Recently I undertook a brand new challenge as a writer, the challenge that is The Sequel.
The thing about sequels is: they SHOULD be easy. You've already spent months, if not years, with your characters. You know them inside out. You finished all the world-building in the first book. All this has to be is a continuation, building on everything that was successful in the first, right? Wrong!
There's a reason why the sequels to most films are weak. All the advantages I've outlined above are there, sure, but they are outweighed by a whole host of disadvantages.
Basically, if you consider a book to be a chocolate cake, it's made of a dozen different ingredients. For Chocolate Cake 2: Return of the Chocolate Cake, you already have about half of those ingredients mixed into your bowl. It saves time, but that's the only thing it saves because you are missing one magical ingredient, which you had in your first cake. That is, Originality. If we can stretch the metaphor, you're making your next cake without the sugar. And people are going to notice. Alright then, it's already a different cake. If all you do is put in the same ingredients you had before, then it will be merely a pale and bitter copy of the original. Worse still, some people will miss out some of the ingredients they used before - character development for example: we had that in book one, so we don't need it again.
On the contrary, for the second cake (book) to work, you need to include all the ingredients and they need to be even better than the first. Why? Because they have to make up for the loss of your special ingredient. You are no longer Original.
I want to talk about two ingredients that, for me, have been key...
i think, if you look at your first book and feel that your characters have completed their journey, then it may be that a sequel is not for you. Because all plots need characters to develop, and your characters should not be having to learn the same lessons over and over again. (If they do, it will weaken their journey in the first book).
To take a simple example from my first book, my character Mei, I think, makes two journeys in the book. She loses her naivety, and she falls in love. The latter is not as trite as it sounds because she is a character who is so completely out of touch with her emotions that it comes as a revelation to her. As such though, she completes a character arc: she is offered a challenge based upon her flaws (naivety, lack of intimacy), she rises to the challenge and has learnt something by the end of the book.
So was she ready for book 2? Well, I certainly didn't want to rehash those same ideas, so I had to have a long, hard look at her and ask if there was anything else she might want. I decided that she had, throughout the first book, lacked self-awareness and the ability to communicate her emotions well. In book 1, these are just facets of her personality, but I chose to make them a central challenge in book 2. Which brings me on to...
This needs to be different from that in your first book. Bigger and better is always good, but it's not a necessity. So long as your characters' development is taking a different trajectory, so too should the obstacles they face. The two are interrelated. For Mei, it was to put her in a situation where she would lose something precious to her unless she became more aware of her emotions and, in turn, of herself and her desires.
And, as ever, my favourite part of any book and also, often, the part that shows itself to me last. Ideally, your book should have a theme. This acts as an anchor. If the story is spiralling out of control, it's probably because you don't have a defined theme (I'm not speaking from a superior position here; this has happened to me soooooooo many times).
The theme again should be different from book 1. For me, book 1 was all about identity and the freedom we have to choose our own identity. When I first started the sequel, this was still the theme, and that was a big problem because, really, I had already said all that needed to be said on that topic in book 1, but I was so used to returning to it that I struggled to shake it off.
I needed to weigh anchor elsewhere. But I'm not convinced there is a trick with themes. They really need to be something that you are passionate about, something that you believe in strongly enough that it will carry you through. And it could come from anywhere. Mine usually grow organically out of the plot and, once I have them I may need to go back and rewrite, but once they are there they serve as an invaluable guide.
INGREDIENTS FOR A SEQUEL
I always think that starting with advice like that above and writing plot from there is like running a race backwards. Start with instincts. Start with inspirations. And only ever use writing advice when you become stuck. But if you have any concerns about your sequel, try out the following checklist for inspiration:
At the end of book 1, could your characters have been any more fulfilled/satisfied? (Character)
What could prevent them from attaining that future happiness? (Challenge)
What would they need to learn in order to avoid / overcome failure? (Theme)