How not to write a sequel

So, recently I read UNDER THE LIGHT by Laura Whitcomb, a book I’ve wanted to get to for a long time. It’s the sequel to A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT, which was a book I really loved.


A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT involves Helen, a ghost, and James, another ghost, and the two teenagers whose bodies they possess (but not in an evil way). Shannon Hale commented recently on Twitter that she disliked the book because all the religious people were evil, which is true, but I would say that the overall book showed religion in a very positive way despite this. I thought the story was innovative and beautiful, with all this interplay between the ghosts (adults) and the teenagers, with all four lives (or “lives”) interweaving.

But in the sequel, Helen, who had overcome her Issues from the first book, turns out to actually still be struggling with Issues after all. And Cathy, a secondary character who had broken from her nasty-piece-of-work husband, turns out to still pretty much be under his thumb.

Why? Why do this? Once you resolve the Angst, can’t you let it stay resolved? Aren’t there other issues that could arise and present challenges to the characters?

This is not the only sequel that has this exact problem, which for me turns out to be one of THE problems for a sequel, something that just seriously turns me off.



I loved this book. Loved it. You can learn a lot about tight plotting from a book like this, where nearly every problem that looks independent actually turns out to result from one core problem that spills out over everything. The main character is very angsty, really too much so for me, but — and this is the key — he not only performs brilliantly despite his personal issues, at the end he is clearly well on his way to overcoming his personal angst and becoming a more emotionally balanced person.

Until the sequel, where lo! He turns out not to have overcome his Issue at all. It is still right there, screwing him up in exactly the same way as in the first book.

This is something which wouldn’t bother me if the first book wasn’t so good. I get hooked on it and pick up the sequel with delight and then — WHY not leave the problem that was resolved in the first book resolved? Why do you have to put it BACK?

Okay, one more. Has anybody out there read FIRE DANCER by Ann Maxwell?


This is a boring cover. I like the cover on my (old) copy better. But still, at least it is still available!

I loved this book. It’s got lots going for it, including the angst-filled relationship between Rheba and Kirtn. Which is RESOLVED at the end of the first book, but UNRESOLVED AGAIN in the sequel.


I want to emphasize that although all three of these books are completely different, the first books of each series are very good. If you like Horatio Hornblower and Aubrey/Maturin, you are very likely going to enjoy the Feintuch series. If you love romances with plenty of adventure, you are likely to enjoy the Maxwell series. I recommend A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT to almost anybody.

BUT. Just be prepared, if you go on to the sequels, for the issues that ought to be resolved and that looked like they were resolved, to actually not be resolved at all.

I definitely prefer a series where the protagonist (and other continuing characters) grow and change and mature and get over things and deal with new things as they go along. See: Bren in the Foreigner series. Miles in the Vorkosigan series. Meliara in Crown Duel / Court Duel.

Anybody have a favorite suggestion for series in which the protagonist and other important characters change, mature, and improve with time rather than staying the same?

I will add that it doesn’t bother me if the character stays the same for ages if that is appropriate to the series (eg Nero Wolf’s characters), as long as there is no bait and switch with angst that is shown as resolved but turns out to be unresolved after all.

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15 thoughts on “How not to write a sequel”

  1. You’ve already named the easy ones. I can add Wrede’s Eff from the Frontier books – OTOH she starts at, what, age 5 and grows up? But her brother definitely grows up, too.

  2. Kaylin Neva from Michelle Sagara West’s Chronicles of Elantra series (secondary world urban fantasy with an epic touch, but based on a sort of police procedural, I’d say – single protagonist) who very much has to explore her past to grow out of it. It’s best to read a lot of the books on one go, because the time frame internally is short, but with the one year release schedule people often think Kaylin doesn’t grow – but she does.

    Lily Yu from Eileen Wilks World of the Lupi series (urban fantasy/suspense/paranormal romance)

    Jewel from Michelle Sagara West’s Essalieyan books (real epic fantasy, with as wide a sweep as Jordan or Martin, at least – has a lot of female focus characters, also has important male characters – at least in the Sun Sword subset of the series. Currently Jewel and her chosen family are at the forefront of the books)

    Cass in Andrea Höst’s Touchstone series, of course.

    Paksenarrion in Elizabeth Moon’s Oath of Gold trilogy (military/religious fantasy in a secondary world)

    Inda in Sherwood Smith’s epic fantasy series of the same name, although there are bits in his make-up that emotionally make him unable to process certain things. It’s integrated very well, and in many ways he is a catalyst for others to change when they come into contact with him.

  3. I thought about Kaylin, Estara, but wasn’t sure. I think she’s growing, but she hasn’t … achieved. Or something. I think she could use a month with no excitement to process what she’s been going through – the whole series, as far as I can tell covers about a year of her life, so far, and she keeps getting thrown into new crisis, before she’s taken in the last one.

    Jewel I flatly disagree with as as I read her, she’s stuck in a teenage mindset at age 36 or so, and a very frustrating character who has known for YEARS that she’d have this coming down and made no preparations, and is floundering, making it through by the aid of her helpers. i hope she does finally grow, but right now I read the books for everyone and everything else.

  4. Estara, the ones I’ve read of the series you cite (Cass, Paks, and Inda) are single stories — maybe of epic length, but still single stories — which have dramatic arcs for their characters. I don’t think that’s the same thing as a complete story and then another story with the same character(s). It does sound like the first three (which I haven’t read) may be fuul-fledged examples.

    The Vorkosigan Saga is a better example of what I take Rachel to mean than anything else I can think of, actually. Most of the long-running F/SF series that spring to mind tend to have iconic heroes for whom character change is not the point.*

    Ender Wiggin matures and changes quite a bit, now that I think of it — there’s a drastic fall-off in quality after the first two books, but not a character reset.

    (* Interestingly, this is largely true of the 1632 mega-series, probably the longest series I personally own. Change to the _setting_ is the whole point of the exercise, but the main characters don’t seem to alter much.)

  5. Yes, you’re right, and Ender probably does fit. Would Alvin Maker? I never finished that series.

    oh, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. The focus changes from book to book, and we see the main characters of #1 as characters in books 2 & 3, but they are no longer the focus, and have grown. Not quite as good as the Vorkosiverse example, as Miles continues to be the main character in that, but at least they’re there in the story.

    Craig, on the 163X series, do you like all of them, or only a subset? I read a couple duds and stopped, and my husband has strong opinions on which authors in the series to bother with. I certainly enjoyed the first installment, though.

  6. Elaine, I like most of the 1632 novels, though I’m not proud to admit it. This is in large part because Eric Flint and at least one of the other main authors are among those writers whom I like more than their ojective merits justify. (Doesn’t everyone have authors like that? You can tell that they’re not that good, but you like their stuff anyway? Flint is probably the best example of that for me, though I can think of a couple of others.) The shorter pieces have a lot more misses for me, and I’m not one of the true diehard fans who subscribes to the online Gazette — though I find 163x fandom fascinating as a phenomenon; a shared world that seems to have achieved self-sustaining growth.

    Alvin Maker might work. I eventually ground to a halt on the series, in part because the *world* was reset — Card forgot he’d had Apalachee join the U.S. in an earlier book, maybe because he’s still using the same map.

    I thought of another possible example: Harry Dresden. He’s an odd halfway case: there’s only a very little growth as a person across 15 books or so — but he does grow significantly in knowledge and power, and the problems he’s dealing with undergo real change as a result. His supporting cast evolves significantly, too.

  7. You can take the first Paks series and then the follow-up series, and see that there definitely has been no re-set. I don’t think the later books are nearly as good as the first arc, though.

    I don’t think Medair works because that duology is really all one story. Now, if we got a sequel and she was still stuck in the same emotional place, that wouldn’t make any sense and would be very annoying.

  8. @elaine: I can see how you read her like that, but I actually think the current Essalieyan books – the series she restarted 10 years after Sun Sword ended (I think it was 10…) and the books that hook on to the end of Sun Sword – really show Jewel slowly developing better than the Sun Sword series did.

    Maybe that’s why I also see Kaylin progressing ^^ – getting conclusion with her past with Severn and her past in Tiamaris’ fief and slowly getting to grips with her powers and what they can mean (and even with her understandable prejudice against a certain race) – I think she directs them much more than she did at the start of the series, not to mention that she’s learning not to say everything she thinks each time she thinks it – I don’t think she’d have survived inheriting the “glass dragon” at the beginning of the series, for example.

    @Craig: I can see where you’re coming from, although I don’t agree with the evaluation – and I’d pick Miles for this list, too – and also Bren Cameron from C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner Ateviverse
    Medair is a good point ^^

    P.C. Hodgell’s Jamethiel Dreamweaver might fit in here as well, of the Chronicles of the Kencyrath.

  9. @Rachel: The later series suffers from too many viewpoint characters whose various strands Moon wanted to follow and finish up. The last book came out this month and it was nice to revisit the world, but for my money I could have done with just Arvid, Kieri Phelan and Dorrin Verrakai as a focus – with occasional visits from Paks in her paladin persona.

  10. Estara, I agree COMPLETELY that this scattered pov is by far the biggest problem with the later Paks-universe books. I have other problems with those books: the stupidity of the Elf Queen is unbelievable. I am actually rather bored with Kieri as a protagonist, but I think this may be due to my disgust with the Elf Queen. Also, I think Moon could have chosen a better protagonist for the strand that is following Arcolin — if she needed to include that strand at all, which I’m not convinced is the case.

    But I do like Dorrin’s sections. And I loved Arvid when he first got his own pov chapter! But I haven’t read the most recent book and don’t know whether he is increasing in importance as a character or not.

  11. Estara (and Rachel),
    I had completely blanked on the later Paks books — I read two of them and was unimpressed, so much that I’m apparently blocking them out of memory — but of course once they’re included you’re quite right. Inda and Cass, I’ll stand pat: it’s all one story, even if it does cover quite a bit of time.

    Another *bad* example would be Piers Anthony’s fourth Xanth book, in which the protagonist Dor actually thinks early on about how it looked like he was maturing at the end of the last book, but that wore off in the interim.

  12. Focusing on the wrong part of this post, I know but– If you like Horatio Hornblower and Aubrey/Maturin, you are very likely going to enjoy the Feintuch series. –okay, okay you got me! Going to put it on hold.

  13. Hi, Maureen — have you tried With The Lightnings by David Drake? How about the Honor Harrington series by David Weber? I think those are both very much tributes to the Horatio Hornblower / Aubrey/Maturin tradition, though personally I think the Feintuch is much better written than Weber’s series.

  14. N.B. With the Lightnings and the first two Honor Harrington books are available in the Baen Free Library.

    I prefer Feintuch to either of them, personally — at least the first four; he later added two additional books which I found inferior.

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