This subject comes up for several reasons. The main one, of course, is that it’s something I’m struggling with myself. In another month or so, I’ll start the second draft of BLOOD IS THICKER, which is the sequel to BLOOD WILL TELL. While I complete the research and preparations for THE BARD’S GIFT, I’ve also been sporadically working on MAGIC’S APPRENTICE, which is the sequel to MAGIC’S FOOL. In both cases, there will be at least one more book in the series.
As I see it, both from reading and writing series, there are three problems inherent in sequels, in particular in the middle books.
The first is one I hope I don’t have in any of my stories because it annoys me as a reader: when the middle book in a series is just a bridge between the beginning and the end. These books often lack an identifiable story arc of their own. They’re just there to get you from the beginning to the end. It’s a problem most often encountered in trilogies.
The second is one of just maintaining reader interest, even if the book does have its own story (although this becomes much, much harder for middle books that don’t actually tell a full story). I have a theory about this that I’ve blogged about before. Particularly in fantasy, in the first book the reader has the wonder of discovering this new world, its magic and its rules, and the characters. The last book has the whiz-bang fireworks of the climax of the series. The middle book is, well, stuck in the middle.
This is where I think there’s a certain genius in series like HARRY POTTER. J. K. Rowling doesn’t show us all of Harry’s world in that first book. We’re still discovering new things well into the series. Yes, THE SORCERER’S STONE gives you the wizarding world, Diagon Alley, Gringot’s Bank, Hogwarts, and quidditch. But THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS gives you the flying car, the whomping willow, huge spiders, and the basilisk. THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (on the television right now as I write this) gives you hippogriffs, dementors, and the Marauder’s Map. I don’t think I even have to go into THE GOBLET OF FIRE. The point is, the wonder of discovering this world is stretched out throughout the whole series.
There’s a lesson in that, I think. Now, if I can just figure out how to apply it to my own stories.
The third problem is one that relates especially to independent stories within a series. To a certain extent in this kind of series, it shouldn’t matter if the reader takes the books in order. And there’s the problem. When I start to write the second (or, in this case, third) book in the series, I want to set it up so that the reader can plunge in even if they’ve never read the first book. But, and here’s the problem, I’ve got all these places and characters that I’ve already established. Some of the things that have already happened in the first book are going to influence the relationships between these characters and how they approach the problems presented in the second (or third) book.
So, the problem is to present enough of that background–and only as it becomes relevant to the story–without slowing the main story down to a crawl or overwhelming it with extraneous details. It’s a very fine line. And frankly, one that I’ve never managed to walk on a first draft.
It’s a very real challenge. To me, this is a place where it’s vital to have beta readers. In particular, two groups of beta readers: some who’ve read the first book and can complain if you slow the story down with too many details about what happened before, and some who haven’t read the first book and can tell you when they get confused because something that was explained in the first book was just assumed in the second.
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