Monday, October 13, 2008

Sequels of Sequels

There are many book sequels and series on the shelves that are doing well: Twilight, Inheritance, Gossip Girls, The Vampire Diaries, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Keys to the Kingdom, Tom Swift, Gemma Doyle, Uglies, etc. A series is a set of stories that has no foreseeable end. Each story is pretty stand-alone, has the same core set of characters, and, when the book ends, the story ends too. If you read them out of order, they still make sense for the most part.

Sequels are different. Each book relies heavily on the previous installments, and it’s difficult to understand what’s going on if you pick up a book at random. Because of this, writing sequels, especially trilogies and such, is really tough. Essentially, you’re writing one HUGE story, and breaking it up into manageable chunks.

This also means that you have multiple storylines to manage: the bigger, overall storyline, plus each of the smaller storylines that create the larger one. If you want to write an effective trilogy, or quartet, or even a septet like Harry Potter, you need to know your overall storyline. And, you need to keep it consistent from beginning to end. If there are inconsistencies, readers will notice.

For example: THE SWEET FAR THING is the final book of the Gemma Doyle trilogy. A few things were revealed in this book that did not mesh with the previous two: Pippa's transformation, and Felicity's secret. Of the two, Felicity’s secret was the biggest shock. SPOILER WARNING: Not once was there anything to hint at the relationship between Pippa and Felicity in the first two books. In fact, they painted the opposite picture. Felicity sneaks around and constantly steals kisses from one of the gypsies. Plus, Pippa creates a gorgeous, fawning young prince when she’s in the realms, and she never grows tired of him. In fact, she chooses to stay with him rather than go back to the real world to be with Felicity. These kinds of things start the reader down a certain path with a certain frame of mind. So, when their relationship was revealed, it was jarring because it didn’t mesh with everything else we’d read.

A similar thing happens with Pippa’s transformation. In the first two books, it’s made clear that any human soul who stays in the realms too long will become corrupted. Then, suddenly, we’re told that they can choose not become corrupted. That Pippa has a choice. Here, the author has broken a rule that she established early on. SPOILER WARNING: In the end, Pippa becomes corrupted. But it’s because she chooses not to try, not because it was inevitable. If this is where the author wanted to take the story, then the souls-will-be-corrupted rule shouldn’t have been so absolute. At the very least, an uncorrupted soul could have been living in the realms, as proof that if Pippa had only tried, she could’ve remained herself.

While you’re keeping track of all these larger story ideas, you still have to keep track of the smaller ones, too. Each of these needs to have its own story arc, while keeping consistent with the larger story. A good example of this is the UGLIES trilogy by Scott Westerfeld. Each book, UGLIES, PRETTIES, and SPECIALS, is a story of its own. UGLIES is all about Tally being ugly. PRETTIES is all about Tally being pretty. SPECIALS is all about Tally being special. Yet it’s clear there’s more to these stories, that there’s a larger picture somewhere, which gets resolved in the final book.

I realize this is a lot of work. But if you let these details slide, you run the risk of alienating your readers. Both with this story, and with future ones. I, for one, don’t want to take that risk.


Carrie Harris said...

Yeah, the whole idea of writing a sequel both frightens and excites me. My first book had space for a sequel, but it also has an ENDING, so a sequel's not necessary to enjoy the book. Because it drives me nuts to read a book that just stops in the middle of some action, like they ran out of paper and had to run to the store.

Marcia said...

Really good explanation of the difference between series and sequels.

It makes me think about my own series (Jenna V.) which is mainly a series, but a little bit sequels. Your "for the most part" covers me. :) They can be read out of order, but in order might be a tad better.

Out of the myriad of reasons to admire the construction of the entire HP story and other sequels, I most admire the fact that once an installment of that one HUGE story is published, that portion is carved in stone. You can't change it anymore. Those of us whose stories are in one volume and can therefore go back and change any part before submitting the whole have such an advantage in that department.

Very nice examples from the Gemma Doyle books. I saw early in TSFT where the relationship between F and P was going, but didn't really remember that earlier books didn't prepare for it. Although I'd guess that a girl in that time would have been working overtime to deny her feelings, thus possibly pursuing boys madly. Excellent points about the less-absolute rule and the example of an uncorrupted person supporting the idea of Pippa's choice.

Another great post!

Unknown said...

It's so fantastic that you're talking about SFT! I just picked up A Great and Terrible Beauty again--didn't really like it the first time, but I really want to like it, so I'm re-reading it now. Anyway, I quit reading your post after you started talking about the sequel, but I do plan on reading them all!

PJ Hoover said...

I'm just finishing up The Sweet Far thing (so the spoilers didn't ruin anything).
My hope as an author once book 3 comes out - that people care enough to take the time to look for inconsistencies. :) If I ever get annoyed with it, remind me I should be flattered!

And so get what you mean about the things not fitting in. One nice thing about how long things take to get published is I've had time to go back to Book 1 (The Emerald Tablet) multiple times since finishing Book 3 (The Necropolis) so I can seed stuff and change stuff accordingly.

Tabitha said...

Carrie - I love sequels, when they're well done. I also can't stand it when the story just stops with no kind of resolution. Makes me want to hurl the book across the room. :) I don't actually do that, but I want to. :) I respect authors who take the time and effort to plan out both storylines: the big one and the small one.

Marcia - thanks! And your analogy of "carved in stone" is so true. Which is why I think it's even more important to hammer out that story *before* it's published. Otherwise, you're stuck... :)

Beth - I was lukewarm about Great and Terrible Beauty. It was interesting, and I wanted to see where the story went so I read the sequels. I'm really interested to hear your thoughts when you're done!

PJ - I am so looking forward to The Emerald Tablet!! That's great you had the opportunity to make sure the first book meshes with the last. That's what makes a strong sequel, and that's what'll get you a strong following. :) Can't wait until I get to read it next week!! :)

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

One of my critiquers wants me to write a sequel to my first novel (which hasn't even come out yet!). But I think I've already written about the most interesting events in my MC's young-adult life. It would be easier to write about someone who was a minor character in this book, giving them center stage next time. So far, I'm happier exploring new settings and new characters. I don't think I plan to write sequels--but never say never!

Amy Laurens said...

Great post, you've given me lots to think about! :) Thanks :)

Gottawrite Girl said...

In the book I just read about plot structure, the point about tending to all mentioned details was hammered home. That readers pick up on ALL details, and expect a satisfying resolution / address for each. : ) Great post, Tabitha, thanks!

Bish Denham said...

Great post! I think I would get bored writing a series, though I have a couple of ideas that would probably work as a series. As for sequels...lots to think about. I seem to be a one idea, one book at a time kind of writer.

Tabitha said...

Jenn - I love sequels that have a former minor character as the main character. :) There's so much to explore, and it feels like I'm being given a new dimension to a story I already loved. So fun! :)

Inky - glad you liked it! :)

GWG - exactly! I need to pick up this book you've been reading... :)

Bish - I think I'd get bored writing a series, too. Unless I could turn each story on it's side each time, like have a different main character or something. But readers probably wouldn't go for that... Oh well. :)

Brenda said...

Great post! I don't tend to read series/sequels...for me, a series/sequel is like watching a movie where there is no ending...don't put me through that...I will go crazy trying to figure out what might happen...end it for me...give me one book, one story...

Mary Witzl said...

Yet again, Tabitha, you've written something very useful for ME. I'm writing a story that has spilled into another story. It's all over the place and I need to do a lot of work to make it more consistent. I like the examples you give; I'm afraid I've been less than consistent throughout. Someday I'll get back to it... Meanwhile, thank you for giving me this food for thought!

Tabitha said...

Brenda - I'm not a series fan, either. I also go crazy wondering how the whole thing will end, and my brain goes into overdrive conjuring up the possibilities. :) I'm okay with sequels, though, because there's an end in sight. I just hope it's a good ending. :)

Mary - glad you found this useful!! :) Sequels can be so much fun. :) A lot of work, but so much fun. :) Good luck getting all those details ironed out!

Sorry it took so long for me to reply. Monday was a school holiday, and it threw off my whole week. Plus, I'm donating a bunch of cakes to my oldest son's school bake sale, which I've been preparing for all week. There's gonna be more cake pictures up soon! :)