So I’ve been thinking about sequels lately, for the obvious reasons (starting Water Fall this week) and the not-so-obvious ones (check out next Wednesday’s post for more on that.)
The biggest question most people wrestle with is, how good is the sequel? But for the writer, the bigger question is, what makes the sequel good? In movies, sequel status is almost a death knell. For books, sequels are much more viable and, in fact, the publishing industry usually wants fiction to be serial in nature, rather than a bunch of stand alone novels, since the pre-existing audience makes selling the story much easier. On the other hand, even among books, the first book in a series is frequently viewed as the best, perhaps simply because the ideas and the presentation are fresh and the reader approaches them without expectations, or at least with fewer.
That’s not to say that there are no cases of a sequel being just as good as, if not better than, the proceeding works. But it’s a rare thing, and when it does happen most people are surprised because they recognize that it’s the exception and not the rule. So what are the things that set those rare exceptional sequels head and shoulders above the rest?
Well, as is so often the case, there are at least three main things (probably more, but humans like threes, so that’s how many you get.)
A larger story at work. There are many great examples of this, but I want to be consistent in this post and use something most readers will recognize, so I’m going to pick the classic Star Wars trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back is widely considered the best movie from the trilogy (not by me, but I still feel it’s at least as good as the original, although in different ways) so it’s fair to say it was a sequel that equaled or exceeded the original. One of the things that made it work was the fact that George Lucas wanted A New Hope to feel like part of a larger story. With a galaxy wide rebellion in progress, of which he basically only showed us one small part, it comes as no surprise to us that there’s more story.
Sometimes authors or film makers do a story, wrap everything up, publish and then realize they’ve got bottled lightning as their story just flat out takes off. This can result in awkward sequels getting written, because there was no more story planned for afterward. The simplest way to get around this is to set your story in a world that’s really, really big, with more than enough going on in the background to allow for another story or two. Of course, you can always be planning to slowly spin your stories into one, titanic mythos, as well… Whatever you do, it never hurts to make your world and characters bigger than the bounds of their story,
Excellent use of characters as a resource, rather than an obligation. There is a kind of compulsion, once you have a story you like, to include every aspect you liked about it in the next, especially in terms of characters. This is to be avoided. Your new story needs new characters to stay fresh, and to make room for them sometimes old characters will have to get less screen time, or even catch a bus. The Empire Strikes Back introduced us to people like Lando Calrissian, Yoda and Boba Fett, while the droids and Obi-wan Kenobi got less screen time (although it seems we couldn’t give up Old Ben entirely, even if he was dead…)
Finding the right mix of characters to properly carry out your story is an adventure in trial and error, but as a general rule some kind of re-balancing of characters has to be done. Your main character is probably going to be a constant, although even that’s not an iron clad rule, but new faces have to crop up to give new dynamics to relationships, and old faces have to step back some in order to really make the sequel work.
New developments, as opposed to retreading the same ground. Coyote and Roadrunner do not have sequels, just variations on a theme. The situation must change some from story to story, or people will rapidly loose interest. Star Wars does this particularly well by starting off the second film with a Rebel defeat and chasing them across the galaxy while their heaviest hitter takes a break for self improvement. Then it throws a massive plot twist and a cliff-hanger ending into the mix for added impact. It’s this novel, heavy-hitting formula that makes it so many people’s favorite part of the trilogy. (It’s also only possible because it’s the second film in the set, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Carefully examine the pacing and plotting of your stories, and make sure they’re different from each other. It’s a good rule for all fiction writing, not just stories that are a direct sequel to something else. Also, make sure the plot points themselves aren’t too similar, and that different characters from among your leads and rogue’s gallery are making an impact.
Of course, there’s no recipe for instant great book, but with these three things in place, sequels begin to look a lot like books that stand on their own, rather than just a continuation of what came before. Once a story is judged on its own merits, the some of the stigma of being a sequel is gone. More importantly, by actively trying to make it as fresh as possible you ensure that the story is as good as it can be on its own merits, thus making it as strong as possible. Which is all a writer can really hope to do, anyways.