Congratulations! You made it through the first book! And your characters are so cute together :3.
So… what happens next?
Sequels are tricky, because there’s so much comparison between your first book and your second. If they need to be bigger than (and not just on par with) book one, what does that mean for the romantic arc?
There are many directions you can go. While none are objectively better than others (and the list isn’t exhaustive), some will fit your narrative and characters better. I hope this list is helpful as you work through the tricky question: what next?
1. The Break-up – New Love Interest
You know that kiss you were so excited for at the end of the last book?
We’re just friends now :3
This was done in The Princess Diaries and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, with interestingly different approaches and emphases.
The climax of The (first) Princess Diaries (disclaimer: I’ve only seen the films) was Mia’s leg-popping kiss with the cute boy in the band. We waited the whole film for this, and the “leg-pop” expectation that was built up during the film was a clever way to make it more satisfying. The film set up that when her leg pops up it’s a proper kiss with someone she truly loves.
Good old rom-coms, helping us find the perfect man.
Imagine my disappointment when the second film starts with “yeah so we dated for a bit and then decided it wasn’t working so we’re just friends now.”
But he made your leg pop! How could he not be the perfect man??
(Apologies to anyone who hasn’t seen Princess Diaries, this must be mildly confusing XD.)
In Harry Potter, however, breakdown of the relationship felt more like a natural part of Harry’s character arc. Harry has been in love with Cho for two years now, but when they finally get together, her ex-boyfriend Cedric’s shadow seems to hang over the relationship even before it starts. You can see the relationship deteriorate, and realise before the characters do that it’s not going to last. In this case, their romantic climax wasn’t undermined as in The Princess Diaries, because we could see what was going wrong and knew they weren’t right for each other before we started to take them too seriously.
The Break-up is a convenient technique, and may work in certain circumstances, but please don’t use it as a cop-out. Let us see why the relationship won’t work before you break them up. This will help us root more for the new relationship, instead of feeling betrayed and disappointed that the one we wanted didn’t work out, or wasn’t convenient for the author.
2. The Matchmaker – New Couple
Okay, you two are done. Who’s next?
It took me a g e s to come up with a better example than a pretty cringey series I found in my high school library, so I had to ask around. Even without a specific example, it’s easy to describe: the first couple live happily ever after, and now we move onto the side-character. Who’s available for this guy? (Any takers?)
This has its merits, especially if you’re writing a series featuring unrelated characters (such as a murder mystery series), or if you really enjoy watching romances develop between your characters. You can explore love from a new perspective, with new themes, through new characters. They’ll have different quirks, different flaws and different traits.
I suppose that would be my main tip for this approach: make it different to book one. Maybe, instead of haters-to-lovers, you use a friends-to-lovers approach. Maybe it moves quickly instead of slowly. If the characters are different to those in book one, the romance will have its own flavour, and your readers will be less likely to compare it to the first book.
The Illuminae Files used this technique really well. Each book in the trilogy follows a different couple, who all have their own unique challenges to overcome. And it was the perfect way to approach this trilogy because even if you read the blurb for book three, you didn’t know if the characters from book one had survived that far… :0
My other tip would be to consider using technique 3 or 4 for your main couple simultaneously. The cringey-high-school book I mentioned earlier put me off this technique (unfairly) because the couple from book one became this perfect, stagnant couple. They were always together (usually touching each other) and had approximately one brain and half a personality between them. Conflict in their relationship would have helped them to feel more human, and show how their relationship is still developing.
3. The Next Step – New Stage in the Relationship
Depending on where you left it, you can set up a new romantic climax for them to work towards. For example, maybe the romantic climax of the first book was their first kiss. What could be the next climax?
- They win over each others’ families
- They debut as a couple in society
- They get engaged or married
- They have a baby
Shrek is a good example of this:
Shrek I: They fall in love and get married
Shrek II: Shrek meets Fiona’s family
Shrek III: They have children
Shrek IV: They adjust to life with children
Frozen and Frozen II also use this model, as does Brooklyn 99, and I’m sure you can think of others! (Please share them in the comments!)
This technique creates new conflict within the relationship as the characters navigate unknown waters, and learn to do so together. It can also push them to other people around them (eg finding family members they can hear advice from).
These new challenges don’t have to be big life-changing events like having a baby, but it should create conflict somehow. Another kiss won’t feel as momentous, because they did that last book. Choose a logical next step that will force the characters to question how much they’re willing to sacrifice for their loved one.
4. The Troublemaker – New Conflict within the Relationship
This is similar to number three, except that here, the challenge comes from within the relationship rather than outside it. A classic example is the “misunderstanding trope”, where the couple has a fight or stops talking because of a misunderstanding. At the end of the book, they finally sit down and talk about it, and peace is restored because… there wasn’t really a problem in the first place.
Every person is unique, so every relationship between people (romantic or otherwise) will contain conflict. That may be in the form of a fight, or a silent decision to compromise. For the purposes of writing, both are internal conflict.
If you need some ideas to get started, try listing out all the ways the two are different to each other, starting with where they were born and how they grew up, and working up to adulthood. What will they need to come to understand, in order to understand the other person? At what point will they decide they’ve done enough? Here are some questions that might help:
- How do they approach problems?
- How do they respond to the long-term effects of the events of the previous book?
- How has their culture and family shaped them?
- How do they plan?
- Where do they place their self-worth? (Eg in their skills or in what other people think of them.)
- What do they consider romantic? How do they show love?
- What do they want from the relationship?
- How do they argue and respond to conflict?
Let’s choose one of those and flesh out an example. “How do they plan?”
*Cue example made up on the spot*
Heather and Tom (oh my goodness this feels like a marriage counselling book already o_o
Wait hang on I can make it more like a marriage counselling book…)
Heather and Tom* (*not their real names) have been together for a few months now. They met fighting the tyrannical government (no longer feels like a marriage counselling book, eh?), and bonded over shared trauma, political discussions and sarcasm. Now that they’ve won the fight for their country, they and their allies are struggling to control a starving and rioting public, while those who support the government try to rebuild the power they’ve lost.
Tom stays up late at night, researching the policies of other countries and agricultural procedures to see how they can best feed the nation. He develops a plan that, while risky, should pacify the people and have enough crops within a year. He believes that if they can create a world that is better than the one they overthrew, they’ll convince the people that their way is better than the old government’s.
Heather is distressed. She wants to go and stand before the people, but Tom seems to be hiding from them in his room, his nose buried in books. He says he’s researching, but she sees it as delaying. How can they convince the public of their plan, if the people don’t know and trust them?
Tom thinks Heather is rushing into it; Heather thinks Tom is hiding from their problems.
As the tension and stakes of the book build, you can see how their internal conflict will also grow. Heather isn’t sure if Tom is even on her side anymore. She starts to distrust him, and the whispers that someone is spying on them for the government supporters make her watch his closed door with worry. How can she believe the plans he puts forward are really best for the people, when they’re as autocratic as the government they just overthrew?
As they approach the climax, Heather will have to decide whether she can trust Tom. Tom will have to decide whether he should allow Heather to talk to the public without a finalised plan. They will have to learn to trust each other, and therefore to compromise, when the stakes are so high.
The climax may be Tom deciding to trust Heather by allowing her to stand in front of the rioting crowds. Then Heather might decide that she’s not the one to bring them hope.
And then Tom betrays everyone and—I’m sorry, I’m not sure what just happened. XD
Unlike The Next Step, this romantic climax doesn’t have to be bigger than in book one. If Heather and Tom kissed in book one, they can kiss in book two as well. But this kiss will have a deeper meaning, because they’ve gone through a lot in this book, and still decided to stay together.
Here’s a table to summarise:
|The break-up||End the relationship and start again||The Princess Diaries, HP and the Order of the Phoenix||You get to start a new romance 🙂||It can undermine the whole “finding true love” in the first book|
|The Matchmaker||Move onto a new couple in the same series||The Illuminae Files||You get to start a new romance and keep the old one 🙂||Book one’s couple should still find conflict, to feel human.|
|The next step||The couple must navigate a new stage in their relationship||Brooklyn 99, Frozen, Shrek, A Christmas Prince (unfortunately)||You can keep the relationship moving forward and find new sources of tension||The new climax must be bigger than the first book’s.|
|The Troublemaker||The couple must overcome new conflict in their relationship||To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Pirates of the Caribbean||You can explore how the relationship changes over time, and what the characters will need to overcome to stay together||May not be as satisfying as the romantic climax in book one|
Please note that you’re not limited to one technique per book. If you choose The Next Step, there will be Troublemakers along the way. You might also add a Match-maker as a sub-plot. The important thing is to choose the one that makes sense for your characters, genre and story.
So, wonderful Romance-Writers, what are your favourite sequels? Which techniques will you use in your books?