Tips to Writing a Sequel

Lately I’ve been scarce. I’ve locked myself away to write two sequels, CLEAVED and BLESSED MAYHEM, prepare for the debut of Partners In Crime on Oct. 18th;, help promote a new anthology, RUNnow available for pre-order for only 99c—continue to market my books, as well as the paperback of MARRED, which releases Monday, Oct. 17th. WINGS OF MAYHEM releases in print at the end of the month, too. Yay!

As if this isn’t enough to shove me over the edge of insanity, Joe Broadmeadow and I have book readings/signings scheduled for Oct. 27th and 29th. Which requires a lot of advance planning in order to draw a crowd. You can learn more about our events under “Upcoming Events” in the menu bar. We’d love to have you join us.

This is such a cooler for RUN. My “Partner In Crime” Kim McGath created it. I’m now pestering her to help me create trailers for my books. When you watch it, you’ll understand why.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on CLEAVED, the sequel to MARRED, since I need to finish it within the next week due to my publisher’s schedule. You can find my research videos on my YouTube channel, if you’re interested in some of the murder locations.

Writing a Sequel

There are many things to consider when writing a sequel, reminiscent of juggling a dozen balls at once. Drop one ball, or plot thread in our case, and we could lose readers for the rest of the series.

Often times in crime fiction a sequel means a new murder case that involves the same characters, setting, and perhaps answers one lingering question from the previous novel. Unlike sci-fi or fantasy, where you might find one continuous story that travels across several books, mystery, thriller, and suspense fans need their cases solved. So when I use the term “sequel” that’s the type of sequel I’m referencing.

Without question, writing a sequel is more difficult than penning the first novel. Whether we knew it or not, book one set a certain standard that subsequent books must achieve. For example, in MARRED, Sheriff Niko Quintano teaches his deputy blood spatter analysis. Therefore, fans of MARRED will expect forensic techniques in the sequel, too, which I’m all too happy to provide.

Key Things to Keep in Mind Tips to Write a Sequel

If someone reads book two before book one, it still needs to make sense and stand on its own. We also need to consider fans who read the books in order, and often times, one right after the other.

This is an important point, because what that means is, we need to re-introduce our characters, their past (if relevant to the story), their fears and flaws, and so on. But we need to do it differently than in book one. It’s a tap dance that can wrench your stomach.

Re-read Book One

This may sound like a silly tip to include. We know our books better than anyone, right?

Wrong.

I was surprised by how much I’d forgotten. By re-reading the first book, we can highlight passages, make notes of important elements, character traits, and become reacquainted with the voices of each character. I can’t stress the importance of this step enough. It’s time-consuming and tedious, but it’s crucial to the success of the sequel. And who knows? You may even enjoy it.

There’s no right or wrong time to re-read book one. I did it after I wrote about three chapters. In fact, during the writing process I’ve had to refer back to MARRED several times. It’s easy to forget something that happened in the first book, especially if it’s a minor but important point. After all, we may have written several different stories in between, whether that be other novels, novellas, short stories, or flash fiction.

For example, after MARRED I wrote WINGS OF MAYHEM, THE RENDERING, a flash fiction story for ONE HUNDRED VOICES anthology and a 10K-word short story, BLACK-OUT, for RUN, all while bouncing between BLESSED MAYHEM, CLEAVED, and A DEADLY YEARNING (a stand-alone thriller/mystery).

I couldn’t even attempt to take on this much work if I wasn’t a detailed planner. Each story, with the exception of flash fiction, had to be meticulously plotted with the precision of a brain surgeon. Pantsers might not like this, but I believe in spending time on planning my stories to ensure I strike the proper milestone at the correct point in the story.

If this concept is foreign to you, perhaps you’ll enjoy How Story Structure Relates to our Lives for a quick review of story structure. For scene structure and rhythm Scene, Sequel, and MRUs in Action might be helpful.

Continuity

Obviously, the characters need to look and act the same. They also need the same attributes, religious views, world views, mannerisms, flaws, voice, dialect, pet peeves, etc. If we’ve nailed the three dimensions of character in book one, we can’t crack the foundation we’ve built by changing our characters’ character, if that makes sense.

Let’s take a look at Bestselling Author Sage Quintano. Three years before MARRED takes place, Sage suffered a brutal attack by the hands of a serial killer, resulting in both physical and emotional scars. While writing CLEAVED, it became crucial that I didn’t forget the scar on her jugular, the white lines on her forearms from the knife, her bad knee, or the fact that she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, even though it’s mostly controlled by medication. Sage isn’t the only one with scars. Niko has an old shoulder injury that acts up when it rains. He also has a habit of swiping his comments away when he’s frustrated.

Same holds true for emotional scarring. Because this attack devastated Sage’s entire existence, I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. Our past changes us, it helps mold us into the people we are today. Especially if we’ve lived through horrific acts.

There’s a fine line between staying true to our characters and not ruining the plot in book one.

I also had to consider Sage and Niko’s dogs, Colt and Ruger. Colt had K9 cop training, but he was too high-strung to become a service dog. However, he still possess the skills of a highly-trained dog who can fetch almost anything on command. Ruger suffers with arthritis in his hips. He’s gruff and grumbly because his joints ache, but that doesn’t make him any less lovable.

My point is, if I were to leave any one of these things out of CLEAVED, the story wouldn’t ring true. So how do we remember the tiny (but important) details? Well, there are a few ways to do this. If you have other tips, feel free to share in the comments.

Ruth Harris suggests using style sheets that detail the appearance, dress, dialect, mannerisms, and so on. Unfortunately, I didn’t create style sheets when I wrote MARRED, so I had to rely on notes and the book itself. I’ll get into this in more detail later in the post.

Things to Consider

Is the protagonist the same in book two, or did we switch to a different POV character? Readers fall in love with the main characters. Changing the POV is risky. I wouldn’t recommend doing it unless you have a damn good reason. Luckily, I had three POV characters in MARRED, therefore, this wasn’t an issue for me. However, fans wanted to hear more from Frankie Campanelli, Niko’s snarky deputy, so I gave her a much larger role in the sequel.

And that brings up another good point. By reading our reviews we can learn what resonated with our readers. But we need to read them with a critical eye. Meaning, if the majority of readers raved about forensics, for instance, then we better include it in the sequel. If, however, we read a ridiculous comment, then file it away under the can’t-please-everyone category. Dwelling on negativity will only hinder your writing.

Sense of Place

The setting can’t magically transform into another place that’s unrecognizable to the reader. Our story world must match book one. Unless, our POV character travels for work. Jordan Dane does this in her Ryker Townsend FBI series, and it works really well.

In my sequels, I don’t have this luxury.

Passage of Time

This is a biggie. How do we age our characters? Or do they remain the same age throughout an entire series?

Some say ten years equals one year in fictionland. I’m not sure if I agree with the ten-to-one ratio, but it’s probably not that far off. This is where the “don’t date your book” advice comes into play. In MARRED, the date became important. I had no way around it. But now, it’s left me with a different problem. Ruger is a seven-year-old English Mastiff. The average lifespan for this breed is seven to nine years old. But I love him so much that I couldn’t exclude him in CLEAVED, which takes place two years later.

How did I get around it?

His limp has worsened, he still takes his pain cookies every morning, but he still has quality of life. I think my readers would want him to stick around, so I may have to stretch the suspension of disbelief in subsequent books. Oh, well. I can’t harm Ruger; I just can’t. I’ve had to harm a fictional animal before, and it tore me up inside. I cried off and on for three weeks over it. Three weeks! Besides, who’s to say Ruger isn’t one of the lucky ones that defies old age? It could happen in real life. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.Tips to Write a Sequel

Realistic Time Frame

If we’ve put our protagonist through hell in book one, how much time should pass before we can logically put them through the grinder again?

It doesn’t make sense to have the same character get attacked by a serial killer every six months. Two years apart would work, though. Let’s face it, in all works of fiction, regardless of genre, there’s a certain amount of the suspension of disbelief. I mean, come on, in real life Frankie would never get away with half the stuff she pulls. For that matter, neither would Shawnee from WINGS OF MAYHEM. But, in my opinion, it’s the minor quirky details that can really bring our characters alive on the page. Finding that balance between true-to-life scenarios and fiction isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Don’t you agree?

Don’t Forget Minor Characters

We may have readers who loved so-and-so in book one. If we don’t include them in book two, we could risk disappointing them. Here, too, I recommend looking at the majority of reviewers as a whole, rather than trying to please one or two readers. If, and this is a big if, you left them out of the sequel for a reason. Worse case, include them in the sequel and kill them off. No one will be asking for their return if they’re dead. Win win!

Branding

The most important point of all.

We all have our own style that makes our stories uniquely ours…sentence rhythm, fragments, pace, word choices, etc. Same holds true for our brand. For instance, I’m branded as a crime writer who offers an honest peek behind the crime scene tape and who writes fast-paced, heart-pounding,  psychological thrillers and mysteries. Much like music, our stories have their own unique ebb and flow. Paul Dale Anderson wrote an fascinating guest post on this subject a couple of years ago, entitled What Type of Writer Are you?

My point is, I don’t sugar-coat murder. Death is ugly. There’s nothing pretty about violent crime. That’s the reality. For me, I’d much rather have my stories ring true-to-life than downplay the dastardly acts of serial killers. Some readers find it fascinating; some readers find it frightening; and I’m sure some readers won’t ever read my books. And that’s okay with me. It’s much more important to write for our target audience than trying to cast a wide net.

Evident by this blog, I’ve dedicated years to researching crime. It’s my brand. It’s my passion. It’s what I like to read.

If I were to write a cozy mystery, I’d have a lot of disappointed readers. It’s not what they expect when they buy my books. Does that mean we can’t experiment? Hell no. Short fiction is the perfect medium for this. As far as our longer works are concerned, why chance confusing our readers?

Yes, I know, some authors write in different genres. Usually, though, they use a pen name. Take Nora Roberts, for example. She uses several pen names, each branded within a genre. Even though we know it’s her writing the books, we also know that when we pick up a J.D. Robb novel it’ll be heavy on crime, light on romance. That’s the J.D. Robb brand. We don’t have to guess what type of story lives between the covers. Same holds true for us. By staying true to our brand, readers know what to expect when they pick up our new release. Little by little that’s how we build an audience of loyal fans.

I’m certainly no expert in sequel writing. These tips worked for me, is all. If you have tips to share, please tell us in the comments.

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue's short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show "Partners in Crime" on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud contributor to The Kill Zone (see details in full bio -- menu bar).

18 Comments

  1. Great advice Sue, and very timely for me too. I’ve just finished the first draft of the second book in a series, and I’ve been listening to the audiobook of the first one occasionally as I go (the narrator just nailed my POV character’s ‘voice’ so it’s a great way to get me back into thinking like him).

    As for minor characters, one of the ones from the first book has turned out to be my detective’s client this time around. Didn’t plan it like that, but these things just happen sometimes!

    • Thanks, Jim! Great idea to listen to the audio version as a way to refresh your memory of book one. I’m so happy for you. Good narrators are hard to come by. Happy writing!!!

  2. What a timely article for me. In 2011, I wrote and published a story of a racing Thoroughbred named Wind-Free (also the title of the book). At the time, my editor asked about doing a sequel. I decided against it. However, in recent months the idea has cropped up, and I figured maybe the time has come. Thank you for these practical tips. I certainly intend to refer to them often.

  3. This is a timely post for me because I’m writing a sequel to a sequel (or actually book 3 of my series). Honestly, it’s something I will NEVER attempt again (at last not while working full time). There is so much to keep track of, so many characters and details to remember. It’s been a great experiment for me, but not one I’m eager to repeat any time soon. I’m really happy with the way book 2 turned out, but book 3 is proving more difficult. So many threads to wrap in the conclusion!
    Like you, I’ve gone back and read my earlier books for continuity, though since I’m writing in third person my POV characters have changed to fit the story lines.
    Hey, that is one fab book trailer. I’m honestly not usually a fan of them, but that one is sending over to Amazon now to pre-order. 🙂
    Congrats on all your accomplishments!
    Mae Clair recently posted…Welcome to the Paranormal Bar and Grille #ScavengerHunt #GiveawayMy Profile

    • I’m not a big fan of book trailers, either, Mae, but when they’re done well, they send me straight to Amazon, too.

      I hear ya about the sequels. Never did I imagine having to keep track of so many things. To be honest, I wrote this post for me, too, as a guide of what not to forget. All in all, I’m enjoying the challenge, but it’s far from easy. My only saving grace is that I know where I’m going with both series, so hopefully, book three will be a little easier. I’m not counting on it, though. 😀

  4. Thanks for this informative post! I am planning a series and working on my first novel. I had the misconception that the sequel would be easier, because some of the characters were already in place. It makes sense that it would create more issues though, as you mention, for continuity sake. I am looking forward to reading your work. You are one busy lady! How do you keep up? 🙂

    • I had the same misconception, Rebecca. Best of luck on your first novel. That’s wonderful!!!
      How do I keep up? LOL Lots of hair-pulling, swearing, and hours in my writer’s cave. 😀 I’m kidding, of course. I just concentrate on the work; the work becomes the reward. We have the best job in the world!

  5. Dealing with the passing of a pet in a series is tough, but they don’t live as long as we do, so at some point Spot or Fluffy is going to have to cross the Rainbow Bridge. In my cat mysteries, I’ve only had to face that once so far, but the cat who was old in book 1 is becoming a world’s record holder in book 5. Maybe that’s okay.

    • Hahahahaha. Readers get attached to the pets, too, Mollie, but you’re right, of course. Someday Ruger will have to cross the rainbow bridge. It’ll be a sad, sad day. Or, our fictional cats and dogs can break all kinds of records. I won’t tell if you don’t. 😀

  6. Good advice, Sue. I’m a pantser. I don’t want to know the endings of novels too early, so I don’t work from a detailed plot outline. Shit happens in my novels as it does in real life. I’m often as surprised by the sudden turns of events as are my readers. I do keep style sheets in an Excel spreadsheet. I’m constantly rereading the earlier novels in one of my series while crafting the current sequel. Characters are more important to me than plot. I consider the setting (city where the novel takes place) a character. I write psychological thrillers and I love to get inside the heads of my characters. I an so very pleased you are nearly finished with a sequel to Marred. I so look forward to reading it.
    pauldaleanderson recently posted…I’m Paul Dale Anderson, and I Kill People for a LivingMy Profile

    • I wouldn’t change a thing about your process, Paul. Caleb is the same way…he lets his characters lead him wherever. Some writers have such ingrained story sensibilities (like Stephen King) that they don’t need to plan. You two obviously fall into this category.

  7. Sue, what about, in planning the series, you want to tell the stories of the main viewpoint character of the first book, yet you feel the need to jump forward either in time or events. The various stories will involve paranormal things.

    So, I want to write a novella to fill a time and information gap between novel one and novel two. So, in my view, that sort of violates your advice not to change POV characters. I could simply slip the new character in to book number two, but here’s where I become selfish: I want to write a 1950s-type good ole science fiction story that has booms and flashes and first contact-type of things, and not characters-who-evolved-from-flowers-that-look-very-much-like-petunias. The story would be written from the third person POV of the main character of the novella. But the story would still be subtitled A Lisa Trent Thriller.

    (By the way, the whole series is not a science fiction series as such. It’s more how a common, ordinary every day young woman who came back from USMC deployment who is thrust into dealing with certain paranormal occurrences.)

    Thank you, Sue. We’ve corresponded before.

    • Hi, Jim! Nice to “see” you again.

      Releasing a novella in between book one and two makes sense, but be careful its sole purpose isn’t only to fill in gaps. Changing your POV character is tricky, though. If you’ve never mentioned this character in the other books, or they played a minor role, you’ll risk confusing your readers. Unless the new character is your antagonist and Lisa Trent is still your protagonist. Your subtitle alone demands it. Or you could add the new character as an additional POV character while leaving Lisa as the protagonist, but they really should be introduced earlier in the series.

      Switching the genre is a whole other problem. Readers of the series expect paranormal; you need to deliver paranormal. My advice would be to save your 1950’s sci-fi for a stand-alone with new characters and setting, unrelated to your series.

  8. You’ve got such great advice here, Sue. I’m glad you mentioned continuity, because readers do want that feeling, especially if they’re fans. At the same time, it’s important, in my opinion, to add something new. New characters, new sort of mystery, new…something. Otherwise the plot can seem ‘cookie cutter.’ That’s not an easy balance to strike.

    I wish you much, much success with your signing and your new books!

  9. I approve of the bulldog image in your post. I noticed how quiet you’ve been and assumed you’ve been working on something wonderful

    • LOL I immediately thought of Otto when I found this pic. Although, he’s even cuter. 😀

      Yeah, it’s been a crazy couple months. I took too much off this summer and have been paying for it ever since.

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