Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sequel Perks And Drawbacks

Some of my favorite books are done within the context of a series.  From Harry Potter to the Trilogy of the Damned to The Lost Regiment, I love staying within a universe I already enjoy.  Characters become like old friends, and each new novel is like catching up with an old friend.

That’s not to say that sequels don’t have drawbacks.  Books within the same series are limiting in how they present characters(after the first novel), as well as the twists they can introduce.  Writing in the same series has its own set of challenges, and a good writer understands all of them before diving in.

First, the perks…
1.  There is a built in audience.  If you’ve been successful with your first novel, then the audience is already ready for more.  I know that when I find a book I like, I often go looking to see if there are other books in that series.  They already have me interested, so I gobble them up as quickly as I can.
2.  Character growth.  There’s only so much you can develop a character in one book.  Sure, that character can grow significantly over the course of a novel, but think how much more nuanced and long reaching you can be when you go beyond just one.  You can introduce facets of that character that you had to ignore in previous books because you didn’t have room, so now you’re able to add elements that can shape your story in new directions.
3.  The universe is familiar.  When you write a new novel, you have to build a universe from scratch.  Even if it’s set in where we live in the real world, there are still aspects of it that you have to figure out(Why are the current crop of nations in existence?  Why did Tom and Jennifer get divorced?  Can all dogs talk, or just a set few?).  In the second, third, and fourth books of a series, this stuff is already there – you’re simply setting your story on a stage already designed.
Now the drawbacks…
1.  The potential for creation in your universe is limited.  When a novel is new, you can go in any direction you want.  However, in books that come after, that’s not really an option.  How would people have reacted if in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, new graduates from Hogwarts suddenly had the option of joining an elite British special forces unit that used magic?  Wouldn’t that undermine the premise that the wizarding world is secret?  No one in Twilight would’ve accepted Bella being a werewolf in Breaking Dawn.  These potentially interesting twists of first books look stupid in later ones.
2.  Your characters are defined.  As great as it is to introduce new growth into characters, you can’t go overboard, or your audience will desert you.  One of the reasons readers come back to sequels is the familiarity with the characters, so if they start acting in ways contrary to what the audience is used to, you’ll turn them off.
3.  Each one has to be better than before.  One of the things that draws readers to sequels is the hope that the next book will not only match the magic they found in the first, but will exceed it.  You have to up your game with each book, and that can create pressure.  Suppose your first was the best you’d ever written – how do you top that?  And then how do you do it again after that?
Sequels and series are great, but know what you’re getting into.  If you do, it can be fun.  If you don’t, it can be awful.

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