How to Know Whether You Should Write a Sequel
You’ve written your first book and released it into the world, ready to part with its characters and universe at last! Unless, that is, you’re considering writing a sequel.
There are many worthy reasons to pursue sequel-writing, not least of which is that you’ve established yourself in a particular niche and built an audience there. A sequel is a great way to recapture your fans’ attention, whereas a completely different project in a new niche or genre would not be a terribly efficient use of your efforts.
That said, your motivations for starting a sequel should ideally be rooted in practicality and passion. So in the spirit of openly assessing your plans, here are four important questions to ask yourself when determining whether or not you should write a sequel.
1. Why do you write?
If you hope to make a living from your writing — and don’t already have a steady income from a backlist of books — you’ll need to make strategic choices and carefully assess how you invest your time. There are many things to consider when judging whether a sequel is warranted, but sales potential should be high on your list of priorities if it’s imperative that all your projects bring commercial success.
If you’ve already succeeded to the point where you feel financially comfortable pursuing a project regardless of profits, then you can simply focus on the story itself (in which case, skip to point three3). And if you’re currently in a grey area, that’s okay — my point here is that you need to be clear about your priorities before weighing up the reasons for and against writing a sequel! Take the time to decide before moving forward; if commercial success is a consideration, acknowledge that right off the bat.
2. How was your first book received?
Now that your priorities are hopefully a little clearer, think about the book you’re hoping to continue with a sequel. How did your audience receive it? If you hope to profitably capitalize on your first book with a sequel, that first book needs to have been at least moderately successful.
Beyond commercial success, consider your readers’ feedback. Maybe the book was a bestseller, but reviews were lukewarm and identified some core weaknesses. Whether or not a sequel would be a wise choice depends on how you treat these weaknesses going forward: if readers said your characters felt flat and under-developed, but you plan to rely on the exact same cast in your second book, it won’t do much for your fanbase. Making your characters more compelling, on the other hand, could incentivize people to try your series again — though this is easier said than done, especially with established personalities.
Plot weaknesses are easier to handle: you just need a stronger narrative for your second book. It’s nonetheless true that a less-than-addictive first book might not lead to a super-enticing sequel, no matter how you attempt to address its flaws. So if your first book was decidedly not a critical success, it may be commercially smarter to start a brand-new standalone book.
3. Can you come up with a satisfying character arc?
Assuming your first book was both well-received and successful (or you’re just writing for fun), we can now get into some craft-related questions. If your main character(s) remain the same as in the first book, you’ll need to figure out character arcs that are both emotionally-satisfying and different to whatever character development took place in the first book.
A great example of a sequel gone wrong is the movie “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde.” The first movie ends with Elle Woods having found her footing and proven her worth, but the sequel puts her back at the start and follows the exact same character arc as the first movie. Elle begins both films as a clueless, socially- inappropriate airhead, even though by the end of the first movie she was self-assured and respected.
Respect your reader enough not to pull this trick, and use your sequel to flesh out another dimension of your protagonist’s personality — or consider writing a standalone book set in the same universe. Then you can think about coming up with new characters and a new plot, while returning to the same setting.
4. Do you have enough new elements to justify another story?
Finally, even if you’ve got great ideas for developing the characters from your first book, think more about novelty overall. What new elements will this sequel offer readers that they couldn’t get from the first book?
To help clarify this, establish how you intend to structure your work. Do you hope to use a series-like formula where the character sets out on a brand-new adventure in each book? For example, your series could be structured like P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh series, which features the same detective but a different mystery each time. This is usually the best pathtack to take if you hadn’t originally planned for a sequel.
Your second option is to write a duology (or indeed, the second installment of a trilogy or an even longer series, if that was your plan). I call it a duology to signify that the events in the first book escalate and are resolved in the second;, the duology itself comprising one narrative arc — like Adrienne Young’s “Fable” and “Namesake” books. Needless to say, you can’t retroactively force a duology-style sequel on top of an already complete book, so this is likely irrelevant if you’re only considering a sequel after the first has been published.
Basically, book two2 needs to have a story that sweeps the reader along; it’s not enough to just look for minor subplots from book one1 and drag them out into another full-length novel. To be fair to your reader, you need to either complete your original story, or offer up a new one.
I hope these points have inspired some helpful reflection in anyone facing a sequel dilemma, and that you manage to arrive at a decision you’re happy with. Good luck!