G is a young writer who emailed me with some questions about the craft. Since the questions were intelligent ones that bear discussion, I offered to answer them in an ongoing series of blog posts.
Today's question: What's the best way to set a book up for a sequel without making it obvious? One of the big things about my book is that it's part of a series. From my research, I've learned that most first time authors have a lot more trouble publishing when their book is first in a series.
It's a great question.
There are two kinds of series. One kind is when you follow a character from book to book as s/he encounters stand alone adventures. There are recurring secondary characters and the main character may grow and change over time, and there may even be a plot string or two that occur over the course of the series, but for the most part, each book can stand completely on its own. The fact that it is part of a series is great but reading one doesn't necessitate reading a second or third in order to get the whole story. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series or Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series are both great examples of this. I'll call these a Character Series.
The other kind of series is the purposeful series in which the overarching story plays out over more than one book. Think G.R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. Let's call this a Story Series.
In writing a first book in a Character Series, the biggest focus should be on that single book. Make sure it is a great book that stands on its own two firm feet. Ensuring that there is room for a second book is only a small part of a book like this, not the main focus. This book, and each of the others in the series, stands alone and you could pick up any of them and get enjoyment from it without having read any others in the series. 99% of the effort should be on the book at hand, and 1% about setting up future books or continuing existing series plot threads.
Interestingly, when Block finished When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, he thought the series was over because Scudder had faced the fact that he was an alcoholic. Then he realized he had a lot more Scudder tales to tell, so he picked up the thread again, and we got more books that stood alone as mysteries. But we also saw Scudder venture into sobriety, and eventually marry.
In a Story Series, you know going in that there will be a sequel(s), and that the sequel(s) is necessary to tell the entire story. But the first book still has to be a satisfying segment of the story. One way to accomplish this is to have an intermediate goal for the heroes to accomplish, and the first book is about striving toward that goal. A reader can enjoy some aspect of a finished goal that way, but the ending should also set up the next big step in the series, too. Think about how Star Wars ended...the Death Star destroyed, but the rebellion still not over. A battle won, but not the war.
This is a very simplified explanation of what some very talented authors accomplish with strong craft, but hopefully it points G (and anyone else contemplating the same question) in the right direction.
Of course, I welcome any further thoughts on this question...