Writing Sequels, Developing Your Dystopian World: An Encore Guest Post by Madeline Dyer
In conjunction with the release of her debut novel, Untamed, last year, Madeline Dyer wrote about using current and past events to develop a dystopian world. She returns to the blog one year later with her sequel, Fragmented. I asked her to write about setting and worldbuilding, how a sequel often explores these in more depth, because that was something I faced in writing Surviving Santiago. The companion to Gringolandia (considered a companion rather than a sequel because it has a different protagonist), takes place almost entirely in Santiago, Chile at the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, a setting that occupies less than a third of the earlier book. To create my setting, I used a lot of research that didn’t make it onto the pages of Gringolandia, but, as Madeline points out, the process of building and deepening the world is somewhat different in dystopian fiction. She also faced the challenge of bringing forward fantasy elements that existed in the background of her debut novel.
I’ve heard so many writers say that writing a sequel is harder than writing a standalone. But it wasn’t until I began writing the second book in my dystopian Untamed Series that I fully appreciated this warning. Sequels are hard. In most cases, you’ve got the same characters, but a new plot – one that more often than not demonstrates considerable character development.
But characters aren’t the only thing that should be developed in a sequel. I’m a firm believer that any sequel should also reveal something new about the world in which the action’s set – particularly if it’s a fictional world. A second book in a series should give the readers new information, expanding the worldbuilding and creating new layers. After all, the first book can’t possibly tell us every single detail about a fictitious world. No, it only tells us the things that are relevant to understanding the action, and the motivation of characters, in book one. So, when book two has a different plot – more action, more drama, more tension – it stands to reason that different parts of the worldbuilding are going to be more crucial to this new book and will need to be explained in a more detailed way that adds an extra layer.
When I began writing book two in my dystopian Untamed Series, I knew that the sequel would reveal a lot more about the fictitious world my characters inhabit, particularly as the second instalment in my series focuses on and blows up one aspect that was previously only part of the background of book one. Suddenly, this new thing becomes very important – surprising many of the characters – and to understand it properly, I had to concentrate on my worldbuilding. Several new questions arose and I had to make sure it all worked out perfectly and made sense. I spent weeks going through my world, making sure that this new layer wouldn’t contradict anything that’s already stated in book one, making sure that this deepening of the worldbuilding felt natural to readers and to the plot.
The world that my debut novel, Untamed, introduces readers to is a dystopian society blended with fantasy. In some ways this made it easier to deepen the worldbuilding in book two. Whereas, Untamed is more heavily weighted on the dystopian side of things (around 60/40, I’d say), Fragmented switches this balance for a good part of the story. And this new focus on the fantasy elements in my Untamed world – such as the spirits that wander the world and our main character’s prophetic Seer visions – provided me with the perfect opportunity to deepen the worldbuilding without dropping in something completely new. After all, all the fantasy elements that I explore more deeply in this manuscript are already mentioned in book one. We just learn more about them and how and why they interact with the dystopian society to the extent that we’ve already seen. That doesn’t mean these questions aren’t already answered in book one – because they are. Book two just brings further depth to these answers, as well as introducing a new angle and a new way to view what you’ve already learned, enabling readers to understand further the tumultuous nature of the Untamed world – an understanding that also helps readers comprehend the behaviour of the new characters in Fragmented.
I think it’s really important not to introduce completely new elements of the world in a sequel. After all, if something huge appears for the first time in book two, readers would wonder why they’d not come across it in book one. That’s why, when writing a first book in a series, I like to write in as many details into the worldbuilding as I can, details that I can later elaborate upon, or that can provide a new angle or perspective on the world.
Diving into the history of your fictional world is a great place to start, because there will be little things in there that you can draw out to provide extra information about your world. But how do you introduce these in a believable way?
One of my favourite methods for adding depth to an already-established world is to introduce new characters (quite often ones who’ve had different experiences than the main characters of book one), and see how they react to the world they’re in. After all, each person will react to something slightly differently, depending on previous experiences, memories, and beliefs. And just as some people in the real world know more about our history, so do some characters; having your main character talk to a new character about their own past and experiences is a great way to slip in new details of the worldbuilding – yet they should still be details that make sense, details that fit into the grid provided by book one.
Yet, deepening the worldbuilding through a conversation can be tricky, as you still need the dialogue to read naturally. For this reason, I love memories. People are haunted by their memories, and shaped by them too. An individual’s memories and experiences will motivate them in different ways. You can explain why someone is behaving like they are and link it to the rules of the society, and potentially to an event they experienced because of their society.
And that’s the thing: when deepening your worldbuilding and providing new layers and details, it mustn’t seem like that’s what you’re doing. It still needs to be worked cleverly into the story, and it still needs to have a purpose – most often to answer a question that the reader will have. Avoid long paragraphs that introduce a new aspect in a heavy way, because that could seem unnatural, as though you’re just dumping the info just to get it out there. Like backstory, worldbuilding should be woven seamlessly into a manuscript.
Madeline Dyer lives in the southwest of England, and holds a BA honours degree in English from the University of Exeter. She has a strong love for anything dystopian, ghostly, or paranormal, and can frequently be found exploring wild places. At least one notebook is known to follow her wherever she goes. Her debut novel, Untamed (Prizm Books, May 2015), examines a world in which anyone who has negative emotions is hunted down, and a culture where addiction is encouraged. Her second novel, Fragmented, is set to hit shelves in September 2016.
Great post, Madeline! Thanks for hosting, Lyn.
It just so happens that I’m working on the second book of my series, so your advice came at just the right time. Love your points about deepening the world building by revealing new aspects to the reader. It’s so hard to avoid info dumping.
I never know how much backstory is too much though. In a second book, you have to reveal at least some backstory from the first book. Do you have any advice on how much information to reveal in the second book of a series for readers who might skip the first book?