Thursday, November 18, 2010

Left Hanging or ...?

A couple of weeks ago, Susanna was talking about bit players – secondary characters who stand out in some way, the ones who clamour to have their own story told. In other words, a sequel. So are sequels a good thing or not?

Personally, I love them if they’re well done. It can be like putting on your favourite pair of old shoes. You slip comfortably into a world you know and love and you get to revisit what feels like old friends. There’s less effort needed to acquaint yourself with a new environment and you can just sit back and enjoy.

There’s nothing more satisfying than to follow a group of characters through several volumes and at the end of the series, it all finishes exactly the way you wanted it to. Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series was like that for me. I think there were twenty books in all, but the final one ended with the kind of scene that just made you go “aaahh…” And although I was sad that there wouldn’t be any more, I was happy at the same time because it felt complete.

However, I prefer it if sequels can stand alone too. Each one should be able to be enjoyed on its own, without actually needing the others. Sure, it’s a bonus if you already know and love this world, but if you happen to pick up a book somewhere in the middle of a series, it should be possible to read that without getting confused.

For some years I organised a literary award, and the thing I received most complaints about were sequels. The readers said they couldn’t understand some of them because they hadn’t read the previous book. They were also sometimes left hanging, with a few of the plot strands left unresolved for the next novel in the series. That’s not very satisfying. It’s like being teased when you can’t retaliate for some reason.

I recently followed a drama series on TV for weeks on end, only to find that almost all the plot strands have been left unresolved and “there will be another series next year”. I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough! I felt cheated – I’d invested a lot of time in catching every episode, I deserved better. Readers of sequels do to.

We’ve discussed endings before on this blog, and I think we all agreed that it’s an author’s job to leave their readers satisfied (or viewers if you’re writing for the screen). Even if the ending of a book isn’t completely happy, it has to be satisfying. Being teased isn’t, that’s just annoying. I appreciate the fact that the author (and publisher) wants to sell more books. Fair enough. You want to keep the readers coming back for more. But there are ways of doing it so that it still feels right.

Take the recent Sherlock Holmes film, for instance (starring the lovely Robert Downey Jr). It ends with him saving the day, but then at the very last minute the viewers find out that the man he’s been chasing just got his hands on a vital invention and he’s called Moriarty. For any Sherlock Holmes fan, that’s a clear signal that Moriarty will be Holmes’s next opponent and although for the moment, Moriarty is not a threat, he will be at some time in the near future. In other words, there’s a sequel in the offing, but the ending of this film still felt good. I left the cinema content that Holmes had won the day. That’s how books should be too, I think.

Cliff-hangers are all well and good, but only at the end of a chapter, not the whole book, I think. How about you, do you mind being left hanging or is it just me being impatient?

Please come back on Sunday to see what Liz has to say.


  1. I absolutely agree with your comments about sequels having to be to stand alone. There will always be a lapse of time between books, and the person who's read the first book is likely to have forgotten parts of it, and needs reminding, just as much as a new reader needs to be filled in on what's happened before.

    It's frustrating when you don't know enough of the background to understand what's going on, and it's equally frustrating when new strands of plot are introduced into a book at the last minute, merely to encourage the reader to read the next book. It feels too manipulative.

    Giving sufficient information at the start of book two or book three is a skill in itself, though. There is nothing worse than a book that begins with a huge chunk of 'telling' in order to bring the reader up to date. The information needed needs to be as skilfully introduced as does any back story into the opening of the first book.

    Liz X

  2. Can't stand sequels. Sorry, but I can't. Just makes me think that the author lacks the imagination to dream up another set of people/world and prefers to carry on thrashing the one they've already got in their heads. Every time I announce I have a new book there is always at least one person who says 'ooh, is it a sequel?' There is a little rubber room reserved for me at those times.

  3. Liz, you're right about it being difficult to give the reader just enough information at the start of book two/three or whatever - it can be very tricky and as you say, huge chunks of information are never good. There has to be a perfect balance somehow.

    Jane - I can see your point, but there are some secondary characters that just beg you to write their own story and won't leave you alone until you have. Maybe yours are better behaved than mine!? :)

  4. I think the best sequels/series are the ones that aren't just a reaction to the success of the first book. The best ones have a large story arc that spans the entire series and is only resolved in the last book, but each book within the series also has its own unique plot that gets wrapped up at its end. I think the Harry Potter books are a great example of this.

    The other way I think authors can write sequels successfully is to have the subsequent book(s) set in the same world, perhaps with the same characters, but telling a completely separate story from the previous book(s). Terry Pratchett does this really well. And both of those authors have got the art down of highlighting the necessary backstory/info to understand the world and the characters' situation without doing it in a boring way.

    The books/movies that really bother me are the ones that seem less like there's a clearly defined larger story-arc that wants telling, and more like they anticipated it to be a success and are setting up a sequel to milk that success. Hollywood seems to be especially bad about this.

  5. It's a difficult balancing act. I think you need to wrap up your story in the book, but the readers need to know it's part of a series. I hate it when there is a chapter of the next book at the back, It always makes me think I've read the book when it comes out.

    I like it when there is something left to do in the book that will be completed in the series at some point. I am currently writing the first book in a series and the protagonist is blinded in this book but is able to solve the problem of the story. In the next book - or books - his problem will be related to the blindness and a different story arc.

  6. I really prefer reading books that are not a part of a series. If everything is wrapped up nicely in the end, there's no need to go back into the characters' lives, no matter how much I've loved spending time with them. I hate series where the characters change as they get older and their relationships break down. I also do not like series that keep ending with the major problem unresolved, on and on for ten to twelve books and it's obvious the author is just spinning it out.

    However there are some series that I've enjoyed - either I've read the books end to end, so it's just like one longer book, or each book has been able to stand on its own so well that the journey back into that world has been a delight.

  7. Seabrooke - I agree about having a large story arc that's resolved at the end of the series, but with smaller ones for each book so that they end satisfactorily for the time being. That's the best way. And yes, Hollywood sequels are terrible sometimes! (Although to be fair, there are some brilliant ones as well - Die Hard 4 for example, one of my favourites, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films).

    Perry - no, I don't like having the first chapter of the next book at the end either because if the author has done her/his job right, they draw you in right from the start and you're left wanting more - only you can't have it for ages. Very frustrating.

    Sofie - absolutely! I definitely prefer not to be shown any bad things about a couple who I left as a "happy-ever-after" in the previous book. Of course we know they have to age etc and relationships don't always work out, but I'd rather not know.

    Thanks for all your comments!

  8. I think I fall in the sometimes category with regard to sequels...and all the points are valid. I think it helps to know at the start or middle or middle or wherever you pick up that something is part of a series or sequel. Sometimes that is exactly what I want and think this is something we learned to enjoy more because of has encouraged our enjoyment of this. TV has given a need for things in bite sized amounts...drip fed regularly. This can work for novels - particularly certain genres very well...

    Interesting post...