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June 30, 2024 12:00
how to write a sequel featuring the same characters as your original story by Libby Page
novel writing process
writing a series of novels

How to Write a Sequel by Libby Page

Libby Page. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Libby Page
April 28, 2024
April 28, 2024

If you want to write a sequel to your novel, you might be wondering if you can develop minor characters into lead characters of their own, if it’s just a continuation of the same story, or if you should spin off an entirely new take on the source material in a wildly different direction.

In this article, author and The Novelry writing coach Libby Page discusses how she tackled writing The Lifeline, the sequel to her Sunday Times bestselling debut novel, The Lido, and provides some key questions you might want to consider if you’re planning to write a sequel of your own.

Deciding to write a sequel

When I wrote my debut novel The Lido I hadn’t planned to write a sequel. As the final scene in the novel came to a close, I thought that the story arc had reached its conclusion. Without giving away too many spoilers if you haven’t read the book, the plot elements in that first novel felt wrapped up. But then five years passed and life threw new inspiration my way. Out of the blue, I started thinking about the characters in my first story and once they were in my head again they wouldn’t leave. 

I decided that I wanted to revisit the world and the characters I had created. I was going to write a sequel.

But before we dive into how to write a sequel, what actually is a sequel?

What is a sequel?

The Oxford Dictionary definition of a sequel is ‘a book, movie or play that continues the story of an earlier one.’ But some definitions of the term ‘sequel’ also mention themes being continued on from the original story. So, a great sequel might pick up the same characters from the first book but also some of the issues, ideas and thematic questions that were explored in that book.

Your sequel might be a follow-up to your first book or it might be a sequel to a sequel if you are writing a series. In that instance, your sequel follows on not just from the prior book but from all the prior books in that series.

Your sequel might be your second book, or it might not! The Lifeline is a sequel to my first book The Lido, but it is my fifth published novel and is being published six years after my debut came out. When I broached the idea of writing a sequel with my publisher they shared that now felt like a good time to publish it because enough time has elapsed to have built the buzz to warrant a follow-up.

Something to consider is that if you are a new author with a burning idea for a sequel to your first book, you may have to wait a while to actually publish it. There’s a chance that a publisher might want you to establish a name for yourself with other standalone novels first before looking at spin-offs. This isn’t always the case, especially for genres where sequels and series are more popular like fantasy, children’s fiction and crime. But it is something that’s worth being aware of, especially if you are looking to write Up Lit or Romance like I write and where standalone books are more common than series. Your sequel might not be the book you write in the real world immediately after the book that precedes it in the imaginary world.

readers dislike novels that only pay fan service to the previous book

There are no rules in terms of how far in the future the sequel picks up the story from the prior book or books.

In my sequel The Lifeline, I pick up the story five years after the end of my first book The Lido. But there is great variety: The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, picks up the story fifteen years in the future; The House of Fortune by Jessie Burton continues the story from The Miniaturist eighteen years on; seven years elapses between the ending of P.S. I Love You and its follow-up Postscript by Cecelia Ahern; and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again revisits Olive from Olive Kitteridge just a month after things end in the first book.

Your sequel might even continue things immediately from where you left off in the original. This can be more common in children’s fiction or action-packed fantasy fiction where you might end the first book on something of a cliffhanger, and the sequel’s opening chapter picks up directly from where you left off.

Your sequel might take place in the same setting or settings as the first book or you might explore new settings.

My first book The Lido is set in South London but for the sequel, I moved things to Somerset, specifically to a tranquil stretch of river popular with wild swimmers. I found that a change of location provided me with plenty of new material to write about. Matson Taylor does a similar thing but the opposite way around with his Up Lit novels: the first book, The Miseducation of Evie Epworth, takes place in a rural setting, telling the story of a teenager growing up in Yorkshire, and the second, All About Evie, moves things to the city where Evie is working for the BBC in London. A contrasting location like this can work well for a sequel as it provides an opportunity to show characters who readers know and love from the first story facing new challenges in a new environment.

I might explore new settings in The Lifeline but both books exist within the same world, both in the literal sense (my books are contemporary novels inspired by real places) and also in the tone and overall feel. I wanted it to feel like a smooth experience for a reader to move from one book to the next, something that it’s worth thinking about if you are considering writing a sequel. Readers will likely be picking up your sequel because they enjoyed your first book so there is an expectation to give them a similar type of reading experience the second time around.

Some sequels choose to tell the next chapter of the story from the perspective of the same main character or characters as the original.

But sometimes an author might revisit a more minor character from the original and make them the main character in the sequel, like Julia Quinn does in her Bridgerton novels where the sequels focus on different characters in and around the Bridgerton family.  

You might also introduce new characters in your sequel alongside old favourites.  

I chose a combination of old and new for The Lifeline by using a dual-perspective narrative where the two main characters are Kate, who was a main character in The Lido and Phoebe, who is an entirely new character.

I felt this approach helped me create a thread between the previous book and the new story whilst also moving things on for my readers. Because as I’ll talk about next, what a sequel isn’t is a repeat of the first book. 

A sequel is not the same story all over again

A good sequel might have strong links to the first story, with common characters or settings, themes or issues—or all of these—but it must still feel like a new story. This is something that my publisher continually stressed to me when we were discussing the prospect of me writing a sequel: the sequel would have to move the story forward, should feel like a fresh new approach and should work as a novel in its own right irrespective of the original.

A successful sequel retains elements of what readers loved about the original but should also feel like an entirely new reading experience.

Even if people loved the original, you will quickly lose the reader’s interest if you try to serve them the same thing again. Think about sequels that you have especially enjoyed—both for books and films—and those that have left you feeling cold. For me, the sequels that fail to hit the mark are where I feel like I’ve been given the same story repackaged in a new—or worse, a not particularly new—way.

If you are thinking about writing a sequel, think about how your sequel will move forward your story in a meaningful way. Why does this story warrant a new chapter? What do you have to say that’s new and that you didn’t cover in the first book?

A good example of a story being moved forward in a sequel is After You, the sequel to Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. While the ending to Me Before You is beautiful, it also leaves the reader with plenty of unanswered questions that warrant another chapter of the story. New themes are introduced in the second book as Louisa Clark grapples with grief and in the third, Still Me, a shift in location to New York brings new challenges and new characters to continue to drive Louisa’s story forward.

The appeal of writing a sequel

One of the things that I most enjoyed about writing my sequel was returning to the characters that I knew and loved from the original book. When you write a novel the characters might be imagined but they come to feel very real to you, the writer (and hopefully to the reader too). Writing a sequel to The Lido and getting to spend time with some of the characters from that story felt like hanging out with old friends again.

Finishing writing a novel feels like closing a door on a world and characters that you have lovingly nurtured into being. It felt like a treat to be able to open that door again in writing a sequel.

readers loved sequels which follow the same rules as the previous book but have their own story arcs

The challenges of writing a sequel

When writing a sequel, all the same challenges apply as they would if you were writing a standalone novel.

Your novel must have a strong hook, a sellable premise and a clear and compelling overall story arc. You need to grab your reader with your opening chapter and ensure the characters feel real, compelling and have fully-formed character arcs.

You need to consider the standard elements of all good stories: character development, conflict, plotting, pace

Except writing a sequel brings its own set of challenges too.

When writing The Lifeline, I was briefed that the book needed appeal to all of the following: readers who had read and loved The Lido; readers who had read The Lido but several years ago and who might have forgotten aspects of the story; and also completely new readers who had not read the original (and had maybe never read any of my books).

This created a real challenge: I needed the story to appeal to both readers who knew the characters and the story that preceded this one, and also those who were coming in ‘cold’ with no preconceptions. It needed to feel like a follow-up but also a standalone book.

How do you achieve that in practice? The short answer is: not easily!

Moving the story on sufficiently helped—in this book I throw the main character from my first book into a totally new setting at a new stage in her life. This meant that there wasn’t too much backstory that the reader actually needed to know in order to understand the story. My main character Kate is in a completely new environment and very much out of her comfort zone so it isn’t essential to her current circumstances to know everything that has happened leading up to that point. Having read The Lido will certainly add more nuance and a deeper understanding to reading The Lifeline, but the events in this new book are so different to those in the original that they make sense on their own.

The common—and useful—writing advice ‘show don’t tell’ is especially important when it comes to the character descriptions in a sequel. I didn’t want to annoy existing readers by telling them things they already knew about my characters, but at the same time I needed to make sure new readers got under the skin of my characters. To get around that I tried to focus on just showing my characters behaving in ways that demonstrated their personality, fears and desires rather than feeling the need to fill the reader in on too much backstory by telling them a lot of information from the first book.

I think my readers are pretty smart and I trust them to pick up what they need to know without always having to give all the context and backstory. If you write a sequel where the characters have fully developed arcs and there is plenty of conflict and interest then you will hopefully pull the reader along with you regardless of whether they have read the original material.

Writing a sequel also brought emotional challenges. At times I felt daunted by the prospect of writing a follow-up to my most successful novel. What if people don’t like it? What if I disappoint people?

I feel incredibly fortunate to have received kind messages from readers over the years telling me how much they enjoyed The Lido, and I am very grateful to all the readers who bought that book and set me on my career path as an author. I felt a strong sense of responsibility not to disappoint my readers or let them down in any way. But ultimately, I moved through these anxieties by reminding myself that this is my story. No one cares about the characters in The Lido—and now The Lifeline—more than me. They came from my heart and soul (and thanks to many cups of tea and biscuits).

When I write I am always thinking about my reader because I want to write books that entertain and move, and that people want to read. But my advice to any writer, whether writing a standalone or a sequel, would be to stay true to what you really want to write. To write a story that you just can’t not write. That’s how strongly you feel about the characters and the premise. Despite all the challenges of writing a sequel, The Lifeline was the book I wanted—and needed—to write at this moment in my life. It touches on my experiences of becoming a mother and my love of wild swimming, and focusing on the pull of those things helped whenever the writing felt tough.

Questions to think about if you are considering writing a sequel

If you are considering writing a sequel I would start by asking yourself why you want to write a sequel. If it’s because you think it will be easier to write a sequel than to come up with a new story, I would urge you to think more carefully.

If I’m honest there is probably part of me that did think that writing a sequel would be easier than writing a novel completely from scratch. Surely with themes and characters already established it would be less work? But I found The Lifeline harder to write than any of my previous books. Getting that balance right between appealing to existing and new readers felt really difficult. I worked hard to wrap things up in a satisfying way in the first book so revisiting the story meant having to create new conflicts and show new, different growth in the main character. I had to unpick the stitches I’d neatly sewn up in my first book and then tie them up neatly again in a new formation.

I never wanted to write a sequel just for the sake of writing a sequel. It was important for me to have new things to say, which is perhaps why it took me six years between finishing my first book and writing its follow-up.

If you are thinking of writing a sequel, here are some questions you will need to consider:

  • How far in the future do you want to set your sequel?
  • Do you want to stick to the same location or choose a new location? If you are keeping the same location—how will you make it feel different in this iteration?
  • Who is going to be your main character/s? Are they the same as the main character/s in your original?
  • What themes do you want to explore? Do you want to include new themes or develop the same themes from your original but present new angles and perspectives?
  • How are you going to appeal to both existing readers and new readers?

And once you have your idea fleshed out, ask yourself whether your sequel contains the following:

  • Beloved characters from your first book who readers will enjoy meeting again?
  • New characters, too?
  • An original premise that would stand up even if it weren’t a sequel?
  • Different stakes, a different angle, new conflicts and new character arcs compared to the first instalment?

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What to do if you have an idea for a series

If you are writing your first book and think you might one day like to write a sequel or even a whole series, there are some things you can do in your first novel to set yourself up for writing a successful sequel.

Although I didn’t have a sequel in mind when I wrote The Lido, I did put a lot of thought into creating a colourful cast of characters in that book (a key component of any Up Lit novel). Having a good mix of main characters and minor characters you know and love in Book One will make it much easier to revisit and develop them further for any future books.

Knowing your characters inside out and spending time fleshing out their backstories is going to make writing any novel much easier, whether it’s a standalone book or whether you envision there being a sequel. But it becomes even more important to know your characters really well if you’re thinking about writing a sequel because you will need to develop new character arcs for them and go even deeper.

In your first book, build a world that you might like to return to one day. Put time into establishing locations, characters and themes that feel ripe with opportunity. This will not only make your original book better but it will set you up well for writing a sequel.

If you have a sequel or sequels in mind, a word of caution when writing your first book: don’t save ‘the good stuff’ for future books. Even if you have a spin-off in mind, your original story needs to deliver a complete, engaging and unique tale. Especially if you are a debut author looking to get published for the first time, you want to do everything you can to make that book a uniquely compelling proposition for an agent and a publisher.

Don’t hold back. Go big with your first book.

The opportunity to write a sequel only came about for me because of the success of my first book and maybe things would have been different if I had ‘saved’ potential storylines for the future when writing The Lido.

It’s great if you have ideas in mind for future books (and do keep a note of them somewhere!). Do sow seeds in that first book that could be picked up in future books, be they compelling characters you’d love to revisit or themes that are so rich in emotion and potential conflict that they could be approached again from a new angle. But your priority in any book is always that specific book. Give it all you’ve got.

For one-on-one help writing your novel, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry today. Sign up for courses, coaching and a community from the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Libby Page. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Libby Page

Libby Page is the bestselling author of four novels. The Lido became a Sunday Times bestseller within its first week of publication and has been published in more than 23 territories around the world.

Members of The Novelry team