I’m currently writing a sequel to The Wind Reader, the book coming out from Inspired Quill in September, so I’ve been thinking about sequels and wondering what makes a good one.
Specifically, two questions arise, one having to do with the outer arc of plot and other with the inner arc of character development.
The outer arc in a sequel
First, how much recounting of a previous book’s plot does the writer need to do? My first instinct is to say that any book has a past, and the writer should treat later books like the first one, giving only as much of the past as is relevant. It also seems to me that the amount of recounted story varies, depending on whether a single plot arc runs through all the books.
Some series have books that aren’t really sequels at all, just books about the same characters. I’m thinking about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkorsigan Saga, for instance. Those books trace Miles’ life, but each can stand separately. As a matter of fact, the first time I read those books, I read them out of order and it really didn’t matter. One consequence of that is that there’s very little recounting of previous stories in the current one. Occasionally, Bujold has to tell us something like how Mark came to be, but she does it in a single sentence or sometimes just with the phrase “clone brother.” The reader doesn’t really need to know all that happened before the current book.
The Harry Potter books have a single plot arc, but you don’t get much summarizing of previous books there either, though it seems to me there’s more in the later ones, where the long plot arc is coming to a crisis.
In contrast, there are true sequels like the Hunger Games books, where what happens in the second book is deeply affected by what happened in the first one, and where the third book is set up with a cliffhanger in the second one. That series is really one big story chopped up into pieces. Collins seems to assume we’ve read the previous books and again provides little history.
So judging from these examples, readers can get by with only the backstory they need to follow the current book.
The inner arc of character
The second question is how the writer should handle character arc in a character who persists from book to book. A story is a change agent. If events in the story don’t change anything, why are we reading it? And part of that change is internal to the character, who changes as a consequence of what s/he’s been through. How does a writer make that happen and yet leave room for more growth in subsequent books?
If it’s the type of series that’s really one big plot arc (like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter), the character arc can sort of shadow the plot arc. This works well in Lord of the Rings, I think. Characters find their courage and struggle through the quest.
In Harry Potter, the character arc relies on Harry’s coming of age. We see him grow up. Bujold does a similar thing with Miles, who starts off at age 17 but grows to middle-age in the later books. What she does is give him really transformative experiences–a crippling injury, for instance, or a family and responsibility.
If the character is already an adult, then it’s harder, I think, to sustain character growth over multiple books. Mysteries end up relying on character familiarity instead of character growth; character progression relies more on relationships than on the character him/herself actually undergoing real growth.
Sequels can disappoint
Sequels are hard to write well. As a reader, I often find that the first book in a series is the best. The sequel I’m writing now takes a minor character from The Wind Reader and gives him center stage in his own story. We’ll see how it goes.