Assortments of Thought

Writing Better Sequels

Posted on: July 27th, 2009

A really good story often leads to interest in a sequel, probably because everyone that likes it imagines that whatever happens after it must be equally compelling. This of course applies regardless of the medium that it’s told through. In reality though, much to everyone’s disappointment, sequels often aren’t as good as the originals even if they’re good on their own terms. To understand why, and to see how sequels can be better written, it’s useful to consider what sequels are exactly as well as what makes a good story in the first place. It turns out, for instance, that a good story is so well-constructed that effectively using all the same characters in a new story is often extremely difficult. Therefore, many sequels aren’t as good as the originals precisely because they do this. Granted, that probably sounds odd because it sounds like I’m saying sequels as a concept are inherently flawed, but as it turns out, there are in fact many ways to construct sequels besides using all the same characters. Consequently, the key to writing better sequels is to recognize the sheer diversity of options available for writing them, and to choose a way that’s suitable for a particular sequel.

Before I get started though, first, let me be clear on what I mean when I say ‘sequel.’ First, I don’t mean reboots, remakes, reimaginings, or anything else that breaks continuity with the original story. These might be called sequels in a popular sense, but I don’t believe they technically are, and in any case, in this post, I’m not referring to them as such. Second, I don’t mean prequels, interquels, midquels, or any other story in continuity with the original that doesn’t follow it. Not that it’s not worthwhile to investigate these types of stories, and in fact, nearly all of what I’ll say in this post is applicable to them with a little adaptation, but they’re not my focus. Third, I don’t mean stories that are part of a series. Even though each part typically follows the previous one like a sequel would, each is still a part of a preconceived whole, an overarching story that may even have been detailedly thought out beforehand. And fourth, needless to say perhaps, I don’t mean rip-offs, or any story that simply copies another to a significant degree (not counting parodies). In all likelihood, such stories are blocked anyway for violating copyrights, and if even if they’re not, they’re still cheap.

Now, having clarified that, it’s useful to consider what a sequel is exactly. Obviously, a sequel is a story that continues the story of an original in some way, but since all stories are composed of certain elements, more specifically, a sequel furthers those elements of another story. Hence, a sequel is a story that furthers the characters, plot, setting, or theme of another story, and that follows that story in continuity. And although it may not be immediately clear from that definition, a sequel may use a specific element from the original story to whatever degree works best. What this all means then, is that not only are there other story elements besides characters that may be used alone or in any combination for a sequel, each may be used to varying degrees as well. So in addition to a choice of using any mix of characters, plot, setting, and theme, there’re also choices like which of the characters to use and how closely to relate the plot. The options are clearly myriad then, and far more than just the popular notion of using all the same characters in a closely related plot.

Here then lies the key to writing better sequels, because any given story will naturally lead to certain types of sequels over others. To see this, think about the nature of a good story for a moment. Initially, elements like characters and plot are entirely limitless in the mind of a writer, but once developed, they become restricted to certain parameters. Or in other words, a good story stays consistent with itself, meaning that, for instance, characters act in certain ways (even if not always predictable ways), as does the setting in which they live. Consequently, at the conclusion of a story, limits naturally exist as to what would be expected to plausibly happen with regards to its characters and plot. Depending on the individual story then, if a sequel is written that doesn’t abide by these limits, it’ll come off feeling contrived or manufactured, rather than as a genuine continuation of what happened before. And it’s cases like these, I believe, which account for at least some of the sequels that just don’t live up to their original stories.

Having said that though, unfortunately, there isn’t any guaranteed way to determine how a sequel should naturally proceed. Instead, like a majority of the writing process, it’s up to the writer to be able to figure it out for the individual case. Maybe, for instance, it just isn’t plausible that each and every major character should go on to have an equally big role, so some of those roles have to be adjusted or even cut. Or, maybe there just isn’t anything of worth that follows from the original plot, so a significantly new one has to be devised. Or maybe the precise setting has to be adjusted a little, because the action should really continue somewhere else. It all just depends on the original story, assuming a sequel even plausibly follows from it at all. Ultimately then, a writer must recognize the limits established by an original story in order to determine how a sequel should proceed, and as an art, this requires honed skill far more than theory.

Finally, it’s important to note that there’s actually one other, implicit prerequisite for writing good sequels as well. Namely, that since sequels are still stories in their own right, no matter how well a sequel follows from an original story, it must still be a good story on its own in order to be a good sequel overall. Its characters and plot have to be compelling, and along with its setting and theme, everything has to come together effectively. In short, it has to have everything that a good story is expected to have. Hence, it’s only when a sequel naturally follows from its original story as explained in this post, and is good on its own to boot as noted in this paragraph, that a truly good sequel will have been written.

©2009, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.

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