Writing a Sequel: Lessons Learned

Sequels are utterly ubiquitous in fantasy, a genre that thrives on trilogies, quintets, cycles, songs, sagas, and every other form of length multi-volume narrative you can name. As a fantasy reader, I’ve been reading books in that format my whole life, but until I got started on The Shadow Throne, I’d never actually written one myself. It was a different experience than writing the first book, for better and for worse, sometimes in ways that were a little bit unexpected.

Some of the good parts are pretty obvious. One reason sequels are so popular in fantasy is because the genre embraces deep, complex world-building, and it’s difficult to explore the full breadth of a realistic world in a single book. Writing a sequel allows the writer to introduce new characters, new locations, new cultures, things that in the first book were only distantly referenced or place-names on a map. At the same time, because the first book has laid the foundation, the author doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel and lay the groundwork all over again. In The Shadow Throne, my characters leave the distant colony of Khandar and return to their home in Vordan, which gives me a chance to show off all kinds of interesting bits and pieces of culture, geography, and history.

Familiar characters, too, are an obvious attraction of sequels. The audience knows the cast from the previous book, and comes in with their sympathies already primed. In a good sequel, those characters will grow and change over time, gradually becoming people quite different from who they were when the series began. For me, that’s the biggest attraction of doing a sequel: the opportunity to draw the arc of a character on a grand scale, and really follow their growth. If a character changes too much in too small a space, it will feel false to the reader; in order to make a really ambitious character arc shine, being able to work it in gradually is very helpful.

Some of the drawbacks, on the other hands, are less obvious. The one that caught me by surprise was the sudden realization that the events and details of the first book (once it had been released) were once and for all set in stone. Up until that point, I’d always been writing with the knowledge in the back of my mind that, if I needed some point at the beginning of a story to go a different way, I could change it to make the end of the story work. Now it’s Too Late for that, at least without getting into annoying ret-con territory. If I said someone’s eyes are blue, or that a city is on a river, then that’s the way it is!

Another temptation I had to fight against is the tendency to be too inventive. Fantasy authors, myself very much included, like to invent things and come up with cool stuff. In a series, though, anything you come up with has to coexist with what’s already there, and if you throw in new, different stuff in each book — especially when it comes to magic — it’s easy to complicate your world design beyond repair. Similarly, it’s tempting to throw in whatever awesome world-building elements come to mind, but doing so can strain suspension of disbelief. It’s a bit jarring when two cultures a hundred miles apart share no similarities or common elements, unless they’ve got an impassable obstacle separating them.

Overall, though, the thing that surprised me most about writing a sequel was how much fun I had doing it. There were a few moments, after I submitted The Thousand Names and described my plans for the full five-book series to the publisher, that I thought, “Oh, man, what am I getting myself into?” It would be hard not to worry, a bit, at having signed up to write something roughly a million words long. It was in that frame of mind that I approached writing the sequel with at least a little trepidation!

But after a few opening jitters, I sank back into the world with a cozy familiarity. It’s a bit like paying a visit to old friends, and seeing what they’ve been up to lately. I had a really good time with it, and now I’m really excited to share it with everyone. I hope you all have as much fun with The Shadow Throne as I did.

(And, as of this writing, I’m hard at work on Shadow Campaigns #3. The fun never stops around here.)

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