What Makes a Good Sequel?

By Bahia Simons-Lane
©2012 Bahia Portfolio

My aunt and author D.S. Thornton posed this question to me over email the other day.

She continued:

  1. What makes a successful sequel? What sequels really held up to their predecessors? What sequels really added to the story? Which ones were satisfying and why? Which weren’t and why not?
  2. Do you enjoy sequels that take place immediately following the previous volume? Or would you rather have a gap in time?
  3. Is there an advantage/appeal to sequels that change the protagonist (A Subtle Knife does this SO well)… or POV… or any other “rule” that had been established in the preceding book?
  4. Is a successful sequel one that broadens the world, or one that simply puts the protagonist through a similar journey (think of all the mystery books where the private eye just solves case after case)?

So I got to thinking about this very interesting question and sent her back an email with my off-the-cuff thoughts, and since she’s a writer of YA, those are the books I was thinking about the most. I think that the best sequels are ones that both broaden the world and teach you more about the protagonist.  It could be that we learn more about the protagonist that may have existed during the previous book, such as background or more about their personality that reinforces their behavior or action in the previous book, or it could be that during the sequel they grow and their personality is shaped and changed and the reader goes along on that journey of change with them.

I generally dislike sequels that seem to follow the same formula as previous book, though I think mystery and noir genres are the exception. Mystery is formulaic, but good mystery prevents you from easily guessing the outcomes. In some sense, you might say that the Harry Potter books followed the same formula (Harry encounters adversity, can’t figure it out, then overcomes it with the help of friends), but at the same time they were not “formulaic” the way that some books can be.  What Harry Potter did very well in all of the books is that each one got you deeper into the magical world and built that universe, while also deepening the personalities and relationships of all of the main characters. The Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix did this very well also.
The American cover for Across the Wall

The American cover for Across the Wall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think world building and expanding the world is at the heart of what makes a good sequel.  The Dragonriders of Pern series does this really well.  Every time I read another book in the series I get a more complete picture of the world and why it is the way it is, and the history.  I’ve only read the first few, but they whet my appetite to “solve the mysteries” of all the stuff that is left unexplained.  The books occur in the same world, and often have some of the same characters, but the protagonist changes in each one.

I don’t have a preference as to whether it is good or bad to have the protagonist change.  I think there are benefits to both and it depends on what you want to accomplish.  If you keep the main character from the previous book, the reader may already have a relationship with that character, which will deepen.  However, if you change the protagonist you have the ability to look at the world from a new perspective, which may help differentiate the sequel from it’s predecessor and keep it feeling fresh.

I think it’s easier to do a sequel that takes place right after the first book.  If your reader is immersed in the world having the sequel happen right away could help keep that immersion and allow you to focus on world building, but there are also benefits to spacing the books out.  There are interesting things you can do if the character is a little older.  Maybe time has passed and they have forgotten some of the things they held dear in the previous book and they are able to explore and regain those things. Or some life event has wrenched them away or changed them (they had to move, a death in the family, fitting in where previously they had been an outsider, etc).  One example that I just thought of was the Chronicles of Narnia, where different amounts of time has passed in the world of Narnia and the protagonists change over the course of the series.

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If these are things that make a successful sequel, then what makes an unsuccessful sequel?  In my opinion:

  1. Doing the exact same thing with the same characters and the reader doesn’t learn anything new.
  2. The sequel feels purposeless or unnecessary.
  3. The characters, if they are the same ones, don’t grow and the world doesn’t get deeper.

What do you think?  Do you agree with the things I think make a good sequel? Are there things I am missing? What makes a sequel unsuccessful? I’d love your thoughts.


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