When writing fantasy sequels in a series, there are some basic guidelines to consider when putting your second together. Your first sets the tone of the world you’ve built, but your second sets the tone of the series. First, let me talk about what I mean by “series.” It’s not the second part of a longer story. While both are truly sequels, one is a standalone story that doesn’t require reading the first book. It has a beginning, middle, and end – a true end – one in which the reader could walk away without the main characters experiencing anything else and that’s fine. In other words, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings are not what I’m talking about. I’m describing Indiana Jones movies and the Chronicles of Narnia.
To illustrate my points below, I’ll refer to a few fantasy novels but I’ll use the Harry Potter series in particular. First, because J. K. Rowling inspired this blog and therefore (obviously) her novels follow these points. Secondly, it is so popular I can safely assume everyone reading this has likely read her seven books.
Do expand your world
Self-obvious but it’s tempting not to keep world-building and focus on continuing a narrative. Though introducing new elements may not move your plot, world-expansions are the spices in your dinner. When a reader uncovers one, it sparks her imagination, and the rest of the details of the book become more vivid.
Expanding your world may not simply mean geography but also new and exciting characters. Add new customs that weren’t in the first book. Go into detail on politics, culture, religion, or art. Have the characters find new corners of a setting they visited before.
For example, HP #2, Chamber of Secrets, includes the actual Chamber of Secrets, Lucius Malfoy, Knockturn Alley, spiders in the Forbidden Forest, Mr. Weasley, and a little diary that becomes important in later books.
We visited Hogwarts in #1, but there’s a new secret room in the castle in #2. We visited Daigon Alley, but not Knockturn Alley. We went into the Forbidden Forest in HP #1, but didn’t know about the giant spiders. And we didn’t know about the fathers of two of the main characters, Draco and Ron. The contrast between Lucius and Mr. Weasley is great in the second book and helps us better understand Harry’s #1 enemy and best (male) friend.
Do pay off teasers from the first book
All authors know more is going on in their book than what is printed on the page. Most of us edit out beloved passages, but that’s the way it goes. It doesn’t make a bit of difference to the first book, but maybe it will to the second one. If you’re like me, you can’t help but drop a sentence or two to hint at something to come. You should kill your darlings, but you’re also allowed to hide some of them in the sub-cellar until the next book sees the light of day.
It’s referenced in the first book that Hogwarts can’t keep a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and while that remains true in the first book, it continues in the second. Did Ginny really need to be mentioned in the first book? No, but having another Weasley go to Hogwarts the next year is key, right? It wasn’t a “Oh by the way, Harry, I never told you I had a younger sister. Her name is Ginny and here she is.” Kind of a lousy way to introduce a key character to the series. And Hermione’s magical prowess starts paying off with her casting an advanced spell in year 2.
Do deepen your characters from the first novel
You spent a lot of time on your main character in the first novel, and presumably she or he has had an interesting character arc. You’ve laid the foundation, time to build the house. Just like we are all works-in-progress, your main characters are also changing. They can progress or regress, or learn something new. As the author, it’s your job to bring the reader deeper into what makes your main character tick.
With the introduction of Lucius Malfoy, we get a glimpse into Draco’s life and suddenly his behavior starts to make sense. Rowling does a great job describing the Malfoys through another newly-introduced character. For his part, Harry draws the sword from the Sorting Hat. He’s no longer a kid with a stone in his pocket. He’s more active, more brave than ever before. We find out about what scares Ron the most, and yet he sticks with Harry. His loyalty is more tested in this novel than ever before.
Do bring the reader into the world in a different way
I find this pointer to be most effective in portal fantasies where your character has to cross into your fantasy world in some way. For Harry Potter, this is traveling on the Hogwarts Express. Even though the journey isn’t intended to be magical, it has the feeling of transporting to another world.
Start the novel in a unique and interesting way, and don’t repeat what you’ve done in the first novel. This is especially hard in portal fantasies, but it makes for an exciting read. As an example, Harry doesn’t ride the train to get to Hogwarts in book #2. The Pensevie children do not go through a wardrobe in Prince Caspian. For non-portal fantasies, start with a different character. V. E. Schwabb starts “A Gathering of Shadows” (book #2 of her Shades of Magic series) with Lila instead of Kell.
Don’t always think bigger is better
Every time I see a movie sequel with more explosions or more car chases, I sigh. More is not always more and, in fact, usually it’s less. People fall in love with your characters and their quirks more than your action scenes. I’ve seen successful sequels have less at stake than the first novel.
The adult Voldemort, in all of his glory, is not bigger and more alive in the second book. He doesn’t even appear in the third book. While the basilisk is more of a threat to Harry personally, the ending doesn’t feel like it’s bigger and better. Hermione isn’t even present at the end of Chambers. Rowling wisely knows, to build her Voldemort character into the force he becomes, Harry can’t keep defeating him year after year and expect us to believe Voldemort is a real threat by the fourth novel.
These are but a few elements to keep in mind as you outline or draft your next novel. Now go out and extend your characters and world.