Jan 08 2013

What I’ve Learned About Why It’s Hard to Write a Sequel

Published by at 12:00 pm under Editorials,Movies

For those of you who have missed the several hundred memos scattered around the site over the past few months, I recently finished my first book which I self published on Amazon called The Last Exodus. It’s been a blast having people buy it, read it and write me about it, and it’s that sort of support that really drove me forward to continue on with the sequel.

I always wanted this series to be trilogy ever since I realized there was more potential to the concepts than I initially thought. But I didn’t think it would actually come to pass, as I didn’t know if I could finish one book, much less two.

But here we are, and I am indeed getting toward the end of as-of-yet unnamed sequel. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to write a sequel, and the challenges that come with it, which explains why many can often be lackluster. Read on if you’re curious about the process from the inside, or if you just like hearing me ramble.

It’s probably best to start this out with at least some semblance of info about my original book for those who either haven’t read it or just forgotten if they have. Here’s the official summary:

“The Earth lies in ruins in the aftermath of an invasion, the land devastated by an intergalactic war where neither side won. The seas are drying up while the atmosphere corrodes and slowly cooks all remaining life on the now desolate rock.

Few survivors remain, but one of them is Lucas, an ordinary man hardened by the last few years after the world’s end. He’s fought off bandits, murderers, and stranded creatures on his long trek across the country in search of his family. What he finds instead is hope, something thought lost in the world.

There’s a ship buried in a crater wall. One of theirs. One that works. To fly it, Lucas must join forces with a traitorous alien scientist and a captured, merciless raider named Asha. Their perilous journey fighting savage men and creatures alike takes them across the remains of the planet and far out into the stars to…where exactly? Lucas has to live long enough to find out.”

So essentially, it’s an end of the world survival story that ends up turning into something more traditionally sci-fi once they leave the planet.

Here lies one of the first problems. A lot of people told me that they really like the post-apocalypse parts. And so did I! It’s why I wrote the book in the first place, because I really do like that genre, and I will admit that The Road did exert some amount of influence over me there.

But what to do in the sequel then? Leaving Earth implies that this sort of “survivalist” theme has to go away. You’re fundamentally changing something people liked about the first book. This problem isn’t unique to me. Many first films are either something like origin stories or self contained plots best left for one book. When you go into a new film and try to change all that, it can be hard to retain what people liked about the original.

My solution? So far it’s been to blend the new sci-fi stuff with a bit of a throwback to the survivalist. At one point in the new book, Lucas once again finds himself alone in an incredible hostile climate, and I think it at least has echoes of the stuff people liked in the original, while adding new dimensions to boot.

Characters can be another problem. If you write a book or a screenplay, chances are by the end you really like your characters. You’ve refined what you wanted to do with them to the point where you couldn’t be more satisfied, and so moving them forward in meaningful ways after that can be tough. For example, taking someone who finally gets their shit together, and then tearing them apart in a future installment can yield something like Spider-Man 3: The Emo Parker Disaster.

I’m trying to balance giving a bit more backstory on my three leads, Alpha, Asha and Lucas, with events that change them throughout the course of the new book. I’m always worried if they’re “evolving” enough or if I’m giving them enough depth, and I try to keep that in mind as I take breaks from bloody action sequences and try to leave some quiet time for exploration of the characters.

New characters can also be a problem. My book had exactly three (later four) real characters that I had to work with. Here, in the sequel now that we’ve moved to a planet with an actual population, there are a lot more players than there were before. Simply put, it’s a lot harder to thread a plot around 12 characters, rather than 4. How many TV shows for example have gone downhill when too many characters were added, or new ones were simply annoying rather than welcome? It’s a pitfall you have to be careful to avoid.

I’ve tried to look at the greatest “second films” to see what lessons I can learn from them. You have The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2, which both have incredibly strong villains. About halfway through my book, I realized I was lacking one, and tried to fix that with the introduction of a new big bad called the Desecrator that wants to annihilate our heroes and is exceptionally dangerous.

Then I looked at a film like Empire Strikes Back, arguably the greatest sequel ever, which takes its characters to darker places than the first film. Betrayal and non-happy endings are prevalent, along with big reveals.  I’m planning to employ at least a few of these throughout my book. Not just because they worked for Empire, but because I think they can fit in my own story as well.

Now that I realize this is going to be trilogy, I have to plan ahead in addition to worrying about what’s happening presently. In more than a few circumstances, I’ve thought of a few things I wish I’d put in The Last Exodus to set up plot points for future books. But that’s not the way it works, and this time I’m planning a bit more ahead so I can have a smoother transition to a third book. As we all know, third books or movies in trilogies are more often than not the worst in the series, though some may dispute that depending on which we’re talking about. I’m sure I’ll have a whole new post when that day comes around.

In short, writing a sequel is scary because you don’t want to let down those who liked the original. You have to change just enough so you’re not straying too far from what people like, while at the same time allowing your story and characters to evolve in meaningful ways. It can be a tough line to walk.

I like my new book so far, and hopefully I can fashion a solid ending that satisfies both me and readers. Perhaps nothing of value was conveyed in this post, but thanks for reading anyway.





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8 responses so far

  • XenoIrish

    The post apocalyptic stuff was great in the first book, but the progression of the story necessitates a move away from that, so I don’t think people could hold that against you.

    If the characters stay strong and engaging it’ll work out well I would think. Can’t wait for it to be done and available.

  • Skeebo

    I wouldn’t try to force a situation b/c that’s what people liked in the first book. Your job as a storyteller is to tell your story, not necessarily the story that you think your readers what to get.

    Writing for what you think the readers want is what gets us thousands of novels that have essentially the same general plot, with the hero always predictably coming out on top in the end, or the monster coming back for one more scare…

    That is one of the HUGE reasons that Game of Thrones is so popular, b/c Martin goes out of his way to make sure that he is not writing the story that his readers want.

  • Ken

    I think it’s really cool you self-published, and it’s great that you have a site with so many dedicated followers to advertise it on. Have you guys ever thought about doing a review of self-published books?

  • jediguy

    Paul I have to say I really enjoyed reading your book. It was well paced and thought out. I like that it wasn’t overly complicated. Your action sequences were simple yet exciting. I read a lot of the Star Wars EU and one thing that bothers me about a lot of those books is they follow too many characters. I prefer to have one main character that the story follows most of the time. I hate it when I finish a chapter that is particularly interesting and then have to read through 2 or 3 chapters about lesser characters to get back to the good chapters about the main character. Drives me nuts. That was one thing that I really liked about your book is that the story didn’t jump around too much following a bunch of different characters. It also helped me keep my attention on the book because I have a tendency to put down one book for another if the story is hard to follow.

    I totally agree with Skeebo, write your story and don’t worry about what the reader might want to read. I’m no writing expert for sure but that’s just my two cents on the subject, I hope it helps. I’m really looking forward to reading your next book. Keep up the good work.

  • http://aelizabethwest.wordpress.com/ Elizabeth West

    Ooh, thanks for the tips. I’m working on a series character and this is helpful, even though it won’t exactly be a trilogy (hoping for more than three). But some of these same issues hold true.

  • Interrogator

    I loved your first book and can’t really add anything from what the others have said.

    I’m really happy to hear you’re close to finishing the second book since I get really antsy while waiting for authors to complete another installment

  • Mike

    Without reading the book – why can’t space itself be post apocalyptic?

  • Bugsy

    2 friendly points/suggestions:

    1. A great many sci-fi narratives center around discovering some secret of a technologically advanced but long extinct civilization (Halo, Mass Effect, KoTOR etc), which can be seen as an expansion of post apocalyptic fiction.

    2. Ditch the name “Desecrator” This is really just personal preference, but I find that villains with ominous, generic evil names feel cheap and boring.

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