So I wrote the first page of the sequel to Certainty today. Yeah, I know, the debut hasn’t sold yet so why am I wasting my time writing the next chapter of something that might not even make it to a bookshelf anywhere? (Except my own, obviously, because A4 pages just about fit vertically.) It goes against every piece of advice in the book, pun very much intended. Well, because I wanted to. I have a bit of faith. There’s a lot more story to tell. And anyway, the first bit had been percolating in my head for a while.
I thought I’d write about sequels on the blog today, then. Oh, the cliché of the “darker next chapter”. I swear that every single time I’ve read interviews about a new Harry Potter movie, the cast have called it the darkest film yet. By now it should be so devoid of light that Harry’s barely able to move without bumping into things. All joking aside, the truth is that this notion of making things a bit nastier for our fictional heroes does occur in popular entertainment. Jack Bauer doesn’t suddenly wake up and have a lovely day. Frodo doesn’t have the Eagles come to take him to the summit of Mount Doom in The Two Towers, even though there’s a massive plothole-sized gap to fly through.
No, having established the characters in the opening book/film/series, it’s the writer’s job to ramp up the conflict and introduce a few new twists and highly painful moments to really test the main protagonist. The sequels I like are those which not only subvert expectations but also “texture up” the world. Basically, this means adding more depth to what you’ve already created. In between killing hideous overwriting in my recent redraft of Certainty, I was adding little character moments here and there, and generally piling on the extra stuff that hopefully makes a difference. But in a sequel, the idea is to take what you established in the first work and build on it. See Empire Strikes Back compared to Star Wars – the universe is the same, but there just seems to be a lot more there.
It’s easy to go wrong with “the new”, of course, which is why many sequels pale in comparison to the original. Leaving aside the stories that ended perfectly well in the first incarnation and pleaded not to be continued, there are various flaws that rear their ugly heads when it comes to second chapters, particularly when it comes to movies.
1. Let’s invent shit new characters that no one gives a crap about!
Hello there, Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions! Here’s fun: you sideline characters that were super-amazing in the original and introduce a bunch of new ones that are just… there. Ghost, Niobe, and that annoying Commander what’s-his-face, for example. What on Earth is Morpheus doing just sitting there in the cockpit while Niobe pilots the ship back to Zion in Revolutions? Also, way to go with entirely reducing his importance by putting important decisions in charge of a “council” that resembles something flown in from a canned episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Additional black marks for introducing the brilliant Merovingian character in Reloaded only to completely waste him in the next film. I wanted to follow Neo, Trinity and Morpheus again, not see much of the runtime spent on personality shy non-entities.
2. Let’s dump the original writers!
It’s not as if the people who wrote the first one knew a bit more about the characters than Mr Rentahack, right? So let’s make someone completely unconnected write the next entry, because they’re probably cheaper, more beholden to the studio, and will crap out whatever’s necessary in as short a time as possible. Bravo, Hollywood. In the spirit of this, my next blog entry will be written by Kerry Katona.
3. Let’s dump the original director!
Can’t make a deal in time? Need to get rolling to make that release date you’ve just conjured out of thin air? Want to make a quick buck? Great, just dump the original film’s director and appoint a new one. Nothing’ll go wrong, promise.
4. Let’s forget everything that was good about the original!
Highlander was about immortals battling each other through the centuries until only one remained, to music by Queen. Highlander II saw the same two main characters mysteriously become aliens from the planet Zeist, with music by a man who likes Sting. See also: Blair Witch 2.
5. Let’s drown people in the deep end!
Yes, I did write the words “texture up” earlier, but it’s a fine line. Pirates of the Carribbean was a streamlined but very well executed movie. The sequels were pretty horrible, not because of any of the acting or the technical aspects, but because they overstepped the line and became far too complicated for their own good, making them a confusing, overlong watch that missed the clever simplicity of the original.
So then, knowing the mistakes that can be made, am I going to make any of them? Probably, but that’s what the rewrite’s to eliminate, right?