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How to avoid writing a disappointing sequel

Time and time again I read an amazing debut novel by a fantasy or sci-fi author. I get excited for the sequel, but when I read it, I’m left disappointed.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Name of the Wind, followed by Wise Man’s Fear

  • The Painted Man, followed by The Desert Spear

  • Altered Carbon, followed by Broken Angels

  • The Cloud Warrior, followed by First Family

  • Red Queen, followed by Glass Sword

The most enduring books, the series that we constantly re-read, are the series where each book gets better and better.

So why are sequels to stand-out books often a disappointment?

1. The author doesn't walk the line between expectation and surprise

Writing a novel is about walking the line between fulfilling the reader's expectations while also surprising them. Readers don't want to be blindsided by something out of place — think space ninjas appearing in a 17th century romance novel — but at the same time, they don't want the feeling of deja vu.

Writing is novel is about walking the line between fulfilling the reader's expectations while also surprising them.

Look at Altered Carbon and the sequel Broken Angels by Richard Morgan.

The sequel ditched Altered Carbon's detective noir mystery vibe for a grim, sci-fi action novel. Readers liked Altered Carbon because of the established elements of the series, but Broken Angels didn't deliver.

Remedy: Be sure to stick to the core elements set up in the first book, but add in enough surprise to keep things fresh.

2. Deus ex machina

The series which stand out are the ones which are planned out; where the author knows, not only exactly how it will end, but how the characters and plot will arrive at that destination. Plot points are set up books in advance; without this, we’re blindsided by a deus ex machina ending.

The principle of Chekhov's gun applies:

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

In The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, we read about seemingly inconsequential items in the first book, which become key items in the final book. This makes for a satisfying conclusion; the reader feels like they didn't waste anytime reading about detail which wasn't relevant.

Remedy: Be sure to remember that what you've set up in the first book must have relevance and consequence in the subsequent novels.

3. The author messes with the formula

There are some key elements which can't be changed book to book, such as: writing style, character perspective (first person or third person), genre and tone.

The Demon Cycle series by Peter V Brett started with a brilliant, engaging first book following three main character perspectives.

The second and third books add a new character perspectives and then spent half the book explaining their backstory. If Brett wanted to add the character's perspective in, he should have done it from book one. What could have taken place over three novels became a bloated, five novel series.

However, in A Song of Ice and Fire series, George RR Martin establishes from the beginning that this is a series where the main characters can die, and their perspectives can be replaced with the perspective of another.

Remedy: Stick to the core elements of what you've established.

4. The author forgets the story and characters and focuses on world-building

The style of J. R. R. Tolkien is no longer in fashion — readers don't want a whole page describing a single tree or the carvings on a doorway. However, after the success of their first novel, authors often add in all the world-building elements which were edited out of their first book.

First Family by Patrick Tilley fell into this trap. We get pages and pages of description about the Amtrak Federation's country. At the halfway point of the novel, the protagonist's journey is just getting started.

Remedy: Don't forget that your readers are there to read a story, not an encyclopedia.

5. The author doesn’t have enough time to work on the sequel

An author may spend years, decades ever, carefully writing and rewriting their first manuscript. Finally, a publisher accepts the book and suddenly the author finds themselves locked into a contract — the sequel is due in a year’s time. Now the author has mere months to churn out a sequel.

We may laugh at George RR Martin for spending over seven years working on The Winds of Winter, but at least he doesn’t publish a half-baked novel. While Martin has the luxury of delaying his releases by almost a decade, most authors do not.

Remedy: Start work on your sequel before you begin sending your manuscript to publishers or look at self-publishing.

6. There are less people challenging the author creatively

The first book an author publishes is a financial risk — without a name to themselves, publishes are not guaranteed that a return on investment. Often, people assume that if the first book was a hit, the second will be too.

But when writing a sequel, the author has established themselves in the market and has gained a following — return on investment is less of a risk to the publisher. The author may be given more creative freedom and less editorial oversight.

Look at Sarah J Maas’ A Court of Frost and Starlight; the novella was in desperate need of a good editor, but no one gave it the editing it needed because it was already a bestseller before it was even released.

Remedy: Surround yourself with people who are not afraid to challenge you creatively.

7. Tropes used in the first become become tired and worn in the second book

While Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series certainly wasn’t the case of a disappointing sequel, the quality of the books dropped marginally as the series progressed.

This series in case-in-point for the overused trope — so many shocking, dramatic and terrible things happen to Darrow that the reader is forced to suspend belief that all these things could really happen to the one character. Whenever something good happens to Darrow, the reader just assumes that something very, very bad is about to follow. While this makes for a fast-paced, action-packed plot, the reader does grow tired of the trope.

Remedy: Don't rely on tropes; think of fresh and engaging ways to keep the reader interested.

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