Keeping the Story Alive: Writing the Second Novel in the Series

Originally posted on Such a Novel Idea for the Poisoned Blade Blog Tour:

“How do you write a second novel in a series so it keeps alive the excitement of book one AND expands the story in a way that makes readers anxious for book three?”


** Give the second book its own introductory lead-in so you don’t have to use boring re-cap. Avoid info-dumping the events of the previous book: “On a quiet morning, Kaitlyn sat on her porch and thought about everything that had happened to her last week for three pages of non-action, and then the zombies attacked.” Start with the zombies; parcel out backstory only where and when you need it…

** Even if the second book follows right on the heels of the previous book’s events, pretend it is a brand new book in a brand new series to try to get that fresh feeling. I worked hard to make the opening of Poisoned Blade become a place a new reader could feel comfortable. While the story is a continuation from book one, the first page introduces a new miniature conflict and action that is perfectly understandable by itself when Jes decides to sneak into a place she’s not allowed to enter.

** When you can, use interactions between characters to reveal the information you need to know. That way you both help the reader orient themselves in the plot and setting AND heighten the characterization by deepening your character relationships.

** Character growth, character growth, character growth. Relationships are the fabric of character growth. Book two can and should deepen and complicate your characters.


There are many different kinds of series these days, and each one puts a different kind of pressure on a second book. Avoiding a sophomore slump with the second novel in a series starts with a close look at what kind of series you are writing. That way you can identify the part your second volume needs to play in the overall series.

Here are four possible scenarios. Remember, there are more than four scenarios; these are just examples to get you thinking about how to approach your own situation.

1) Your first novel was a standalone with a beginning, middle, and end, and your publisher has asked you to write a sequel. In this case, you want to make sure you aren’t just repeating the plot or character arc of the first book.

Open up the world. Change the direction of the character’s journey. Introduce a new conflict that isn’t a version of the original one. Deepen your character relationships or add a new complicating character.

For example (I’m making this up as I’m typing), after a world-altering firestorm our heroine Tania leads a ragtag group of refugees across a blasted wilderness to the safety of a domed city. That’s book one, and can be read as a complete and satisfying story. But book two reveals that the society in the domed city is corrupt and unjust, using refugees as unpaid labor, and so Tania is forced to lead a revolution to grant refugees the same citizenship rights as others.

The benefit to this “follow-up” scenario is that you can write book two as if it is a standalone too. A reader should be able to pick up book two without having read book one, even if knowledge of book one will amplify and intensity a reader’s understanding of the character dynamics.

A trilogy can also function as related but standalone installments, with some recurring characters and a thematic narrative arc that sits like an umbrella over all three books. In this case the second book must relate somehow to the first and also link to the third, while holding its own as a complete story. A good example of this form is N K Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. The second book, The Broken Kingdoms, introduces a protagonist who does not appear in book one, while her love interest was a major player in book one. The events of book two, while self contained, are a natural progression from repercussions of the events in book one and cause ripples that spill through book three without book three being a direct continuation of book two.

2) You’ve written a duology in which the story takes place across two books. In a way this is the easiest second-book scenario because the second book is the latter half of a single story split into two volumes, with the climax and conclusion coming at the end of book two.

3) You’re writing an episodic series, similar to a tv series with a continuing cast of characters and a mystery or mission of the week. Book one introduces the main character, her sidekicks, & the overall situation (think Leverage’s Robin-Hood-like “we right wrongs caused by the powerful abusing the powerless” or “my mental powers allow me to see a potential death and thus try to prevent it” and so on). A mystery or mission is introduced and solved.

Book two therefore carries the weight of building on the readers’ connection to the characters, while offering a new and entertaining episode-length plot.  The challenge with this scenario is to avoid the info-dump introduction (as per “Basic Elements” above ) and to create a new adventure for this installment that is at minimum as exciting as the first one and preferably bigger and bolder. Add a new antagonist. Expand the world. Add a love interest. Plot out your basic outline for how you want the entire series to go. Decide whether your larger series plot direction is to create bigger and bigger stakes OR to create a close intimate study. Both can work.

For example (again, I’m making this up as I’m typing), volume one introduces our heroine, weary security officer Jo-jo who works at rundown backwater Space Station Tau keeping the peace. In book one, there’s a murder in one of the airlocks which she solves with the help of her trusty robot associate while that annoying administrative chief she’s kind of attracted to keeps hounding her about sticking to protocol even though it’s only by going outside protocol that she can solve the mystery. In book two, a battered space ship arrives with news of a terrifying alien invasion in a nearby solar system, but the station’s governing council doesn’t believe the rakish captain who has a history of smuggling and ration-busting activity; then it turns out that maybe an alien spy stowed away on the ship, and it’s up to Jo-jo and the captain to find the spy before that entity can get off the station and return to the invaders with crucial intelligence. At this point maybe you start thinking about whether you want a war to break out on the frontier. If you do, in book three refugees form the fighting can arrivg at Tau, with the search for a missing child providing the central mystery. Then in book four Jo-jo might get drafted into the space navy as an intelligence officer, and maybe the rakish captain and the contraband ship is drafted into service as well and the annoying admin chief is assigned to go along . . . this is how a story world starts opening up into bigger and bigger stakes. For a close, intimate study, you would stick to mysteries and missions ON the space station and neighboring areas (the planet, the asteroid belt) and concentrate on the character development and character journeys rather than a galloping plot.

4) The classic trilogy is a single connected story that takes three books to tell. The biggest mistake writers make in this scenario with second books is by spinning their wheels. A second book should raise the stakes. It should move the plot and character development forward in such a way that, if the reader were to skip book two and go directly to book three, they would not be able to orient themselves in the story because they would have missed major events and character changes.

For example, if in book one our heroine is sent on a quest to find four magical artifacts to defeat the Evil Overlord and manages to discover two by the end of the first volume, book two should not consist of her continuing the quest in the same way and finding the other two at its end. That sort of plot can easily become static with the quest element dragging on longer than it needs to when in fact the most dramatic element is the looming battle against the powerful antagonist.

Without spoilers, I’ll mention three ways in which I accomplished stakes-raising in Poisoned Blade.

1) Jes learns new things about the world she lives in that change the way she looks at the people and conflicts surrounding her. The reader learns them with her.

2) She travels outside the city of Saryenia, which allows the reader (as well as Jes) to get a look at the wider world.

3) Major events alter the trajectory of the plot.

I’m an architectural writer so I like to think of each book in a series as part of a bigger framework. I consider what I want the narrative to accomplish in book two. Where does the book need to take the story so it ends at the perfect launching point for book three?

Remember: There is no right answer for sequels that works for ALL books; there is only AN answer for each specific novel. That’s both the challenge and the beauty of writing a series.

(Thanks again to Such A Novel Idea for originally hosting this as a guest post!)