You’ve finished your story. You got it published in your medium of choice. Now you’re sipping a mai tai on some tropical beach, basking in your success and struggling only with those little umbrellas they put in your drink.1
Then your representative calls (agent? editor? director?). The company that put your story into the mass market wants a sequel.
Just one problem: You told your story. It has a beginning. A middle. And most importantly, an end. The hero wins. The bad guy loses. All the loose ends are tied up neatly with precise little bows.
You left yourself nothing to build a sequel off of.2
So you set to work creating a new antagonist and try to recapture the excitement and tension of your first story. You know, because like me you’re a student of the Maass school of storytelling, that you need to up the tension. That means making the new antagonist worse in some way than the one in the first story.
I think we can all think of sequels that work like this. Where the storyteller didn’t leave an out. A way to continue the adventures of the popular protagonist after the conclusion of the first story.
When you’re telling your story, leave yourself an out or four. Just in case. This ties into the general advice of using foreshadowing. Let us know there are other concerns in the world you’re building besides those of the immediate story you’re telling now. You needn’t do more than drop a name or mention of something else, something bigger, that you can then bring up in a later story if you need to.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, of course, if you’re proposing your story as a single tale there’s not likely going to be a sequel. But that doesn’t mean for sure there won’t be one. Prepare for the “worst” and hope for the “best,” which in this case is the same thing.
Want examples of what I mean? Rather than harp on the stories and storytellers who get it wrong, let me point out a few examples of those who get it right.
Let’s look at two popular examples from genre stories: The original Star Wars and the first Harry Potter book.
In his first Star Wars film, George Lucas (yes, I’m praising Lucas’s storytelling; don’t get used to it) does a good job of both telling a good, complete story and of leaving room for additional tales in the same universe, with the same characters. Think of the conclusion of the first story: at the end of it, the good guys blow up the immediate threat to themselves and their entire universe. The story could end right there and it would feel complete. On the other hand, Lucas leaves plenty of room for continuing the saga if it proved successful (and, well, it did): the Empire still exists, even though its big toy is destroyed; Darth Vader (the face of the antagonist) is still alive; Han Solo still has a big price on his head. Threads to tie the story into a greater tale, if one could be justified (and it was, obviously).
JK Rowling did the same thing in the first Harry Potter book. At the end of that story, Harry has defeated his arch nemesis, Voldemort. Is Voldemort dead? Who knows? There are hints that, although defeated, Voldemort is still around. Plus, there’s the matter of the ongoing dislike between Harry and Snape. Oh, and Harry’s six more years of school, of course. Lots and lots of threads JK could use to continue the story if her book proved successful enough to warrant sequels. But like Lucas did, she also wrapped up the story nicely. If the book flopped, well, at least those who read it would have a complete story.
So while you’re working out your plot and trying to work in foreshadowing for the conclusion of the story at hand, also try to spare a mention here and there of something else you can build more stories on later. One of the easiest ways to do that is to use the Star Wars example3: make the antagonists more than one person who can be overcome in one simple story, but make sure to give them a face whose defeat definitely creates a closure for the story.
1 Or more likely, sipping wine in your dining room. Stories don’t pay that well. ;)
2This is largely an issue in genre fiction. If you’re telling a traditional romance story or something literary, a sequel is rarely appropriate.
3I only call it the Star Wars example here because I already talked about the saga earlier. In truth, it’s a very common storytelling technique. My current-obsession of The Hunger Games trilogy uses the technique. And earlier this week, Mark Rosewater (head designer for Magic: The Gathering; full disclosure: I work on Magic’s website) answered a question on his Tumblr blog about creating whole races or armies of enemies, instead of focusing on a single bad guy. Also: If anyone can find the Stephen Moffat interview mentioned where he talks about creating groups of enemies for Doctor Who, I’d love to read it.