Let’s Talk About: Book Sequels

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Sarge is not impressed with your sequel!

Hi fellow readers and writers. I’ve been thinking about sequels a lot lately because I believe they may be the most polarizing group of books out there today. Authors either play it safe and give readers more of what was in the original, or they try for something different, bigger, better. The thing is, sometimes a sequel leaves you scratching your head wondering if the same person penned both books. It’s happened to me plenty of times.

I recently finished reading a really good book. I praised it for various things, wonderfully written characters being one of those things. Imagine my surprise when I picked up the sequel and those same wonderfully written characters were gone. In their place I found complaining, indecisive, and “I’m here to live for the man or woman in my life no matter what” thinking characters. I was beyond disappointed. In fact, I couldn’t finish the book. It’s very disappointing to me when an author establishes certain things in the first book of a trilogy only to abandon those same things in a second book. As a reader it’s frustrating. Everything I loved about the first book was missing, or significantly altered in the sequel. I feel cheated, duped, and mislead. (I realize this is never the author’s intent, but that’s how it leaves me, the reader, feeling.)

That got me thinking about many of the sequels I’ve read–how many times the first book was phenomenal, yet the sequel wasn’t. I’m a huge fan of Jeff Long’s THE DESCENT. It’s a five star book in my opinion and one of my all-time favorite books. I believe I’ve read it eight times now. The sequel just doesn’t live up to the grand ideas and concepts of the original. It focuses more on two of the characters, leaving much of the fantastic, and huge, world Jeff built in the first book behind. I don’t know what Mr. Long had planned for the sequel, and it’s not a bad book by any means, but it doesn’t live up to the first. He had planned on penning a trilogy. After the sequel was released to lukewarm reception, I have no idea if he plans on writing, and releasing, the third book. THE DESCENT was published in 2001. DEEPER (The sequel to THE DESCENT) was published in 2007. As of today, I’ve heard nothing of the third book which is a shame. Sometimes, as fans, we crave more time with characters we’ve grown to love. I know I would certainly welcome the third book of the Descent trilogy with open arms. I’m sure a lot of other people would too.

Is it fair to judge a sequel based on the previous book? You kind of have to. Without the contents of the first book, the sequel would probably be meaningless. In the music business they call it the “sophomore jinx,” meaning a band’s second album fails, often miserably, to outperform the first. Is that what’s happening with authors too? Do they feel the pressure to deliver a better book the second time around and tinker with a formula that worked the first time? I don’t know yet. I hope to be in that position one day. All I can go by is what I read.

Is every sequel bad? Hardly. I don’t think Jeff Long’s DEEPER is necessarily bad. It’s okay. Some sequels simply fall flat as compared to the first in the series. Other times sequels continue with what readers loved from the first book. Brian Ruckley kept his Godless World trilogy moving along smoothly with BLOODHEIR. It wasn’t better than the first book in the series, but it wasn’t worse either. It was consistent in quality with the first in every way possible. Then there are times when a sequel outshines the first book in a series. Ken Scholes’ CANTICLE immediately pops into my head. His second book exceeded my expectations as not only a sequel, but a book in general. In my opinion, he upped the ante in every possible way adding depth and quality to an already outstanding first book.

As a writer I like examining things like this. I like to see why some sequels come up short so I can avoid the same pitfalls if I can. Being a writer with a planned trilogy on his hands probably has something to do with that. Even though I have yet to be published, I want to be prepared when the time comes. Analyzing data and constantly reading helps me understand how certain trends can apply to not only me the author, but my fiction as well. Will it change how I write? No. But it may help me see what not to do.

I realize some of you will probably disagree about some of the books I’ve mentioned in this post. I welcome everyone’s opinion. We all have different likes, preferences, and tastes. As long as we can discuss those differences like mature people, that’s perfectly fine. I’m sure we’ve all opened a sequel at some point only to put it down later and wonder what happened?

Sometimes, as authors, we put too much pressure on ourselves to outshine our own work. We want to make things bigger and better, but lose focus on what made our first book work in the first place. Sometimes it’s not about making something bigger or better, it’s about holding on to the quality characters, plot, and world we’ve already established. In a word, consistency. If there’s room for improvement, by all means, improve. But don’t change things just for the sake of change. Trust in your skills enough to know you created a quality piece of fiction before, and you can do it again a second time.

That disappointed, deflated feeling after reading a sequel that didn’t live up to its predecessor is something I want to hold on to. Why? Easy, that’s the feeling I don’t want my readers to feel if/when my sequel is published.

What are your thoughts on sequels? What do you enjoy/not enjoy about them, and why? I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say in the comments below.

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11 comments

  1. Sometimes I wonder if the author should have written another novel before writing the sequel to their first novel. Sometimes it feels to me like they wanted to write something a little different (whether they knew it consciously or not) and that translated into their sequel, changing things here and there and focusing on something different than before.
    If they would’ve written something different and exhausted that needed change, then they could go back and write the sequel, able to absorb themselves into that world again.

    I dunno, just wondering. I definitely plan on working on another novel before writing a sequel.

    Sorry the sequel sucked compared to the original. That always leaves me feeling cheated. :/

    1. I hear ya. I think that’s what makes sequels so fascinating; how each writer approaches then in a different way. I know a writer how has spent years on one trilogy and has written nothing else. I know another writer you had to write the sequel after book one because of a contract. I guess it all depends on your situation.

  2. Fair points. I agree that “You kind of have to judge a sequel by its previous book,” as they are innately entwined.
    I know I’m concerned about my planned sequels, as the supporting character becomes the MC in the following two and they become more science-fiction-based. But I’d find it difficult to write another book from the same perspective of the first.
    Luckily, I’ve only got a first draft of the second book, so I can tweak, though I don’t know about ‘outshining’. The two are so different.
    Maybe each book needs to be treated in its vacuum.

    1. I agree each book should have its own identity, if you will. Yet without the heavy influence from the first, we wouldn’t have the second, or third. I also think that’s part of the fun when creating any sequel–the ability to maybe take a chance or two you didn’t in the first. I’ve already written a quarter of my sequel but put it up to finish a different story. The natural progression of the characters makes it feel like a different book. I hope you have fun with your sequel. Best of luck!

  3. I think part of the problems with sequels is that the author may not have committed him or herself to it. The original book was probably written as a labor of love and the story reflected that. Readers also responded to it. However, a lot more factors play into the sequel: audience expectation, publisher demands, money, trying to say something new without losing the flavor of the original, etc. I think writing a sequel is even harder than writing the original.

    1. Yeah, I’m right with you on the commitment of the author to a sequel, especially if they’re under contract. With most unpublished writers, like myself, we spend many hours on our first manuscript…because we can. Say that manuscript gets picked up by a publisher who signs us to a three book deal. Now we have roughly a year to pen the follow up book, a definitive timeline. I know that’s why I outlined what I wanted out of the trilogy before writing a single word. I wanted things to be cohesive between each book of the series. That’s also why I outlined the sequel and started writing while on submission with the first in the series. It never hurts to be prepared, right? Great points all around. Happy writing!

  4. I think you have great points, and I agree with you! I’ve seen this problem too and would like to avoid it myself someday. Often in trilogies it manifests as a throw-away second book. They poured everything into making book 1 a success and want to go out with a bang for book 3, but put much less effort into making book 2 significant. (I hate that.) I loved The Descent too, and actually didn’t even know there was a sequel. I’m not sure if I want to read it or not…

    1. If you loved the Descent then you’ll probably want to at least borrow Deeper from the library or pick it up second hand somewhere. It gives readers more of Ike and Ali plus a look at the real entity behind the Hadals, Satan. The plot is interesting enough to keep you turning pages as groups of children start vanishing underground. I’d read the third book if Mr. Long ever releases it. Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Have you noticed a similar thing in movie trilogies? The first movie comes out and it’s great. Suddenly, the studio wants to make it three movies. So the second movie is written knowing that a third will be following. So the second movie tends to be weak or leave a lot of loose ends. Then the third movie comes on strong and wraps the loose ends up.

  6. I actually loved the sequel Deeper. I read it in 2008. It must have been republished in 2010. I’ve been waiting 6 years for the final book in the trilogy. I wish Jeff Long would at least say he’s working on it.

  7. If we’re talking about trilogies, think some authors fail to understand (and stick to) a story arc that runs over three books. Each book has its own story to tell but you can’t forget that arc that holds the three books together. I’ve found that with a lot of trilogies, the second book is the one that mostly falls down, which is a shame as it’s the one that hold books one and three together — you could even say it’s the most important of the three. It holds weight. It’s the one that can make or break a trilogy and the one that can entice a reader to continue or have them throw the whole lot away.

    I had a different experience with Joe Abercrombie’s ‘The First Law’ trilogy. I almost didn’t make it through book one, but the last 150 or so pages made me pick up book two, which turned out to be the best one of the three. I’m still unsure how I feel about the series as a whole, but he managed book two extraordinarily well.

    As an editor, I’ve found that a lot of authors do struggle with their second book be it a stand-alone of part of a series. A lot of that, I think, comes down to the pressure they put on themselves, especially if the first book has been well received.

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