First among sequels
Sequels. I’ve been thinking about these a lot at the moment, as I’m writing one.
Funnily enough, I’ve never written a sequel before. Part of me rather assumed it would be easier than writing the first one, as I’d already done all the hard work. I’d created characters, I’d established the tone and the premise and the setting. Surely, second time around, I could just grab the (metaphorical) car keys and get straight into the (metaphorical) race.
I tried to do that and broke down on the first lap. (I’m going to leave this metaphor behind now.)
It might have been easier if Fire in the Sea had been the first part of a trilogy, in the conventional sense. By which I mean, if it had just been the first chapter in an ongoing story. It sort of is, but it mostly isn’t. It’s a self-contained tale, which deliberately leaves a few threads dangling. Whatever comes next has to be its own story.
I already had the idea for Night Witches (it won’t really be called that) before I’d finished writing the first book. Just a sketch of an idea. I’d sort of linked three ideas in my head — creatures of water, creatures of air, creatures of dirt. Each book would address one of these. But it was just an idea. Things swoop down out of the night and carry people away.
This time around, there were all these restraints I didn’t have when I started writing Fire in the Sea. Indeed, they were the very things that made me think writing a sequel would be easier. I had a setting, I had a tone, I had a premise and, most importantly, I had characters. The first time around, I was able to create characters who could tell the story I wanted to tell. This time, I had to find a story that would fit the characters I had already created.
Part of me wanted to do something really different. I was thinking the series should grow up a bit, just as its characters had. So I wasted a month writing gritty scenes set at drunken backyard parties. Nope. Just… nope.
Then I thought I should probably introduce a tonne of new characters. The first book had been set during school holidays. The second book would be set during term, so I created a whole set of teachers and students and… suddenly there was no room left to tell a story.
My fellow Text author Leanne Hall actually gave me some good advice about writing sequels. (Her Queen of the Night is an excellent example of a fantastic sequel.) She said: introduce a few new characters, but not too many. (Readers want more of your main characters!) The tone has to be the same. And be really, really mean to your characters. You want to make them uncomfortable again. It all needs to be new again.
This certainly helped me understand why I’d made a mess of my first attempts to write the second book.
There are rules to sequels. Or maybe there’s just one rule: more of the same, but completely different.
Some of my favourite sequels are: Batman Returns, The Tiger in the Well, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, From Russia With Love and X-2. All of them follow this rule and most of them make the world of the first book or film deeper and darker and stranger. Batman Returns is still my favourite Batman film simply because it’s so odd. It has a confidence that the first film doesn’t and a willingness to go to very weird places.
That’s where I’d like to go with Night Witches (it really isn’t called that). I’ve tried to make the character’s emotional plots a little more complex and the threats they face a good deal stranger. Part of this involves using elements of the first story in ways I’d never intended to. Thinking like this has led me to dismantle the big character arcs I had in mind and see if they can be put back together in ways they were never supposed to be assembled.
I’ve also been wondering about which rules you can break. Because I think you want to break rules, as a writer. I remember reading that jarring first chapter of The Subtle Knife, in which Lyra is nowhere to be found. Instead, there’s some boy we’ve never met before. Why should we care about him?
I liked that, as much as it irritated me at the time. I liked being surprised. I liked having to re-enter Lyra’s world from a different viewpoint.
The other complication is something I’ll talk about more in the next blog post. It’s something that I didn’t have to worry about when I wrote the first book — the reaction from readers. Because, as I discovered, readers will respond to your book in ways you never intended. They will have their own demands or expectations for the sequel, which can be quite hard to resist.
Indeed, there’s one key element of the sequel that wouldn’t be there if a reader hadn’t suggested it. But I’ll talk about that more next time.
What are some of your favourite sequels? What are some of the worst? What makes a good sequel? Do you like it when a sequel subverts your expectations or do you just feel let down?