Friday, March 11, 2016

Sequels and Threequels

We all know that one book that has a sequel.
I’m not talking about a series of books, per se, I reference that book that could stand alone, but doesn’t. Instead it becomes the first in two or three books.

Part of my thinks that trilogies were first invented because some author didn’t want to stop writing about the same characters, but wasn’t willing to come up with a plot that lasted five to seven books.

Because books so commonly come in sets of two or three, nowadays, I thought it’d be nice to discuss them: what makes a sequel strong? What makes it weak? Why is it so uncommon now to just write one book?

Strength in Numbers

Sometimes, one book isn’t enough. If that’s the only reason you have a sequel, you’re probably doing it right. That’s why we have series of five or seven or fifteen. Plots are vital to story and sometimes plots grow too big to be contained between just one pair of covers. It expands and inflates and twists and turns and becomes too complex to resolve in one book.
So you decide “hey, I’ll just write another book after this”.
And that’s okay. Some stories just need another book. I’m currently writing a fantasy series that is – unless my plot drastically changes – thirteen books long. The plot is just too big to make two or three books (not to mention one) feasible. Six main characters and twice as many important villainous elements (some human, some not) does that, sometimes.

Having a sequel or threequel can give your story strength when:
-It allows the plot to finish at a natural pace. A rushed plot is a bad plot; an unresolved story is a poor story.
-Each book has a distinct goal, even as it points to the larger goal of the trilogy/series. If your books begin to read like chapters instead of books, you’re going to lose readers. I don’t want to read a book that doesn’t feel complete. If your book ends as incomplete, your reader will feel cheated. Each reader should be able to put your book down – be it the first book in the series or the last – and walk away without feeling unfinished. That doesn’t mean you can’t have lose ends and cliffhangers, but it does mean each story needs its own distinct goal.
-The characters continue to change without the cast fluctuating. Does your trilogy contain the same people in each book? If not, that’s okay. But at the same time, you’re going to need to have a very good transition from cast to cast. If you want to introduce a new POV character, we need to know them before it happens. Much like C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, you need a slow transition from main character to main character. Not a sudden jump.
And as you write the second or third or fourth book, keep this in mind: every character needs to change in each book. If your character arc comes to an end in book one, then that character needs a new arc for book two. Characters that don’t change aren’t good characters.

Emotional Attachment =/= Sound Reasoning

Here’s the deal: some people don’t have enough plot to make a sequel. But they still do.
Because they’re attached to their characters.
Have you ever had that? You created and shape and form characters that just feel right. They come alive and they’re adorable and you wish nothing bad would ever happen to them (as you proceed to write about all the bad things that happen to them).
And then… the story ends. You finish their book and realize you don’t want to be done. These characters are so great and so well-rounded and developed and beautiful human beings, like they’re your little babies.
I can empathize with most of that (not the last phrase, but sure, the rest). I’ve had a cast of characters that I didn’t want to stop writing about. Turns out, Asher’s Song gained twenty thousand words and a major plot twist because of it. I didn’t want it to end, so I changed the plot and suddenly I could write more about these characters that I love.

But here’s the deal: when you write a sequel solely for the characters, it will be a weak sequel.
Just because you want to write more about your characters doesn’t mean you should write another book about them to share with the rest of us. It’s like writing a fanfiction about your own book.
It’s fine, until you try to get everyone else to read it.
That’s not how this thing works. See, your reader needs to care about what is happening to your characters, not just the characters. Yes, we need to care about your characters as people. If we don’t care about them, we don’t care about your story.
At the same time, however, there needs to be a story. Not just some random plot you pulled together, however. If you want to write a sequel, it needs to further what you wrote about in the first book.
Unrelated sequels are weak.
There, I said it.
If you want to write more about your characters, that’s fine. Have a hay day. Enjoy your fanfiction about your own characters.
But does it really deserve its own spot on the bookshelf?

A Dying Breed of Books

Once upon a time, people wrote just one book. They wrote about a set of characters who did a specific thing and that was it. The end.
Nowadays, however, if you see just one standalone book, that author is a crazy person. We’ve become a world of trilogy readers.
Why? Some of the best stories in the world (To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace, Paradise Lost, Death of a Salesman, Alas Babylon, Black like Me, Fallen Angels, Crime and Punishment, even The Old Man and the Sea, and so forth) are standalone books*.
Given a choice between a trilogy and a single book, I’d choose the single book.
When an author can tell a story in one book, it tells me something very important: that author knows how to be precise. They know how to tell a story in less than two books. When an author writes one book about one cast of characters and moves on to a different cast, that shows me restraint. It shows me that they know when to stop, when to move on.

A standalone story is powerful. If Arthur Miller tried to write a sequel to Death of a Salesman, it would probably turn out awful. It’d be flat and weak and, chances are, have none of the strength that the original possesses.
If C.S. Lewis wrote Screwtape Letters, Volume 2, the idea wouldn’t be original anymore. The novelty wears off and suddenly you’re left with a story that not too many people want to read.

Expanding Horizons

It’s okay to want to write a sequel or threequel or a series of seventy-two books.
Really, it is.
At the same time, however, why not try… not?
Try writing a novel that stands all by itself. Specifically, try writing a standalone novel with a cast of characters you love. Don’t slide by with writing about those characters you like, but wouldn’t mind not writing more of.
Prove how much self-control and conciseness you have deep down in your soul.
Who knows, maybe you’ll discover that writing just one book is a powerful exercise that can strengthen your writing.

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*yes I realize there’s a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird now, but I stand by my reasoning because the sequel’s publication is so far removed from the first, time-wise, that I don’t count it.


  1. This is a good point. When I was young, I always planned on writing trilogies. Not because I was too attached to the characters or anything, I planned the books by never got far in writing them, but because I just sort of thought that was how fantasy novels were supposed to go? Not certain what book trilogy had convinced me of that by 8 year old. Maybe I read The Lord of the Rings a lot earlier than I have thought?

    1. Haha, I actually have a similar experience. Back in the day, I always planned for more than one book, but never wrote more than two or three (of as many as seven planned).
      It does seem as though some genres - especially fantasy - are coming to expect a sequel. Another genre that's a good example is Dystopian. I can't think of a single Dystopian standalone written in the last eight or nine years, despite the sudden surge in their popularity.