If you’re writing a series, you might have heard of – or already be quaking in fear of – the dreaded thing called ‘second book syndrome’.
But what exactly is this phenomenon?
Also called ‘middle book syndrome’ or ‘second book slump’, second book syndrome generally refers to an author’s second book not quite living up to their first, particularly if it’s part of a series.
It’s seen in sequels that are lacking the same ‘magic’ of the first book – stories that seem to exist purely as a bridge between Book I and later books, or that lag a little in terms of pacing, plot or character development.
There are many reasons books might suffer from second book syndrome. The author might have succumbed to the pressure following the success of their first book, or they might not have planned their series carefully enough to avoid a sagging second instalment.
No matter what the cause, though, one thing is certain: no author wants their second book to be scorned, overshadowed or seen as a disappointment. They want it to be just as good, if not better than their first book.
So – how can you achieve this?
Let’s dive into six quick tips to help you write that sequel and avoid second book syndrome.
1. Revisit how many books your series actually needs
The first thing we recommend you do, especially if you’re still early in the planning process, is to think long and hard about how many books your series actually needs.
Let’s look at trilogies as an example. They’re pretty standard these days, especially in fantasy series. But this isn’t reason alone to write a trilogy. You need to split your story in a way that benefits the telling of it – not just in a way you assume will make it more attractive to readers or publishers.
Be hyper-critical and honest here. What purpose will each volume of the series serve? How will each part fit together to make a cohesive whole? Will each book truly serve the story, or are you manipulating the story to serve the three-book structure you believe is necessary?
If the second book in a trilogy is at risk of really only containing ‘filler’ content, while the books surrounding it are vital to the story as a whole, it might be worth reconsidering the structure of your series. As author Django Wexler points out:
… It’s easy to say, ‘Well, I’ll make it a trilogy!’ without asking whether that’s really what the story needs. In many cases, the problem with the middle book is that it has no particular reason to exist; if not for the market pressure towards trilogies, the series would have been perfectly happy as two books.”
Continuing in that same vein, let’s move onto tip #2…
2. Make sure the second book has its own plot and story arc
A golden rule for writing a series: each book must be able to stand on its own, a viable story in its own right.
Obviously, readers generally need to consume a series one book after the other in order for it to make sense, with each book contributing to the overarching whole. But each volume should still be a self-contained novel, with its own plot, story arc and set of stakes.
When writing a second book, never think of it as simply a ‘bridging’ book between the first and third books in the series. This attitude will quickly see a story succumbing to second book syndrome. The second book needs to be treated as much as a story of its own as any other book in the series would be.
Here’s author Patrick Ness’ experience:
I did have the advantage that I knew before writing book one of the trilogy what book two would be like. I had general plot points before starting and over-riding themes … and I also knew that it needed to stand alone and be about something on its own terms. So, since I had an over-arching story for the whole trilogy in place, I was able to let that take care of itself and work on turning [book two] into its own, encapsulated plot.”
So, is there an easy way to make sure your second book is able to stand on its own? Let’s move onto tip #3 and see!
3. Try plotting over pantsing
If you’re usually a pantser – that is, someone who does very little plotting before they write, preferring to let the story and characters go where they will – it might be time to rethink your approach for your series, especially if you’re struggling with the second book.
A series that hasn’t been planned or plotted is at risk of meandering into unnecessary territory, and nowhere will that be more obvious than the second book.
A sequel, particularly in a trilogy, is at the greatest risk of sagging and/or dragging in terms of plot and structure, so it’s a good idea to have it mapped out somewhat – both the second book itself and its place in the context of the series as a whole.
Now, we’re not saying you have to plan down to every last scene and sentence, especially if ‘pantsing’ is what usually works best for you. You can still have that sense of spontaneity in your writing; it’s just easier to avoid second book syndrome if you have at least some sort of plan and structure in place to guide you on the way.
If you’re not sure how to approach planning your series, try starting with our ultimate guide or our resources on planning your novel and using the three-act structure.
4. Keep raising the stakes
We’ve spoken before about raising the stakes of your story, but never is this more important than in the second book of a series.
A second book needs to up the ante in terms of what your characters are up against and what they have to lose. No matter how high the stakes were in Book I, you can’t risk simply rehashing the same thing in Book II. As the story progresses, the stakes must be new, different or higher (or even all three).
There is always a way to do this. Your antagonist might discover a new advantage or an increased source of power. Your protagonist’s actions in the first book might have unexpected consequences. You might introduce a plot twist that changes the game entirely.
However you choose to make it happen, raising the stakes in your sequel is a surefire way to ensure you don’t experience second book syndrome.
5. Put the lessons you learned writing Book I to use
Often, the first book in a series will be the first book an author has ever written. If this is the case, you will have learned a lot about the process of planning, writing, editing and storytelling in general – all of which you can put into practice with your second book.
Even if Book I of your series wasn’t your first foray into writing, you will have learned lessons specific to this series that you can put to use when crafting Book II.
What issues did your editor identify throughout the first book that could be avoided this time around? If you worked with beta readers, what were some of the common themes that came up in their feedback – both positive and negative?
Use these insights to improve your process when tackling your second book. While it won’t automatically make the writing process easier (you’ll always face some challenges or difficulties when writing), it will help you go into the writing of Book II with more confidence in your own abilities and a better idea of how to make the process work.
6. Remember why you started writing this series
Sometimes, the difficulty of writing a second book comes from within. You might be tired and burnt-out after working so hard on the first book – especially if you’re an indie author who handles their own book production, marketing and promotion on top of writing.
You might also be feeling the pressures of ‘living up’ to Book I, especially if it was well-received. Writing a series is a serious investment of time and energy, so of course you want every book to be successful.
All these feelings are extremely common. But if they’re making writing Book II a living nightmare, and you’re worried they’re going to have an impact on the story itself, it’s time to take a step back.
Remind yourself why you’re writing this series. Why did you embark on this journey in the first place? What do you love about the characters that makes you want to tell their stories? What makes you excited to dive back into your writing each day?
Rediscover that passion and motivation and tap into it as you tackle your second book. Be confident in yourself and your story, and try to forget all the external pressures. Editing, refining and finessing can come later – for now, lose yourself in the story and write, first and foremost, for yourself.
Authors, what has your experience been with writing the second book in a series? Share with us in the comments!