The Albatross Around Your Neck

Once you have finished writing a novel, the notion of writing a sequel can be mighty tempting. Many popular books are part of a series, featuring the same hero, such as Harry Bosch or Kay Scarpetta, and writing that way increases brand recognition. Plus, you already have gone through the process of discovering your characters, so you know them well. What isn’t as apparent at first is how much of a burden a previous book can place on your new book.

What you have already written exerts a pull on you because you realize that so much of it works. You may resurrect some of the burning issues of the first book, because they still inflame you. Let’s take a for-instance. The heroine is a pubescent girl abused by a stepfather, and she hates her mother for turning a blind eye. If the stepfather is killed at the end of the first book, though, how much good is that hatred going to do in the second book? The punishment has already been served. Even worse, the stepfather is no longer around to actively perpetrate his evil.

The problem is, you derive none of the benefits from the first book—the growing tension between the characters—and all of the liabilities. Anyone who hasn’t read the first book will not understand the urgency that you so carefully built in the other book. That means the past operates as a dead weight lugged around by the present-day story.

A sequel needs to develop its own plot lines. What you want is to carry forward a core cast of characters from the first book and employ them in fresh pursuits in the second book. The characters who belonged to the plot of the first book must be jettisoned if they are not active characters in the sequel. For instance, if the mother of the abused girl is not given a new plot pursuit, she’s not worth more than a cameo appearance—a piece of background information.

You are still writing from strength. You still know intimately the small group of characters that are leading book two. But when you are sketching out the plot lines for the book, make sure that those characters are not hovering like carrion birds over what is now a carcass.

Exercise: A reader of a sequel needs background information on your main characters. You can create back stories that summarize what they did in the first book, just as you would insert background pieces for any character. But keep it at that: pieces a half page or a page long that are inserted into a new story.

“The only reason I would write a sequel is if I were struck by an idea that I felt to be equal to the original.”
—Dean Koontz

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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