According to Hollywood, our culture’s largest purveyor of populist storytelling, the general wisdom on making a successful sequel is “the same, but more,” with the operative word being “more.” It’s pretty easy to see this in action (A Good Day to Die Hard is a recent example). Now, I’m not saying you can’t tell a big, enjoyable escapist story with this formula. However, one can also look at a sequel as a chance to expand and deepen the experience of the first installment.
1. Deepen your themes and pay off your ideas – Presumably you’ve laid out your themes clearly the first time around, so rather than simply repeating them, delve more deeply into them and get below the more obvious conclusions. A famous sequel that did this extremely well, I think, was The Empire Strikes Back, in which the themes of heroism and fighting tyranny were deepened from the first movie as the narrative delved into the anguish, pain and sacrifice that heroism requires and how a victory may only be the first step in a more arduous struggle. Similarly, ideas and concepts introduced in a first part no longer have the novelty of the new and should be “paid off” with surprising and satisfying new applications. Again, The Empire Strikes Back does a nifty job of this, by taking the idea of the Jedi and the Force introduced in Star Wars and immersing its main character in the philosophy of these ideas and showing off to audiences a wider array of functions.
In What We Become, I have taken the theme of not giving up, central to Those That Wake, and plunged in as far as it will take me. What happens when you can’t stop fighting? What is the final cost of never giving up? What is the third choice, the one that is not about fighting or giving up? I’ve also given a new perspective to the theme of a world manipulated from behind the scenes by moving away from the more fantastical take on it in Those That Wake to one that, while still stranger than pure reality, is more grounded in the real world and recent history. Meanwhile, some of my Big Ideas, like the Librarian and the Global Dynamic, are taken to their natural fruition and have their origins and intricacies revealed in unexpected ways.
2. Grow your characters – Hopefully, your characters had a full and satisfying arc the first time around. So where does that leave you to go with them? Well, an arc is just the narrative of a character’s growing understanding. Coming to understand things always leads to seeing a larger world, greater possibilities and how much more there could still be left to understand. Those initial arcs can flow organically into larger and more expansive arcs. Characters in stories get to grow more neatly than actual humans, whose experiences and understanding are not divided into clear, narrative sections. But a good fictional character should keep searching and growing as long as they live, just like actual people.
While Mal was the ostensible hero of Those that Wake, his arc in that book was very much about showing him his limitations. Laura, meanwhile, had a more classic arc, essentially moving from dependence to self-sufficiency. I have, in what I hope are interesting and surprising ways, reversed their roles for What We Become. Laura takes on more classically heroic characteristics here, even going on a physical quest for something crucial, Mal has his arc ultimately and completely fulfilled. Using his arc in the first book as a mere first step, I push Mal to those aforementioned limitations and see what he has to do to actually break through them.
I’ve also introduced two new characters to share the main spotlight, whose own development as characters serves not only to flesh them out, but to highlight other aspects of Mal and Laura, making all four of them into more fully-formed and psychologically complex and authentic characters.
3. Don’t take your readers for granted or leave them behind – If things went right, you’re going to have some returning readers. Some of them may remember the details of the story very well and some may only remember a few key moments and strong characters. At the same time, you’ve got to assume that there are going to be at least a few people who wandered into your story right in the middle. So, you’ve got to be able to gently recap crucial information without being intrusive or artificial about it. You’ve got to integrate the recap naturally into the flow of the new story.
Having new characters caught up in the ongoing adventure helps with this considerably, as they will need to be brought up to speed even as events proceed at an engaging pace. In What We Become, I have also tied some of the revelations into the mysteries of Those That Wake, not so that you need to understand what came before, but so that if you do, the current story will take on multiple layers, and revelations will have a larger impact. At the same time, I have also worked hard to create echoes of elements from the first book: character moments, lines of dialog, situations, even tricks I play with chapter titles. For those who went through the first part, you want the second part to recall it and to connect with it to create a larger, more complete structure, but not necessarily be dependent on it. That’s why, I figure, they put the word “companion” on the cover of What We Become, rather than “sequel.”
You always want to give your readers a deeper, more expansive experience. In a sequel, the most effective way to do this is to give them something they haven’t seen before but that improves and is improved by what they have seen before. In other words “more, but not the same.”
Jesse Karp is the author of Those That Wake, the sequel What We Become, and the non-fiction work Graphic Novels in Your School Library. He is also a school librarian in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. Please visit him at beyondwhereyoustand.com.