What Killed It For Me, #7: Issues with Sequels

photo-22I started this series talking about issues in books that pretty much everyone can agree are a problem: weak writing, clichéd characters, unclear character goals, etc. Last week’s post on Action Openings was a little more subjective, and today’s pet peeve is going to be more so. It has to do with sequels and why I may finish the first book but not read any of the rest.

thumbs downFirst let me say that I’ve never written a series. All of my books so far have been stand-alones (though I’ll eventually be turning one into the first of a series). So I don’t have any experience writing a series. But I’ve read a TON of them and, as a reader, I have strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t. You may agree, you may want to stab me with your voodoo pins. Either way, here are the reasons why, in the past, I’ve finished book one of a sequel but failed to read any of the rest:

1) Too Many Unanswered Questions. I recently read a paranormal thriller that had me RIVETED. It involved a killer on the loose, a tropical island, a curious weather pattern, a mysterious clique of fascinating but ominous people, and frequent vanishings. The stakes were clearly high, the characters interesting, the premise fabulous, and I was completely invested right up to the end. Then I finished the book. I slammed it shut, held it up for my husband to see, and made some form of unkind declarative statement that I won’t repeat here.

A lot of questions were raised in this book, and I think maybe two of them were answered by the end. The rest…well, you’ll just have to read the sequel to find out. Um, no. I was so confused (and pissed) when I finished, that I won’t be reading any of the sequels.

As authors, we have an obligation to our readers to deliver what we promise. If you give readers an indication that the hero’s eventually going to have a show down with the villain, you need to fulfill that promise and make sure it happens. In the same way, if you raise a bunch of important plot-based questions, the reader expects those important questions to be explained. Now, I’m not saying that everything has to be ironed out by the end of the first book. Far from it. But you have to answer enough of the questions so the first book makes sense on its own. Every book, even one in a series, needs a complete story arc. So please, for the love of all things literary, if you’re going to write a series, answer the pertinent questions at the end of the first book. Don’t be coy and mysterious and assume that readers will be intrigued by your ambiguity. No, they’ll just be annoyed. Let’s try to avoid that.

2) Too much elapsed time between books. I read a really popular first book in a series a few years ago. The second one came out in the fall; I put it on my reading list, and there it sits. Six months later. Still unread. I really liked the first book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads—high praise from me. I recommended it to friends when I was finished. But a year-and-a-half later, I just wasn’t into it any more. Now, the books that I absolutely LOVE, it won’t matter how much time goes by before the next book is released: the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, the Grisha trilogy, The Wicked and the Just (please please PLEASE, when is the sequel coming???). I snapped up (will snap up) these sequels as soon as they’re available. But, to be fair, these kind of LOVE books are few and far between for me. I may like a first book—I may really really like it—but if too much time passes before the next book in the series, I could very well lose interest and never another of those books.

So here’s my first suggestion for avoiding this, and please bear with me, because I know this isn’t possible for everyone: If it’s possible for you as an author, self-publish your series. This way, you can control the timeline and release your books at intervals that will keep readers salivating.

Now, I realize that this may not be possible if you’re working with a publisher. Readers may have to wait a year to eighteen months before seeing your next book and you may not be able to do anything about that. So here are two suggestions that may help tide readers over from one book to the next:

  • Before the second/third/etc. book comes out, publish a summary of the previous books on your website. Sometimes, I find out a second book has come out, but I’m not really interested because so much time has elapsed that I can’t remember what happened in the first book. But if there’s a summary for the first book out there, I read it, and I remember why I liked that book. I get jazzed again and many times end up continuing the series.
  • If possible, micro-publish related pieces in the interim. If your readers will have a while to wait between books, provide some related material that will give them a taste of your world/characters/story between releases. Write a novella from a minor character’s perspective (à la the supplements to Susan Kaye Quinn’s Mindjack series). Provide a short story that explains an important event from your hero’s or villain’s past. Now, I don’t know what limitations traditionally published authors might have in this area (maybe someone could chime in on this?), but your interim pieces don’t have to be books for sale. Post them to your blog and let everyone read them. Save them in PDF format and make them available for free download at your website. Send them to your newsletter subscribers. This is a great way to keep readers interested in your series during a long interim between releases.
  • This is an idea I’ve been toying with, so it may not work for everyone (or anyone), but consider writing most of the series before starting to publish. I’m not a prolific writer by any means; this is one reason why I haven’t published fiction yet, because I can’t supply books as quickly as I’d like to. But, I figure if I get 2 or 3 books written before starting to publish, then I can release them in quick succession without keeping readers waiting.

As a reader, I love me a good series. Right now, I’m on book two of The Last Apprentice, which has apparently been out forever and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME? As a writer,  sadly, I’ve got few personal words of wisdom to share. But that’s what friends are for, right? Janice Hardy’s got 7 tips for you on writing a series and Joanna Penn has some great advice on avoiding continuation issues when writing a series. Jami Gold’s started an interesting discussion on if you should even learn how to write one. And then there’s Holly Lisle, who I wish was my friend, offering a video-series workshop on How to Write a Series. Enjoy!

Thumbs Down Image: Geralt @ Pixabay


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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49 Responses to What Killed It For Me, #7: Issues with Sequels

  1. Francesca Moore says:

    I completely agree, unanswered questions is always a big problem particularly in the second book of a trilogy. It is almost like book two is just a way of connecting one and two without a stand-alone story itself. I’m struggling with the same problem in my own series, haven’t published yet but posting the first book on my blog to give me time to finish writing number two. I think it is an easy trap to fall into.

  2. Interesting. I hope to remember these points when I do series.

  3. J.R.Barker says:

    Very true, but the opposite is also true, if too much is neatly tied up at the end I don’t feel the need to read the next. Another one of those balancing acts I guess.

    Also I hate when the end is crammed in. I read a book not too long ago that had me happily trotting at a steady pace, then bam, all the action packed into the last few pages. The end. To find out more buy the next book. It felt like a door being slammed in my face.

    • This is a good point, JR. For those series where the books are
      meant to be sequential and lead one into the other, it’s not a good idea to tie everything up. But for the books that are supposed to follow previous books in the series, you need to have those essential questions answered.

      I guess this is a case of knowing what books you’re intending to write and what your audience expects :).

      • :Donna Marie says:

        I know I mentioned the Harry Potter series before, but wanted to again because I feel those books are an ideal example of how to write a series. J.K. Rowling’s plotting was so outstanding, she was able to arc the overall theme seamlessly from the first book to the last while each book had its own arc with a beginning, middle and satisfying end. The individual plots of each book were what was tied up at the end, (e.g., in “Goblet”: who would be in the tournament and how would it turn out?) but not the heavy-duty key plots. Those largely involved the many different relationships, who was “good and bad,” and would Harry die to defeat Voldemort? Some of those were tied up as we went along, but many weren’t answered until “Hallows.” It was her expertise that had us all theorizing for years about so many aspects of the series. I learned a LOT about writing and had a total BLAST doing it!

        In my opinion, series perfection 🙂

      • J.R.Barker says:

        I suppose it’s one of those things that is tough to judge. The balance between creating a moreish series and a good, but ultimately wet thud of an ending, is ‘wafer thin’

  4. Pingback: What Killed It For Me #8: Personal Preferences | WRITERS HELPING WRITERSWRITERS HELPING WRITERS

  5. Donya Lynne says:

    Excellent advice. As an author of a series, I garnered a few tips here. If I could go back and start over with my series, I would do what you suggested and write the first three books before publishing them, so I could publish them a month or two apart. I plan on doing something similar with a future series, though.

    Also, when it comes to series, I think an author needs to know when it’s time to end the series or at least change it into something else. With my current series, I am planning two spin-off series that will eventually circle back to the next generation of characters in the first. Once that happens, I think the series, as a whole, will end within about six books. I may still write follow-up novellas for it, and there’s always the possibility that I will continue it, especially if it continues to speak to me (and if fans still express enough love for the characters that they want more, of course).

    • I absolutely agree that some series run on too long. The one I mentioned that I’m reading now and loving? I just learned that there are 13 books in the series. THIRTEEN. Maybe they’re not extraneous; maybe there’s been a hue and cry among readers for more books. Even though I really like this series, I’m pretty sure that I won’t read them all.

  6. Kate Sparkes says:

    Great advice! It really is subjective– one of the books that you listed as a “must read the sequel” was, for me, a “cliffhanger that ticked me off so much that I don’t want to read any more of the series,” even though I enjoyed most of the book. I’m struggling with this right now as I try to decide whether tying everything up too neatly in my own Book 1 will make people less likely to pick up the next book, or whether ending on a character beginning the next stage of the adventure is too up-in-the-air.

    Writing the full series before publishing is an interesting idea. It reminds me of when people in self-publishing say you should hope your first book isn’t your breakout novel (because if it is, your fans have nothing else to buy from you). Better to have a few things available before people become addicted. I don’t know how that works in practical terms, but it’s an interesting idea, especially since it’s so contrary to traditional publishing. Having several books ready to go would erase that worry. Of course, that means there’s no chance of book 1 funding the editing, etc. of later books, but it seems like there’s little chance of that for most new authors, anyway. 🙂

    Love this series, BTW.

  7. Mark Henwick says:

    Run out of reply options on the ‘summary’ thread…
    Donna Marie said “Can’t the summary be short enough..”

    That depends on the length and complexity of the books, but the real problem is that a summary can’t really be written in the engaging style we’d all like to think our Chapter 1 is written in. Even someone who’s got as far as looking at the sample could be put off by a couple of pages of summary prose.

    I’m going to experiment with an author’s note explaining what’s intended and links to see if I can make it easy to hyperlink to the end and then hyperlink back after. I’ll report back.

  8. C. Lee McKenzie says:

    You made some excellent points about series. I didn’t plan to write a second book for my middle grade book, but then I was encouraged to do it. I’m afraid it may be too long between books. Oh well, that’s as it turned out.

  9. One of the most frustrating things about being a writer is that books I might have enjoyed before I started studying the craft are sometimes now not good enough to keep me entertained. But the nice part is that the best books are now that much better.

    • Oh, this is sooooo true. And I’m so much pickier now. Books I wouldn’t have had a problem with before get chucked pretty quickly :).

    • Donya Lynne says:

      I agree, Matt. I recently told someone that becoming an author is like being an astronomer, who can’t simply walk out and look at the stars and see simplicity. An astronomer sees the dark matter, the supernovas, the gaseous elements that make up a nebula. He sees “science.” When I look at the stars, I just see constellations and pinpoints of light. I don’t care how long it took for that light to reach my eyes. But now, I know how the astronomer feels. When I read a book, I see voice, verbs, show vs. tell, etc. For me, reading has become a study of craft, and very few books can suck me in so deeply that I actually just enjoy the experience for what it is: an escape from reality, or, in astronomical terms, constellations and pinpoints of light.

  10. Mart Ramirez says:

    This is all great advice, Becca! Thank you for sharing! I know that feeling when you are at the end of the book and you’re thinking more questions than answers. Such a turn-off. I’m always so careful to cover every unanswered question but now you’ll def be singing it in my head 🙂

  11. Lori Schafer says:

    Timely post, Becca! A few months ago I had an idea for a sequel to a book that I will be publishing next year, and based on everything I’ve read, it sounded as if I would do well to have the sequel available when I publish the first book, for the exact reason you mention – because readers don’t like to wait. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing, setting aside an unfinished standalone novel in order to start this brand new project, but now I’m confident it’s the best decision. Thanks so much!

  12. I completely agree, I hate the unanswered questions. I think that’s one reason why the really popular series are that way. Each of the Harry Potter books finish with some kind of final showdown in the book, we didn’t have to wait until the end of book 7 for everything. The Hunger Games finishes the Hunger Games at each of the first two books.

  13. :Donna Marie says:

    Becca, I’m pretty much with you on this. It’s very rare I read a series. It has to be REALLY good—yep, have to LOVE it. I often read the first book in a series, not with the intention of reading all the books, but because I’m curious (usually a series that’s popular) and want to see how the writer handled it.

    Obviously, Harry Potter is an amazing series. Talk about knowing how to write one. And I really LOVE the “Legend” series, too (Marie Lu). I plan on writing a series, so this info is very timely! Thanks!!! 😀

  14. I have little patience in waiting for sequels. I often wait until a whole series is out before I start reading them. You have great ideas for authors of series to use in here and good links. Thanks for a fascinating read.

  15. I nodded all the way through this. Meeting reader expectation is SO IMPORTANT. Casi in point: Awhile back, I read a really good book, (1st in the series) and it stopped right in the middle of the action at the end. Sure questions were answered, they solved a big objective, the questions left were big and intriguing…but there was no ending point. It was a “to be continued” sort of ending where the protag was headed off to find help for an injured member of the party. I’m sorry, but for me, this does NOT work. I have yet to read the sequel, because I felt this is a bit of a cheap trick on the writer’s behalf, one I didn’t appreciate. The author could have tied things up differently and been just as compelling, leaving me with a sense of completion, but knowing the journey was not yet over. I would have kept reading.

    One fact reigns supreme as the ocean of books grows…readers have A LOT OF CHOICE. Authors need to respect and understand what it is readers want to get from the experience in order to keep them hooked on the series.

  16. Good writing brings me back every time and discovering a good series well into its publications helps too. No waiting, start with #1 and enjoy. I was late in discovering #Louise Penny’s series, Inspector Gamache, a cast of great character, and interesting mysteries. Her writing carried me to the final book in the series that is newly published. Not sure how I am going to do without them.

  17. Sara says:

    I always read your articles here, Becca (and Angela), but this one caught my attention because my WIP is the first novel in an intended trilogy. Especially your point on timeliness (and I agree with Mark about Mr. Martin!). Love the summary and micro-publishing suggestions; I could see myself having fun with writing some quick related pieces. The thought of finishing the entire series before publishing the first book is a bit overwhelming, though! But I do plan to start writing the second book while my beta readers and critique partners look over the first book.

  18. Jordans For Cheap says:

    What kills me about series and sequels are the ones that go on too long with no resolution. I can think of a couple of series that just never seem to end or resolve anything but a small plot issue. I don’t like 20 plus books with no romance resolution and the same issues being rehashed. Its very annoying and I got tired of it quickly.

  19. Laura Pauling says:

    I read more first novels in series than I finish series. Sometimes it’s just personal taste. Sometimes I just didn’t care enough. Sometimes it’s that I can’t remember the details and there is no summary offered in the next book. Personally, I’d love to see a short summary of the previous book before the start of ch 1 – in book 2. Or a link to the author’s blog and a short summary of the series.

    The novellas between Veronica Rossi’s series have been terrific. Given me a different perspective but reminded on what was happening. She’s a terrific example of doing it right.

    • A great point, Laura, and I completely agree. I don’t understand what’s wrong with including a summary. If you don’t want to read it then skip it, no harm done. There are multiple ways to do it: have it at the beginning, list it in a contents and locate it at the end, or publish it on your website. In the book AND on the website is probably the best option. Besides, I’d rather read (or skip) a summary then read 100 pages of awkward, forced dialog where the author is trying to pass along what preceded the present book.

    • Oooh, I love this idea of having the summary at the start of the book. Though including a link to it at the website might placate the people who don’t want a summary at the start of their new story.

      • Mark Henwick says:

        I’m writing a summary to retrospectively publish in front of book 3, which is light on backstory. One issue I have with it is this: where to put it. If I put it right at the front, then Amazon’s sample shows it as part of the first 10%. Obviously, I want my opening chapters to be shown as the sample. So… put it at the back, with a link, but will that makes people skip it?
        Obviously, the most important sample is from the first book in the series and that doesn’t have a summary in front of it!
        Also… should a summary be a complete summary, or just bits that are convoluted and which the reader might need reminding of. How do you pick? Does anyone have an excellent example of a summary in a series out there?

        • That’s a great point; I wouldn’t want my summary taking part of the free sample, either. My personal opinion is that if you put it at the back, people won’t notice it until after they’ve finished the book. I would opt for a Note To Reader dealy, where you say that readers can access a summary of the preceding books in the series at your website. And make it clickable in ebooks, so it’s easy for readers to reference.

          As for the summary, I like the ones that I read to be thorough, like a synopsis; you want the reader to know all of the important characters and plot events that happened in the preceding books, to remind them of what happened and who’s who. I don’t know of any series summaries out there; most of the time, there’s just a separate summary listed for each book, which is the way I like it since I may have already read book one and I only want to read the summary for book two.

          Let us know what you decide to do!

          • :Donna Marie says:

            Can’t the summary be short enough that the actual first chapter of the book would also appear on Amazon, right after the summary? I really have no idea since I’m not published, self or traditional, and haven’t done any of this yet.

  20. Thanks for that, Becca – lots of good points and advice here!

  21. I adore Ken Follett epics. The sequel, World Without End was published more than 15 years after Pillars of The Earth. I was late in reading the first book, and therefore didn’t mind the years in between publications. Since his stories grab me, I too would have been pissed waiting all those years for the sequel. Maybe Follett had a summary available, as you suggested, but 18 years is indeed a longtime to wait for the end.

    Being a believer of self-publishing, I commend your suggestion to self-publish if the span between series is broad.

  22. Kelly Miller says:

    Good suggestions. It’s tough to hit that book published every six months deadline. Right now I can get one out a year and that’s working at my fastest pace. Of course I do have three children under twelve so I take any task I get done as an accomplishment.

  23. Mark Henwick says:

    Excellent advice, thank you. (I’m just copying the stuff about timeliness to that Martin fellow).

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