Sequel. It has become a dreaded word in the literary world. So often, a sequel fails to live up to the brilliance of its predecessor. Amy Child asks why does ‘Second Book Syndrome’ affect so many stories, even those by talented writers?
The most common pitfall when it comes to second books, particularly in trilogies, is that the second book fails to have a self-contained plot. Rather, it merely provides a bridge between books one and three, and is primarily filler content. As a result, the plot seems to sag, losing the dynamic momentum of book one. My most immediate example of this is A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab, the second book in the Shades of Magic trilogy.
Sequels can become fan-service oriented, lacking the substance of the original book
The plot centres on a magical contest which contributes little to nothing to the overarching plot, and the final few chapters simply put the foundations of book three into place. In this situation, the trilogy might have been better off as a duology, and the plot is stretched too thin, or bulked out unnecessarily to accommodate an extra book.
Another common issue with second books is the failure to feel relevant or necessary. This is often the case when a book was originally intended as a stand-alone, but for some reason or other, the author decides to tack on a sequel. If this decision was the result of popularity, sequels can become fan-service oriented, lacking the substance of the original book in favour of more content with beloved characters.
Readers enter second books with existing expectations: they have questions they want answered
This is the case for Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell, a sequel to Carry On, in which Simon and Baz (whose complex relationship arc was completed at the end of book 1) simply go on a cute road trip together. On the other hand, if the sequel was the result of pressure from a publisher, sometimes it simply lacks the thought and passion that the author invested in book one. Not every story needs a sequel, and forcing one often does more harm than good.
Lastly, second books which fail to raise the stakes of the first book can be disappointing. Readers enter second books with existing expectations: they have questions they want answered, interactions they want to see, and directions they want the plot to take. Naturally, an author cannot predict or hope to meet all these expectations. But if they fail to meet any of them- or introduce anything new to develop the story’s intrigue – the second book can come off as flat and unsatisfactory.
The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, sequel to The Name of the Wind, suffers with just that; it follows a meandering, aimless plot which explains nothing of the mystery built into book one, only introduces more unanswered questions. Sequels to dystopian books – namely Insurgent by Veronica Roth and The Scorch Trials by James Dashner – are equally underwhelming in this respect, as the premise which made book one so fascinating is left behind by book two.
As a result, I’ve found that the second book is usually the best or worst in a trilogy
This is not to say that a second book is always bound for failure. Many authors succeed at conquering this daunting hurdle, which is handled best when factored in from the outset. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, the sequel to Six of Crows, deals brilliantly with the aftermath of book one, adding significant depth to the characters and their relationships and successfully raising the dramatic stakes. Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb, the sequel to Assassin’s Apprentice, takes the time to build on book one’s political intrigue towards a shockingly impactful ending and The Wicked King by Holly Black, the sequel to The Cruel Prince, is packed full of brilliant character development and thrilling twists and turns.
As a result, I’ve found that a second book is usually either the best or worst in a trilogy. If done right, it can top book one, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be wary going into them.
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