twice. By the time they reach their final destination, he has received a thorough scolding from at least two gents about the differences in pilot neural nets vs. combat neural nets. (It just wasn’t in front of her, so you didn’t see it.) And you’d best believe he took notes. Somebody’s about to get coddled whether she likes it or not…

      2. Simple, send them draft notices:
        Greetings from the King! (or perhaps Author?) You have been selected to take place in a most dangerous mission! The Sequel! And your attendance is mandatory!

        Now you did tell me what the original idea was that got you to write that story. Surely there must be some stray ideas related to that original idea still floating about? Like say unscrupulous billionaires using said upsets to increase their wealth and their power?

        Or maybe a separate country (from another planet perhaps) seeing this as an opportune time to try and gain leverage from with the place she left because of their problems?

        I’m sure an idea will pop up eventually.

  13. You don’t always need a master plan. Something I learned recently about the Dark Knight Trilogy: there was no plan for a series. The Joker card in Batman Begins was the only thing they did with any thought towards future instalments.

  14. Sequel hooks are planted in the middle of the story.

    For instance, I am poking at the outlines of two sequels to a work that’s first draft complete. The thing is that while the heroine of that work was trying to deal with certain villains permanently, she is reminded at various points that if she could not succeed, she should go on with her life, because villains are a continual fact in that world; even if she succeeded, there would be more to come and future generations would have to face them.

    AND there are babies born in the story. All set up to face them.

  15. I recall sometimes setting up a series for definite sequels can backfire so badly. Tracy Hickman (one half of the famed Weis & Hickman writing team) and his wife Laura once had an ambitious fantasy series called The Bronze Canticle. Each book would jump ahead in the timeline considerably, each contained three distinct plotlines on three distinct worlds that would very gradually intertwine the further into the series one got. Nine books were planned. Sales on the first three were poor so they were all that was published. So it ended up a trilogy with all set up, no pay off. :/

  16. Writing sequels is always an interesting thing. My only suggestions are-

    1-Plan ahead. If you think you’re book is going to have a sequel, make sure to leave enough “things to do” in the previous book for the next book or three.
    2-Do NOT get so focused on the sequel that you don’t write the first book to be a good book on it’s own. Don’t be so focused on the series that you don’t make the individual books decent.
    3-Have a plan, or at least a rough outline of the beats you want to hit.

  17. I’d planned for my first novel, a romantic-suspense, to be a one-off. Solve the villain problem, get them engaged, the end. Then an interfering beta reader or two said, “I love these characters! Are you writing a sequel?” Grrrrrr.

    So I thought, “What unfinished business do these two have between them? And what suspense-worthy problems can I throw at them to make them work it out?”

    Trouble is, between Book 2, which I’m working on now, and my projected Book 3 is a gap of about three years in my characters’ time. I don’t like that. I need to think of something else to get them messed up with during the interval.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with gaps. They allow space to put those wonderful flashbacks when you need to fill in some extraneous plot gap or create something to move the story out of a slow spot.

  18. The real danger of sequels is when you undermine the happy ending of the earlier book. It means that it’s hard to believe any subsequent happy endings.

  19. If you’ll take an ametuer’s experience… for me, most of my sequels are suggested by the original. The one I’m working on now is a retelling of the Bearskin fairy tale… suggested because I was always dissatisfied with the fate of the two sisters in it, though I otherwise love the story. So books 2 and 3 will take each of the sisters in turn. Where it’ll go I’m not sure, but it’s going to involve a lot of treason, possibly an assassination attempt a couple of curses and a forest full of power. Oh, and a wicked magician. (I’m a pantser but all three books kind of dumped into my head at once. I’m trying to keep up. It’s been messy getting them untangled.)

    On the one I finished two weeks ago (Oz in space, with the Witches acting like the Bene Gesserit) there’s one true sequel likely to happen inspired by the badguy’s reaction to loosing in the first. Then there’s a stray end that’s likely to end up a side story.

    So for me, sequels are always suggested by the first story some how. Little bits (or big bits) of the book that say ‘There’s a story here’ and so when I finish the first story. I look at those bits and tell that story. It’s not fanfic, it’s just another story. They bum around in my head all the time. You get used to it. In some cases the next story. In some cases it’s a side story. In some cases it’s deep history in the same world. You might ask yourself why you’re writing the sequel. Is it because you think you need a sequel or because there’s something bugging you to ‘finish’ from the old one?

  20. From a reader/’s perspective, you need to write the same thing, but different. Easy-peasy, right?

    Maybe there something in there for the writer as well. What bits did you particularly enjoy writing? What would need to happen in the world, or in one of the character’s life to let you write something like that again?

    Though, just as with Mary Stewart, I’d just as soon have another story from Mrs. Grant (set in the same universe) as a sequel. She’s proven she can deliver the goods.

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