Your debut novel has been accepted by a publisher and now you want to build on that success and write a brilliant second novel. Of course it’s got to be just as good or better than the first book, and you won’t settle for less. Hey, why not turn that great first book (the best book you’ve written yet) into a series? Sure, a wonderful single book is a treasure, but a powerful series of great books – that could be a life’s work. Haven’t the greatest books of all time been part of a series? And so you have been tempted to write a sequel.
So here I am to warn you, Mr. or Mrs. Fiction writer, that sequels are dangerous.
Now, I’m not going to argue that a sequel which is just as good as the first book can’t be written, since there are exceptions to the rule (or maybe just one exception to the rule). What I will do is to explain the main reasons that a sequel usually falls short of the original. Here they are:
1. Revealing the Hidden
The allure of a first book is akin to opening up a present that’s gift wrapped very slowly, until you unveil what’s hidden inside. The moment of discovery or surprise, when you find out what’s inside that package, is a special moment.
A book is similar. In the first book, something was being revealed over the course of the narrative – perhaps a fantasy world, or a secret power, perhaps the main character’s true identity, or the solution to a mystery or conflict. Whatever that thing was, you usually went ahead and revealed it all during that first book. (The exception here, is when from the start you planned a series of books in order to tell one story. In which case, the series is really one book in installments – that model can actually work).
What writers of a sequel try to do, is to tell you that there is something else hidden that hasn’t been revealed yet, and that you will have to discover this additional thing in the second book. There’s more to see in my world, they are saying. So much more…But in a way, this is contrived. They are creating more for the purpose of justifying another book. When really, they may be revealing more of the same. A great book must have a unique revelation. And by definition, a sequel builds on the revelation of the first book, and hence it is not unique. If the main kernel of the second book was unique, it would not be a sequel any longer.
2. Character Redemption
The main character or characters of your first book went through a sort of inner road trip – a development that started from some conflict and resolved in a satisfying solution. They hopefully changed in a good way. When you write a sequel, you will have to think of a new path for the main character(s) to take, a new inner conflict for them to resolve. This is not impossible, but it’s a big challenge.
Many great books see through the redemption of a character. Once that character is redeemed, how can she/he be redeemed again? It’s always more captivating for the reader (and writer) to start with something entirely new – an entirely new redemptive process.
3. Inner Idea
Every great book has at its source, a really wonderful, cool, or funny basic idea. It’s around this idea that the book is built. This idea is the main draw of the book. In many cases, the plot, the characters, the mood – they are all products of this brilliant core idea.
For a sequel, you will have the nearly impossible task of coming up with a brilliant core idea, which has something to do with, but is not the same as the core idea of the first book. What you will then have is a somewhat lop-side, or overlapping clump of main ideas. This is usually not cool. Imagine it geometrically – it’s just not a beautiful shape – two lopsided clumps, or one clump with a smaller clump latched onto it. That’s why you’ve got a much better shot at a brilliant second book, if you start anew with an entirely separate and different great idea.
Tell me something, is there such a thing as a sequel to a piece of art of music? Perhaps yes, but usually no. And I think authors need to learn something from their artistic peers – get that first painting up on the wall, take a break, and then start on something new. Art itself will thank you.