Right now I’m starting to flesh out my rather skeletal outline for the sequel to Project Jekribo and I started to make a list of things I needed to accomplish in that book, especially as it needs to be true to the first book but be strong on its own at the same time. The following are a couple of the things I came up with and decided that these ones were worth sharing, in spite of their jumbledness.
Growth: You need to decide “what did my characters learn” from the previous book, and “where can they still progress?” In other words, what did they improve at in book one and what are some things they still need to learn in book two?
Hallmarks: What things set each character apart from any other character? These things can be speech patterns (very important) or other things, such as ideologies, habits, quirks, et cetera.
Unanswered questions: What sorts of things went unanswered in the previous book? How are you going to answer those questions in a satisfying way? There are several methods:
1) The “Boromir” Method: In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien ends the first book with the battle in which the Fellowship gets split up. However, Tolkien ends the book in the midst of the battle. He doesn’t even finish it up. Tolkien starts the Two Towers with the death of Boromir. Honestly, it happens a page and a half into the book. If you haven’t read it or seen the movies, well tough beans, there’s a spoiler for you. (Also, what in the world is wrong with you and why are you reading this if you haven’t read Lord of the Rings?)This is one thing that the movie does better than the books because it brings things to a satisfying (albeit sad) end.
At any rate, the Boromir variety of unanswered questions with its corresponding method of answering them seems to be a dirty rotten trick. Tolkien’s work isn’t a really big deal for us today, seeing as we can read the books all the way through if we’d like, but the intervening five-ish months people had to wait after reading the book in July of 1954 and getting the TWO PAGES that finished up the battle in November of that year must have completely frustrating. (Also, many thanks to Wikipedia for the publishing dates.)
2) The second method is what I call the TV Series Method. We’ve all watched those shows where the characters have X mystery they are trying to solve (usually for several seasons, often regarding the fate of some parent or another) and Y clue or Z piece of information is always SOOO close, but it never gets snagged. For three frickin’ seasons. Sometimes even the entire series (in which case, they have to make a crappy movie afterwards to tie up all the loose ends).
Just as the Boromir example makes us all go “Wow, really?” because of its cheap trickery-ness, so too should this type of thing make us all simultaneously cringe and break out into homicidal rage. For the record though, I’m not really suggesting homicidal rage as a way of dealing with literary or television-related angst.
3) The Treat-Your-Audience-Like-They’re-Smart Method: This involves not being a prick and actually thinking that your audience might be as smart as, if not smarter, than you and/or your characters. If you laid all of the pieces down on the board in book one in a heavy-handed “Oh my, this knife suspiciously has blood all over it, and it’s in the dead guy’s enemy’s chambers, but I’m not going to realize the significance of this until the third act” sort of way, then you’re treating your audience like they’re stupid. What you’re really expressing when you do this is that your readers (or watchers) are not going to notice this bit of information or skim over it, only to recall it when you solve the mystery. It doesn’t work that way. Most people are smarter than that.
The other side of this is not making your characters too stupid either. If your characters are supposed to be smart, capable individuals, and you’ve given them all of the evidence to answer your unanswered questions, then you need to reevaluate, because if they’re as smart as you or your reader, they’ll have figured it out.
Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t give your readers information that the character doesn’t have. Maybe the reader has a piece of information from early on in the book that reveals the opinions another character may have to be erroneous. For example, if you’re writing a murder mystery and you have a scene from the viewpoint of the victim identifying the killer as (for example) a male, and later on the protagonist suspects a female, the reader is going to know that the protagonist is wrong. However, this allows you to retain your reader’s respect for your character, as they know the person isn’t just being stupid, but acting rationally on the information he or she has.
And that’s the sharable part of my list so far. I could go on forever about unanswered questions alone, but I don’t think the world needs my book on the subject plastered on my website.