Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hungry for More: Sequels, Series & Suspense

You’re on the edge of your seat. You’re dying to know how the story ends. And then it ends. And you’re still so involved that the first thing you do is go on and search for the sequel.
This was just my experience. I recently finished the first book in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. I had heard good reviews about the series and saw the trailer for the movie coming out in March, so I decided to buy the first book.
From page one, I was hooked. First, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen first person used so effectively. Second… Well, let’s talk about what elements of The Hunger Games – and other well-scripted stories – leave readers scrambling to find the sequel.
Make us care
The author has to make us care about the characters. Collins starts on page one. Her heroine has to hunt food illegally just to keep her family alive – after her father was killed in a mine explosion. On top of that, the evil Capitol harvests two young adults each year to fight in the annual Hunger Games. Think of the Roman coliseum concept but on steroids, and you’ll get the idea. When her younger sister is selected to participate, Collins’ heroine Katniss volunteers herself to be tribute instead, knowing full well that fighting in the games means almost certain death.
Hands down, Collins has made us care.
Create a cause
Successful TV shows are much like good sequels in that they make you want to come back. One that had me hooked last season was Terra Nova, a sci-fi drama that follows a family who risks everything to stay together.
The saga starts in 2149 when having more than two children is considered a crime. Jim Shannon’s family manages to hide their third child for a time, but eventually, the authorities discover their secret and imprison Jim. Meanwhile, Shannon’s wife, a trauma surgeon, and their other two children have been selected to join a lottery of people and travel back to a prehistoric world through a “fracture” in time. She stages a daring plan to break Jim out of prison, smuggle their third child onto the 10th pilgrimage, keep the family together, and start a new life.
You want a cause? From episode one, you’ll find yourself rooting for this family to survive and help create a new world.
Leave unanswered questions
Readers expect plot resolution, so when something is left unsettled, they start asking questions. Perhaps the most basic and yet effective question to make the audience ask is, “What’s going to happen next?”  
Unanswered questions not only propel the story’s plotline, but also provide the driving force for a sequel.
For example, look at the Anne of Green Gables novels by L. M. Montgomery. There are eight books in the series, and the first book closes with Anne thinking about the future and beyond what she can see. The second to last sentence reads, “And there was always the bend in the road!”
What question does that raise? Naturally, what’s beyond the bend in the road?
Another great example is how C.S. Lewis ends his first book in The Chronicles of Narnia: “And that is the very end of the adventures of the wardrobe. But if the Professor was right, it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.”
Even if the last sentence doesn’t raise a question, an unfinished plot detail may demand further exploration. Maybe the villain gets away, or the love triangle remains unresolved.
I won’t tell you how book one of The Hunger Games ends, but I will say that I just received the two remaining books in the trilogy a few days ago. The second book kept me up most of Friday and part of Saturday night. And I’m not going to touch the third one until I get caught up on my sleep.
What good reads have kept you up at night? And what endings have left you unsatisfied and looking for more?

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