Sequels. We love them. I mean, an author wants to give me more of a series for which I rated book 1 5 stars on Goodreads while lost in incoherent feels of “OMIGODNEEDMORERIGHTNOW!!!”? Yes, please. Reading the sequels to our favorite fiction books? Easy. Writing a fiction sequel? That takes a bit more work, and getting it right is key.
Ever finished the first book, waited and waited for the second, and grabbed it on release day, only to finish it and think “…meh?” Yeah, me, too. All sequels are not created equal. Just like there’s a formula to the first installment, sequels have best practices, and for the rest of this post, we’re going to explore writing a fiction sequel with a little help from my buddy Dwayne the Rock and his friends.
**WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Jumanji: The Next Level.
(Yes, that is only there to take up space so the spoilers aren’t right in your face.)
Okay, if you’ve made it this far, you’ve read the warning, seen the cute cat picture, and probably think I’m strange. (It’s okay. I know I’m strange.) Onward we go…
4 Tips for a Rocking Sequel
From this point forward, I will refer to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle as WTTJ and to Jumanji: The Next Level as TNL. As you may have guessed, I use the movie titles a lot, and the shorthand makes my life a whole lot easier.
Tip 1 for Writing Your Fiction Sequel: Don’t Start Where the Prequel Ended
Why? Because the prequel is over, and it’s time to move on and start something new.
“But, Mary, I see readers on Amazon and Goodreads wanting to know what happens the minute after the last page.”
Ignore them. They’re emotionally high from the reading experience and aren’t sure what they want. Trust me. I know from personal experience.
Don’t start right where you left off. That story is over and starting the nanosecond after it ends won’t rekindle the magic.
Remember the last time you got some exciting news—a promotion at work, a short story accepted to your dream anthology, finding out your best friend is having a little one? There was lots of excitement. Maybe there were hugs (or, if post-Covid, enthusiastic video-chat arm-waving). Whatever the case, you had that bubbly feeling that comes with getting good news, and you felt like partying.
A bit later, after the initial excitement wore off, your emotions were duller. Yes, that exciting thing was still exciting, but life moved on. That moment passed, and there was no getting it back.
That’s what will happen if you start your sequel the nanosecond after the prequel ends. That initial excitement is gone. The good news has been announced. We’ve celebrated, and we’ve moved on. Don’t try to rekindle the magic. It will only result in a “yes, what now?” reaction, which is a sure-fire way to bore your readers.
WTTJ wrapped everything up nicely. The group finishes the game and goes home, where they’ve all changed for the better and formed a tight bond. Spencer and Martha get together. Alex was put back when he entered the game and is now grown with a family of his own. It’s a neat box with a bow. Done. Game over. And they all lived happily ever after.
Except it isn’t game over, and they didn’t live happily ever after, because there’s a sequel.
A sequel that has new tension and new conflicts and a new storyline that doesn’t try to tack itself onto the previous installment.
TNL picks up a couple of years after WTTJ ends. The kids have formed a lasting bond. They’ve graduated high school, gone off to college (or in Bethany’s case, exploration), and grown from the experiences they’ve had since WTTJ’s ending. This growth has caused shifts in the group dynamic, which is critical to how TNL plays out. At the beginning of the second movie, Spencer and Martha’s relationship is hanging by a thread. Spencer is feeling inadequate, and Martha struggles with feeling like a fraud amidst her new friends. None of this would have worked if TNL started the day after WTTJ’s credits rolled because Spencer and Martha had just gotten together. (Or if it had, talk about a faster breakup than Britney Spears’s three-day marriage.)
Give some space and time for characters to come into their new selves. Those changes are instrumental in making fiction sequels work because they make things new, which brings us to my next point…
Tip 2 for Writing Your Fiction Sequel: Give Something New While Nodding to the Prequel
Why? Because the sequel builds off the previous installment. It must be recognizable as the same story but also offer something different so the prequel isn’t just being rehashed.
Back to the friend in the previous section, the one who’s having a little one. If they decide, a couple of years down the line, to go for little one part 2, that’s a whole new moment, and a whole new kid with new challenges. There will be some similarities to little one part 1 (diapers, teething, waking up at all hours to feed the hungry little cutie), but there will be lots of different things too. The second experience calls on the first while also being completely different.
The same applies to writing your fiction sequel.
Pardon me while I bring up the original Jumanji movie from 1995 (the one with Robin Williams). That movie set up the crux of the Jumanji game—once it’s begun, it must be finished for the world to go back to normal. WTTJ expands upon this while updating the Jumanji concept. Rather than a board game, Jumanji is a video game. The kids get trapped in the game, where they must finish in order to go home (have their world settle back to normal). Similar but different enough so that WTTJ is recognizable as the same story concept but also doesn’t feel like it’s redoing the original.
Further, TNL builds on WTTJ while offering new things. It keeps the video game and the general setup of play, but the adventure is different. It also offers new game rules, such as the ability for characters to body-switch. TNL also introduces new avatars while keeping the old favorites (Jack Black as a teenage girl was priceless). And this brings me to item three…
Tip 3 for Writing Your Fiction Sequel: Add New Characters While Removing or Reducing Old Ones
Why? New characters bring new life and conflicts to a story. But too many can make things difficult to manage.
Let’s step away from the little one’s example (even if 3 or 4 kids can be tougher to manage than 1 or 2). Ever started a project around the house, left it half-finished, and started a new one? Maybe you let that second one go and started projects three and four. Pretty soon, you had a bunch of unfinished tasks, a giant mess, and very irritated housemates. Finally, you decide it’s time to finish all these projects, and doing so takes twice as long as it would have if you’d done them one at a time. All the overlapping messes slow things way down and make it nearly impossible to tell what tools are needed for what.
Writing your sequel can feel a lot like this if you try to keep all the characters at the forefront. We love our favorites and want them to stay forever, but if that favorite character just doesn’t have much of a role in the sequel, it might be time to back them off so they don’t gum up the works.
WTTJ featured four high school kids who either needed to work out an issue with each other or with themselves. They played through the game, made discoveries, and went home as different people. It worked. TNL opens with our characters having grown and changed even more. There are new conflicts in their lives—such as Martha and Spencer’s tenuous relationship. Fridge, as Spencer’s best friend, is there to mediate. He’s also the constant and comic relief while Martha and Spencer work out their issues. Bethany, by contrast, takes a backseat role in TNL. She doesn’t get sucked into the game when the rest of the group does and is missing for much of the movie. Her character is less important to the growth and resolution of the other relationships.
As to new characters, Spencer’s Uncle Eddie (love Danny DeVito) and Milo bring something new and offer a different type of conflict. WTTJ was all about teenagers finding themselves. TNL includes some of that but also features an old argument between two friends who put aside their differences just in time to say goodbye. Their addition to the group keeps TNL from feeling like another movie about teenagers finding who they are while trapped in a video game. Eddie and Milo also bring a whole new level of needing to finish the game, and we’ll expand on this in our fourth and final tip…
Tip 4 for Writing Your Fiction Sequel: Change the Stakes
Why? Because upping the consequences really makes for excellent tension and a sense that the prequel’s been built upon.
Okay, we’re going all the way back to the first tip and that promotion at work. You were an Associate VP of sales, but now you’re the VP of sales, and holy cow do you have a ton of new responsibility. You didn’t even know what responsibility was before. Big decisions depend on your yes or no, and what if you give the wrong answer? We could lose corporate customers. Our bottom line could suffer. The entire system could collapse, all because you ticked the yes box instead of the no box.
In a work setting, this sounds stressful, but think about it this way. For the readers avidly following the story of your upward professional progression, the tension is off the charts now. They were hooked to your Associate VP journey, but they can’t put down your VP struggles. They’re on the edge of their seats waiting to see if you succeed or fail, which is exactly how you want your readers to feel while reading your sequel.
“But, Mary, isn’t that like giving something new from tip 2?”
Sort of. The two are related, but they are also very different. Back to Jumanji (not that the VP Saga wasn’t fascinating). As I mentioned, WTTJ was about four trapped kids trying to survive and get home. TNL added new characters and a new adventure and, along with these things, came a whole bunch of new things dependent on the success of our characters.
In addition to just getting home, TNL is about people helping each other realize home is where they need to be. The first one is about survival. The second is about survival with the added stress of identity, purpose, and being okay with who you are. That’s a lot. In TNL, Spencer chooses to reenter Jumanji because he wants to feel fearless and be Bravestone again. The rest of the group goes in after him because he’s their friend and they want to get him back. Not only do they need to fight their way through the game and stay alive, they also need to convince Spencer Jumanji isn’t the answer. With Eddie and Milo in the mix, the original group also needs to make sure they don’t lose the old guys (who may or may not believe they are in a video game). Add in that the baddies in TNL seem to have bigger weapons than those in WTTJ, and it’s a recipe for greater stakes.
I also mentioned body-switching earlier. TNL puts everyone in a different character except Martha, who reprises her role as Ruby Roundhouse. This presents a whole new set of challenges. The group quickly learns Eddie is a terrible Bravestone, Milo speaks too slowly to deliver Mouse’s vital information, and Fridge can’t cope with hanging out in Jack Black’s body. As a result, the group’s progress is fraught with more peril than before, including a much faster loss of lives. In addition to surviving and changing Spencer’s outlook, the group also has to find their strengths and how to make them work, which makes the outcome even sweeter. Once the original group realizes they’re strongest selves are the selves they’ve always been, they come together like the well-oiled machine that beat the game in WTTJ.
First, I’d like to thank the Rock and friends for being such good sports throughout this post. You guys, well, rock.
Second, I’m going to repeat myself. The four ingredients to writing a fiction sequel are…
- Don’t Start Where the Prequel Ended
- Give Something New While Nodding to the Prequel
- Add New Characters While Removing or Reducing Old Ones
- Change the Stakes
Do these things, and you’ll have written a sequel readers won’t want to put down. They’ll love it as much as book 1 and come running back for book3. And 4, 5, 6…to infinity and beyond.
So, for some parting words…
Because I couldn’t write a post about Jumanji and not include this.
Ready to whip that fiction sequel (or book 1) into shape? Check out my editing services and get in touch!