Do you know why many sequels are dreadful attempts to live up to the glory of the original? Because they are tacked on at the last minute. It’s true that this often primarily to make money off the back of something that was wildly successful, but it’s not that money-hungry motivation that makes them suck per se (although it is a cause of the problem).
The reason this last-minute addition of a further instalment makes them suck is that it means when the first movie was written, the second instalment wasn’t anticipated. This means there is nothing in the first movie that points to, indicates, or even really allows for the second. If you’re lucky, there might be an opening you can leverage for a story. If you’re unlucky, you make something up (and this is how suddenly characters wind up with family members that were never mentioned, or they didn’t know existed).
Movies like this were not written as two small stories inside a larger story, but as two separate and independent stories that happen to be about the same characters, and which might only be loosely connected.
This makes the series very episodic, and while you can make that work—generally not as well.
TV is doing fantastically well at the moment, to the point where people are saying TV is better than Hollywood. At the same time, have you noticed how some of the best TV is no longer episodic? Each season has a story arc. Each season (and sometimes across seasons) is a complete story. Each episode advances that story but may not be a complete story in and of itself, or even if it is, it still contributes to the larger story.
What are some of the best movie series? Star Wars (the original trilogy), Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and you’ll have others as well. There’s also Game of Thrones, although it’s a TV series, but despite the naturally episodic nature of, well, episodes, each episode is clearly part of a larger whole. The genius of GoT is pretty well-acknowledged by now. What do they all have in common? All the stories were planned out in a complete arc (mostly in book form first, in which case the adaptation stays true to the arc described in the books).
When you don’t do this, when you have an unexpected sequel, it has a couple of effects:
Story arc is the way a story unfolds—it’s generally the beginning, middle and end. A good series will have a story arc across each instalment, but another story arc across the whole series—that is, story elements introduced in earlier instalments that aren’t resolved until later instalments. Like the mystery of Luke’s father introduced in A New Hope which wasn’t resolved until The Empire Strikes Back. That’s story arc.
When you have tacked-on sequels, there is no story arc that stretches across the first, second, and any subsequent instalments—at the end of the first movie, the story arc was complete. This means there is usually nothing making the viewer hunger for that second instalment, no mysteries left unsolved, and no loose ends.
If a first instalment was so successful, it probably means there was some juicy character development. The challenge of a sequel, any sequel, is how do you trump that? How do you raise the stakes and hurt the character in new ways to make them grow in new directions?
The challenge of an unplanned sequel is that there is likely very little left at the end of the first instalment to work with—the character’s issues are resolved, their past revealed, their inner obstacles overcome. This often means the character doesn’t grow in meaningful ways.
Wait, what is foreshadowing?
Your average moviegoer with no writing experience can’t explain what that is, but they recognise it when they see it. Foreshadowing is when you drop clues in advance of the plot twists. It’s the things that throw viewers into a frenzy of speculation. It’s also the same things that, even if missed as advance clues, when the big reveal is made, you can look back at those innocuous things and go “Ah…. I see how it makes sense.” Foreshadowing happens within instalments and, in series that were pre-planned, across instalments.
The correlation, of course, is that there in a tacked-together series, there is no foreshadowing in the first instalment to give clues to the viewers about how a sequel with pan out, nothing to entice us forward and, when something is revealed in the sequel, nothing to give us that satisfactory ‘Aha!’ moment. This is why the surprise family members are a surprise (in all the wrong kinds of ways)—because nothing in the first movie even hinted that the character had such family.
Foreshadowing is why you need to know the story’s ending before you start. If you don’t, you can’t successfully foreshadow it. When you write instalment one with no expectation of instalment two, the end is the end of instalment one, because of course you can’t foreshadow an unplanned sequel. You can, if you are really clever and really lucky, find some small detail in the original to use as inspiration, and then you kind of “retrofit” foreshadowing, but you can only use what’s already there (and there might not be much). Otherwise you’re limited to foreshadowing, within an instalment, the events of that instalment.
Series with foreshadowing across instalments are better, because it builds reader expectations and suspense, and the resolution is always more satisfying and complete. Foreshadowing is what breeds the kind of wild speculation we see with Game of Thrones and the latest Star Wars series (more about that next week—seen all the speculation about Rey’s parents? I’ll give you my take). Fans love it, they thrive on it, they will share their theories, and they will hang on waiting to find out what will happen. And when they do, it’s deliciously satisfying.
So that’s it, why sequels generally suck. It’s not because you can never relive the genius of the first movie, it’s because no one planned how to successfully build an equally good second instalment off the back of the first.
Tell me about your most hated sequel! Or, alternatively, your favourite!