How do you know when your story needs a sequel? It isn’t based on page count as many a novice author believes, it’s based on the higher story arc of the characters. Each book in a series, such as the Harry Potter series, is built around two story arcs: the low arc—such as finding and saving the Sorcerer’s Stone (book one of the Harry Potter series), and the higher arc—overcoming Voldemort. In each book of the Harry Potter series, there is a story within the ‘overcoming Voldemort’ arc that carries us along. We meet different characters that bring us information or eventually join in the end game of defeating Voldemort. In each volume, we find clues and hints of what is to come, what has occurred, and where we still need to go and do; and in each volume, the main characters grow, evolve, and transform based on what they’ve encountered.
Each sequel in a series is a growing experience for the characters and for the audience. However, each sequel should also be a semi-standalone story that a reader can pick up and become immersed in. While each story builds on the previous one, there should always be enough story in each individual book to capture your readers and pull them in. And once you pull them in, they’ll want to read the other books in the series to see what they’ve been missing.
I’ve seen too many novice writers break their story into sequels just because the page count is too long, or because they feel they can make more money by breaking the story in the middle and forcing the reader to buy the second half. Unfortunately, all that does is annoy their readers. In your first book, build your world and introduce your characters, but also give your readers a complete story. In the first book, The Starstone, I introduce you to the primary characters (the recurring characters), their world (Danaria), and then lay out the dilemmas facing these characters—the book-level challenge (finding the Starstone) and the overarching challenge (saving Danaria). Then, I have my readers follow along as the characters struggle to resolve the initial premise of finding the Starstone. However, the resolution of that book, should only move your characters part of the way to resolving the larger issue spanning the series (such as destroying Voldemort in the Harry Potter series). Keeping that larger arc of a story line unresolved is what makes your readers want the next book, and the next, and so on.
By giving your readers a complete story within each book, you gain loyal fans. That’s the difference between a good sequel and a poorly done one. Give your readers a good story, but make them want more; don’t leave your readers frustrated and angry because you broke the book in the middle of the story just to create a second book. If you need 1000 pages to finish the book’s story, then use 1000 pages. However, if the story has a natural conclusion at page 300, then use that. A sequel isn’t a way to break a book’s story into smaller segments.
A sequel should be a natural progression of the larger story and of your characters. By the end of each book in your series, your characters should be changed. Each story should cause them to grow and evolve. For the better or for the worse, your characters need to be affected by the events in each book, so that by the time you reach the end of the series, they are ready to face the ultimate challenges that the series has been leading to. That’s what a good sequel and great series is all about.