On Sequelitis

Now that Stronghold is with readers, and my Nanowrimo novel is too new to re-visit and edit, I have begun outlining the sequel to Stronghold, a book entitled—-sorry, not ready to give that out just yet. Originally pitched to one of my former roommates earlier this year, Stronghold’s sequel will be an important “bridge story” to reach a final, necessary third act and complete a cohesive arc (an arc that is actually the major point of this whole enterprise). At this stage, I am still outlining the beats of the story, and I am experimenting with the many aspects that sequels offer–deepening the mythos, developing characters, creating new allies and enemies, broadening the story, and so forth.

I must say that being secure in an initial outing makes brainstorming about the sequel a very enjoyable exercise; but my enthusiasm is tempered against the fear of “sequelitis”. For those of you who aren’t into the subculture of discussing literature and film, “sequelitis” is a term folks tend to toss around to mean essentially “an infection upon a follow-up product that results from the adding of the comparative tense to the same adjectives that describe the initial product, in hopes of reproducing the initial product’s success.”  Wordy, huh?  Well, I’m a writer; I do that.

Basically, sequelitis occurs when someone says, “Transformers was fast-paced, loud, and mindless, featuring a bevy of action sequences, dispensable characters, and needless crass humor” and a guy across from him says, “Well, then, that being the case, Transformers 2 will need an even faster pace and be louder and more mindless, with more action sequences, more dispensible characters, and more crass humor.” You see how this makes for lousy second outings.The desire to capture an organic and well-designed narrative that not only builds on the original but also enhances it is often surrendered to this “bigger is better” mentality due to the ease of the conceit. Rewriting a first story by simply exploiting its most popular elements seems to be an altogether adequate solution for making a second story (let’s be honest, most horror franchises are wholly dependent on this concept). I mean, the first one worked for a reason, right? Shouldn’t the same one also work if it is playing by the same rules in the same ball park?  Well, yes.  And no.

In my opinion, a good sequel should resemble the first in some ways while diverging from it in others. Some great sequels that come to mind all do this. Let me offer some examples:

  1. Empire Strikes Back. While this film feels like another Star Wars tale set in the same universe with the same characters,  it’s narrative beats and story movements are decidedly different than those of the first–whereas the first builds to a climactic, large scale battle, the second opens with a large scale battle and builds to a smaller, intimate, two-person conflict. While the first film followed the formation of a band of characters, the sequel separated them and deconstructed some of their relationships (plus introduced new dynamics with assorted new worlds and personalities). Third, while the film included more of the same–starships, lightsabers, and the Force–all of the elements were shown in new environments and given new depth.
  2. Back to the Future II: This sequel is not only a fascinating commentary on the first film but also a story that fragments the events in the first film in stunning ways, deepening the complexities of the central time travel idea. Obvious parallels and motifs exist between the original and this follow-up, but with them also come new paradigms and specific shifts in stakes and character dynamics. In the end, this sequel almost rewrites events of the first film, which is no small feat, in my opinion.
  3. Godfather II: This sequel continues the story of the first while also revisiting events of the far past in order to drive home specific themes about characters, history repeating itself, and corruption taking place in the present. Additionally, the segments in the past enhance the audience’s understanding of characters who died in the previous film, making the first film far more layered upon a second viewing. This enables the sequel to develop not only an ongoing narrative but also a woven tapestry together with its predecessor.
  4. The Two Towers. Like Empire, The Two Towers splits the group established in the first picture while also sending them on unique adventures different than those in the first film, less the plot with Frodo and Sam, which feels somewhat stilted due to the fact that is exactly the same adventure of the first film, only with a new ally, Gollum. But two things The Two Towers does exceptionally well is widen the world and raise the stakes in which the story takes place by sending characters to various, new parts of Middle Earth (also done in Empire), and showing the impact of the main story on each of those new realms.
  5. Aliens: Arguably one of the greatest sequels of all time, Aliens changes the format of the series by moving from the horror genre in the action genre, and it delivers on this new front in such a way that the whole premise feels new and exciting. In a way, it IS new. The relationship of the hero/villain are inverted in that now, humans are on the aliens’ turf and the aliens outnumber them.
  6. Terminator 2:  Perhaps more than any other sequel on this list, this one would feel like it suffers from sequilitis. It is another “chase movie” as the first was, and it is chock full of bigger set pieces and action sequences; however, Teminator 2 directly justifies the “more” by virtue of the narrative involving two machine characters instead of one. Additionally, the sequel embraces and improves upon the beats of the first by once again, inverting audience expectations and also showing the way in which the first film affected the world, playing with the idea of destiny set forth in both films.
  7. Toy Story 2: Like so many of the films above, Toy Story 2 divides its heroes, widens their world, and deepens their characterization, all while adding engaging personalities into the mix; but this story’s greatest strength may be in the fact that it also flips the narrative itself. Rather than repeat the idea of lost characters trying to maintain their status and then find their way home, the second film focuses on a character struggling with a new identity and moving on with life (while other characters search for him). This film, in particular on this list, also benefits from wonderfully well-drawn secondary characters with emotions, motives, and backstory as engaging as the characters from the first film.

Not surprisingly, each of these seven films have echoes in my outline for the book to follow Stronghold. And that is a very encouraging thought. Here’s hoping I can continue to conceive a follow-up that is dynamic and engaging in and of itself while also useful in enhancing the original. If I am using the above seven films as an example, I have a very high bar for which to reach.

Have any other great sequels you think I should check out? Jot them in the comments section and tell me why!