The sequel conundrum
Creating a sequel of a work that has been widely acknowledged as, well, ‘great’, is definitely no small task. There’s a ton of expectations to fulfil, the inevitable hype to live up to, and the sheer challenge of improving upon something that already set the bar pretty damn high. And yet, as I’m making my way through.. (Actually, let’s call it X – see if you can guess what I am referring to, even in general terms, before the end of this post.) .. yeah, that thing, I can’t help but compare it to its predecessor in a number of aspects. So, why not, now I magically have a blog and I can just note down those aspects in a generic wise-guy Confucius fashion and dammit you are going to sit there and read it or the squirrels get it, capiche?
Right then. Churning out a sequel that is better than the first one, when the first one was already pretty darn good. Hard for several reasons, and one of those is the loss of novelty. See, with an original work – it might be a new series or a new IP (intellectual property, not Internet Protocol), by familiar or (even better) unknown creators – the audience is caught relatively unaware. Every fragment of the crafted experience, every bit that you are guided through whilst progressing through it, it is all fresh, new, unseen/unheard/unknown. The specific style of the work, the feel and tone of it is unique, and it is primarily what keeps us humanoid simulacrums from seeking out new works instead of revisiting and re-experiencing old ones over and over.
With a sequel, however, it’s all not so fresh any more. Technically – yeah, okay, you might see great improvements, but as long as a sequel is actually a sequel (as opposed to a re-imagining with a completely different artistic vision, structuring style and execution characteristics), the difference in general terms won’t be all that large. You’ll probably notice some improvements, some tweaks, some extra flair, but otherwise it is inevitably going to be very, very reminiscent of the original.
The novelty of the creator is also gone in the case of sequels – there’s already been one work in that exact style with that exact creative signature out there. Surprises in the fictional created universe, in the IP’s concepts? Highly unlikely – what’s most commonly seen is, at best, an evolution of one or two themes already seeded by the original.
Another aspect of why sequels so often don’t work out is due to the fact that they are, often enough, quite derivative of their predecessors. How often do sequels reuse the themes of the original? The style of the original? The plot(s) of the original? Heck, the main characters of the original? Yeah, sure, you get new things – obviously -, but they are without exception placed in a very familiar framework that’s already been established. Compared to the 100% newness of the first work (well, assuming it has not been a cheap copypaste in structure and concepts), there is no way for a sequel to not feel derivative.
Those two things are more or less unavoidable – if something is a sequel, it is logically bound to exhibit the aforementioned aspects. However, there are a bunch of avoidable things that I still noticed in our X thingie, which make it lose its footing whilst trying to surpass its senior.
For one, character development still matters. Sure, some works don’t have characters, you might argue, but a very, very, very large majority do have them – more or less successful is, of course, variable. A sequel simply cannot afford to take already established characters and do nothing with them. If they don’t have any prominent role, they should be disposed of behind the scenes. If they are required to stay in by the work’s structure, then they have to exhibit at least as much development, or characterisation, as they did in the original. As for new character additions, well, they are even more important! They are part of the very few things that are truly new in the sequel, so they must be interesting, captivating, simply rich and detailed enough to compete with the original characters in the original work.
The flow and scope of events is just as, if not more, important in the sequel as in the original. Obviously, plain structural mirroring won’t cut it, but also the creators should not permit themselves to slacken the pacing or to reduce the scale. The comparison between the two works is always drawn, and the audience should not be led to the conclusion that the original was more exciting, more thrilling. The second part, the follow-up, that is where stakes are usually raised, where things get serious, where the scope and audience commitment really increases. The original – even if a perfectly self-contained creation – is there to bait them, but the sequel should be the thing that really pulls the hook and reels the audience in. After all, just apply the age-old movie idiom about trilogies – first part for building something, second part for really breaking it down, pushing it to the limit. That is what needs to happen in a sequel, even if it is not part of any sort of trilogy. Up the ante, up the anticipation – especially since there is no need to waste as much time on introductions and familiarization as there was in the originals.
So, yeah. But now it should be fairly obvious that the “X” thingie was actually James S. A. Corey’s (a pen name for two collaborating Sci-Fi authors) new book, Caliban’s War. A sequel to a stunningly enjoyable sci-fi novel (Leviathan Wakes) and, unfortunately, one that really did not seem to surpass its predecessor, for exactly all the reasons I mentioned above. The lack of pacing in the story, and the much lower scale of events throughout the first 85% of it is simply murder. And it’s a shame. The sequel should have been better, and there were so many potentially amazing plot threads it could have focused on.. And yet it felt plodding, unsure at times. Especially during the mid-point of the book, where nothing important seemed to happen. Maybe it is a telltale sign of the authors’ writing style, with the middle bit being the weakest? Who knows. I certainly hope the third one is better than this – but with no announced release date yet, it could be a while to wait for. And, if this (temporary?) weakness of form takes hold as a public opinion-piece, then sales later down the line might just reflect that. That’s the curse of sequels, after all – great ones build a franchise (Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, for example, for trek movies), weak ones murder it. This is not a murder yet, but let’s say the Expanse has gotten a bit of a concussion.
Oh, and one more thing: Never, ever, ever, ever make one of your main characters, in a fast-paced action-oriented story, to be a politician. It just does not work.
~X2Eliah still thinks this book is relatively much better than many, many, many things out there, and objectively more interesting than 99% of game “stories”.