Discussion: Sequels

It isn’t that controversial to say that sequels can be a mixed blessing.  I’m not talking about the spin-off sequels like Longbourn or Death Comes To Pemberley, where a different author attempts to continue a previous author’s work.  For this post, I’m thinking of the damage or otherwise that authors can do to their own work by refusing to leave things alone.  I got to thinking – what is it that makes a ‘good’ sequel?  So often, when a second book comes out, I find myself approaching it with trepidation, afraid that the affection I had for the first volume will be undermined by this second attempt.  In the movie world, sequels are happening with a quite depressing frequency – as soon as a film makes some money, you can picture the network executives putting their heads together to work out how best to milk the cash cow further.  But is this profit-driven outlook also leaking into the land of literature?

little menThe most obvious example of a sequel written purely for profit is Louisa M Alcott’s Little Men and Jo’s Boys.  The clue is in one of the central events in Little Men – the premature death of Meg’s husband, John Brooke.  Just as Little Women was based on Alcott’s own relationship with her sisters, with the saintly Beth representing her own late adored sister Lizzie, so was Little Men rooted in true events.  When Alcott’s brother-in-law passed away unexpectedly, her sister found herself in dire financial straits and so Alcott, who wrote a vast quantity of other books, decided to pen an addition to her most successful series in order to assist her sister and family financially.  No matter what your feelings on Little Men (I actually liked it, but as an entirely independent creation to the original two books), you have to have sympathy with her decision.  It’s like when Michael Cain was asked what he thought about Jaws III and he remarked that he hadn’t seen it, he’d heard it wasn’t very good but that he had seen the house he bought with the appearance fee and that that was lovely.  Another time Michael Cain appeared in a bad film because he needed the money in order to buy his parents a bungalow – it’s one thing to criticise creative decisions, but we have to remember that authors, actors, all these people working in the creative industries – they’re people too and need to earn as much as anyone else.

hunger gamesStill, there are times when you really have to wonder.  I read The Hunger Games and largely enjoyed it.  I was aware that Suzanne Collins was following the standard Young Adult genre practice of stretching the story into a trilogy but when I read the second volume, Catching Fire, I was rather nonplussed.  It was a complete clone of the first.  Katniss gets nominated for the arena, goes to the Capital, meets some quirky characters who nobody else is too fussed on allying with but decides that stuff it all, she’s going to ally with them anyway (first book Rue, the second one those clockmaker people), ends up in the arena and then through her awesomeness, figures out what to do in a way that no other characters can.  It’s such a clear case of an author having hit on a winning formula and then sitting down to replicate it exactly.  I remember sitting in the cinema watching The Hangover II and silently matching up each of the plot points with the original – it was exactly the same.  I felt like asking for my money back.  With Catching Fire, I more just wanted the time back.  With no fresh ideas, it just seemed like a real slog.

The thing is – I recognise that the early volumes of Harry Potter had some of this – in the first five books, Hagrid had that annoying tendency to pick up a new dangerous beastie each year (Norbert, Aragog, Buckbeak, Blast-End-Skrewts, Grawp …) and Harry was often socially isolated (losing 150 points from Gryffindor in Book #1, being chief Heir of Slytherin suspect in Book #2, being Sirius Black’s Most Wanted in Book #3, accidentally becoming Hogwarts Champion in Book #4, all that business with Umbridge in Book #5 …), but at least with J K Rowling, you had the confidence that she was actually building towards something.  The books do definitely shift focus in The Goblet of Fire after the rise of Lord Voldemort – it’s a seven book whole rather than a three book coast which is what a lot of YA series can feel like.

girl missingThen there are sequels that add extra plot developments that you just didn’t want to know.  I remember reading the column continuation of Bridget Jones and discovering that she got pregnant and was unsure whether it was Daniel Cleaver’s baby or Mark Darcy’s (the baby later turned out to be Cleaver’s).  Having wished good things for Bridget, I felt unreasonably irritated to see her making bad decisions again.  I haven’t gone anywhere near Mad About The Boy.  Similarly, one of the few young adult novels I liked in recent years was Sophie McKenzie’s Girl, Missing.  It was a classic girl-discovers-she-was-kidnapped-as-a-baby story and worked brilliantly – until of course McKenzie completely sabotaged her own creation by two unnecessary sequels which undermined the central points of the original and killed off the most interesting characters (one of whom was dispatched completely off-stage due to a ‘heart thing’ – as if McKenzie herself couldn’t be bothered to think it through).  This is the same kind of lazy story telling that has led me to give up on multiple television shows, the ones that bunged in unnecessary curve balls in a vain attempt to generate some kind of interest and stay on the air.

feast for crowsThe opposite problem seems to have struck George R R Martin with Game of Thrones – his sequels are a bumpy collection despite the significant improvement in his writing because he just has too many ideas.  The problem with having created a fiction kingdom is that Martin seems to feel obliged to come up with enough fictional nobles to realistically people said kingdom, as opposed to keeping things manageable.  This has necessitated certain creative decisions such as in Feast for Crows when he chose to concentrate solely on the characters who were away from King’s Landing, which was frustrating given that Storm of Swords had ended with the cliffhanger of Tyrion Lannister having just killed his father and I was dying to find out what happened to him next.  It is this huge sprawling narrative that is the reason why The Winds of Winter is taking so long and I myself have my doubts whether Martin will be able to tie the series together convincingly.  A similar issue afflicted Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy – after an incredibly strong start, Cronin seemed to become overwhelmed and the conclusion was very disappointing.  I have always read as kind of an innocent, wanting to find out what happened next and trusting in the author to guide me there.  It is a true disenchantment to realise that sometimes the author doesn’t know the way either.

starlight barkingI think that another strange permutation of the sequel however can come from the opposite issue – when the author knows their way quite well but it is not the way the adoring reader would have anticipated.  By this I refer to those situations when a book takes off, you read it, you love it, you feel a sense of ownership and then when the sequel comes out it’s just … wrong.  A classic example of this is Dodie Smith’s The Starlight Barking.  Hardly anybody has ever read it, but my mother had a copy alongside The 101 Dalmatians, to which it is the borderline unknown sequel.  If I was going to explain why The Starlight Barking is so unsuccessful, I would say that it is because it so unrealistic compared to the first one.  And then you would stare because having a group of dogs mastermind an escape plan from an evil monochrome-haired witch is not really in the land of credibility either.  But trust me.  There is a kind of ‘magical realism’ to 101, with the dogs communicating via their ‘starlight barking’ – having become well-acquainted with my parents’ wonderful Labrador, I completely believe that dogs have their own method of communication.  That’s fine – I can cope with 101, even when they take down the burglar etc, it’s such wholesome fun.  But Starlight Barking has the dogs all wake up one morning to find that the humans are in an induced coma.  All humans.  Across the world.  And for some strange reason, all the dogs suddenly have the ability to fly.  After some time spent investigating the mystery, it transpires that this is happening because Sirius the Dog-Star wants to convince all of the dogs to fly away to live with him on the Dog Star and so he has drugged all of the humans and non-dog-related animals on the planet in an attempt to show the dogs what’s on offer here.  I am not making any of this up.  And then inevitably, the dogs decide that they’re best off with their masters and everyone rushes back home before the effects of the flying powers wear off and they never hear from Sirius ever again.  If Pongo had woken up and it had all been a dream, I could have been more on board but as it was, it was just weird, like something Smith came up with having taken too much cold medication.  I never re-read it and it does seem as if the literary world have done Smith a favour by quietly pretending it never happened.

rosie projectThe concept of the sequel is one that we can all get behind – to continue the story of the characters we have grown fond of.  The problem however is that when the first volume ends happily, discombobulating the characters all over again seems cruel.  The Rosie Project was a witty and intelligent satire on our algorithm-based approach to love in the modern age – it was borderline perfect.  With a host of interesting characters and a great eye for humour, the sequel should have been a pleasure.  Simsion attempted to take the same satirical approach from the first novel to the second, this time focusing on the pregnancy industry.  But The Rosie Effect did not work – I did not want to see Don and Rosie messed up again and the idea that Glen had not been an adulterer after all felt too much of an author intervention.  Revisiting the scene felt like it only undermined the first novel – a bungled effort.  Far worse was what I heard about Closing Time, follow-up to Catch 22 – this one appeared to depict a defeated Yossarian who had betrayed his principles – I far prefer to think of Yossarian as we saw him at the end of Catch 22, leaping to avoid the knife of Nateley’s whore and being off like a shot.

man in high castleI think the main pitfall for a sequel is if that it is a fortunate thing to respond to someone else’s creation once, and that attempting to do so twice can be tempting fate.  I enjoyed The Man in the High Castle but the way it concluded was rather open-ended; I read afterwards that Philip K Dick had planned to write a sequel but whenever he tried it tended to turn into an independent work.  In some ways it is a shame that this intriguing world where the Nazis emerged victorious in World War II could not be explored further but is it perhaps better that Dick never tried to force it to work?  A problem I have noticed with television series is that the first season which has to be pitched to network executives has to be well-planned and also complete in itself lest they not get renewed, meaning that if a second season is commissioned, it often fails to live up to the first.  Good examples of this include Heroes and One Tree Hill, both of which had second seasons that had the feel of writers scrabbling for ideas.  I think the same applies to novels – writers come up with a complete idea and then have to sit down and come up with another possible continuation.  From my own experience of teaching, I remember knowing that if I was not completely clear on my lesson objective that I was attempting to put across to the children, I had no hope of any of them recognising it.  I think the same is true of sequels – unless the author is clear on what the second story is to achieve – other than making them money and feeding the fans’ desire for more – then you are left with something disappointing – a story to scour from the mind.


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12 thoughts on “Discussion: Sequels

  1. In the main I think they don’t work, whether books or films (or TV dramas – a good example is ‘Broadchurch’, the second series was entertaining but had none of the real tension of the first.)

    The ones that do work is when they are actually planned that way, you mention Harry Potter. The same applies to ‘Lord of the Rings’, though it has to said that the books were published as a trilogy but written as one work (the publishing in three was down to costs and the publishers nervousness of how it would be received.)

    A number of books you do leave them wondering what happened to the characters, but to me that is a sign of how good the book is – the characters are still in your mind and you begin to think of them almost as ‘real’ people.

    1. Yes – exactly – a good book sometimes does leave a bit of room at the end for the reader to fill in the blanks, but that doesn’t mean that there needs to be an actual sequel! It takes a really excellent writer to know the difference – I think that some of the stories I mentioned above are really good examples of that. It annoys me when people beg for sequels when they really are not needed – I would far rather have one good book on its own than one good book which was ruined by a succession of inferior continuations.

      I never saw Broadchurch but I heard Series 2 annoyed a lot of people.

  2. I’m giggling helplessly at the mention of One Tree Hill. Eventually they gave up on reasonable ideas and had all insane ideas all the time. Did you watch as far as the time the crazy nanny kidnapped the legitimate brother’s little kid? At the wedding? God that was great.

    I’m not leery of sequels, exactly, but I don’t like having to wait to find out what happens. That’s why typically if I start a series, I’ll wait until the whole thing’s already out — you’re right that the George RR Martin books have been decreasing in quality and focus as they’ve gone on, and I’m quite glad not to be emotionally invested in discovering the ultimate outcome of all that stuff.

    1. I actually enjoy some of the anticipation around sequels. I realised this when I was reading the Game of Thrones series – the fan discussions and theorising about what will happen next – I hadn’t really gotten into the speculation thing since Harry Potter. It’s funny to think that kids reading that now won’t know about all the frenzy over who R.A.B. might have been. It was so much a part of the fun. I know what you mean though about how the wait can sometimes drive you wild.

      If you’re ever in Oxford, we can sit down and I can explain in detail quite how One Tree Hill went wrong – I loved the first series – I was abandoned by my father as a baby so that plotline interested me but yes, the whole thing went completely to heck from series 2 onwards. The fact that two of the leads got married and divorced didn’t help but mostly it was just ridiculous. The nanny plotline was a particular scorcher though – while it was hilarious in how ludicrous it was, part of me was really annoyed because I had such a positive experience of childminders/nannies that I get really annoyed by what a bad press they get in fiction!

      Thank you for commenting 🙂 Great chat as always!

  3. I have to agree with the Hunger Games trilogy. I saw the first in the cinema and really wanted to read the book and love it! The second i slogged through and having had spoilers to the third i can’t bring myself to read it (plus readers i respect and who loved previous 2 books were so disappointed that i’d rather not waste time).

    YA as you say seem to do series which follow a formula, i’m currently reading (in between re-reading Harry Potter) the Virals series by Kathy reichs and having read 2 i must admit to feeling that i knew what was happening next (in fact feel similar in regards to her other series but have a soft spot for them).

    Not sure how i feel about sequels, don’t like having to wait for the next installment and think like you say many authors struggle to finish it well instead of running out of ideas.

    1. Yeah, Hunger Games 3 wasn’t that great. Katniss had to be waxed in order to fight the good fight – the idea that pubic hair would have held her back really annoyed me. Still does now I think about it.

      I think I’m just becoming disillusioned with sequels as a money-making enterprise. I understand why they make sense financially, it’s just that when you are aware that you are reading something that has been designed to be marketable, it’s hard (for me at least) to lose yourself in the story. I also really hate reading something that I’m so-so about but then the next book comes out and I have that nagging curiousity and find myself reading it. I’m determined to not read any further in the Fire Sermon series so I don’t get caught that way again!

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

      PS – I think I asked this before – have we met IRL, your email suggests we have …

  4. “Catch 22” was my absolute favourite novel, Yossarian and I are very similar people and I adored him because of it despite his flaws. So to eagerly seize “Closing Time” only to find out that he became an immoral sellout waste of oxygen and a deadbeat dad literally ruined one of the things I loved most, as I haven`t been able to pick it up again.

    As for Katniss, I like the trilogy, I don`t think her arc was finished by the end of the first, and although I do agree the second was a rehash of the first, I didn`t mind. The inclusion of stuff like getting waxed to go into battle I actually liked as a demonstration of the sheer banal shallow moral bankruptcy of the society she lives in, I thought making me irritated when I should be feeling trepidation was a nice and relevant touch.

    Great post as usual GWHHIAB xxxx

    1. JOANNE! So lovely to hear from you! I know we only knew each other a short time but I do miss you!

      I loved Catch 22 and I think its ending is so perfect that I haven’t been able to go near Closing Time – from what you say, I think I made the right decision. It just seems a bit unnecessary since Catch 22 was written to be hyperbolic (although only mildly, which was the most terrifying thing of all).

      I get that the waxing thing was part of how awful the society was but it also seems just like a baseline requirement to be beautiful and when I was teaching it was clear that a lot of young girls thought the same thing. I’m very much ‘live and let live’ on things like that but I don’t like people being put under pressure about body issues. Plus Katniss just annoyed me. But I explained that in the original post.

      Thank you for being a follower, I love getting your comments 🙂

  5. As I read this, the thing that came to my mind was not a book series, but a TV show. Like you mentioned at the end about a few series you’ve watched, I felt that way about Once Upon a Time. Now, I should say, that I actually still managed to really enjoy the show, but I binge watched all five seasons over a period of less than a year and this viewing style made it starkly obvious just how much the show repeats itself. (I swear, if the characters all get put under a spell that makes the forget some period of their lives again next season, I just might cry!) So far, the show hasn’t completely lost me, but it certainly has me rolling my eyes from time to time.
    As far as authors (or actors, etc) working on projects just to make money – well, there are lots of people in the world who do a job JUST to make money. Somehow we hold artists up to some higher standard – as though they should be above such things, but the fact is, we don’t get mad at our accountant because he does our taxes “just to make money.” It’s his job! Sometimes we need to remember that authors are people too and they have bills to pay and realities to face. There’s nothing horrible about that.

    1. Oh I know – I completely agree that they have a need to make money. It’s not easy to ‘follow your art’ unless you have a supportive partner or if your act turns out to be incredible successful (I’m thinking here of JK Rowling). I think though that when it comes to sequels, sometimes I forget to factor that in as a potential motivator. These days too, authors are under such pressure to stay relevant, stay noticeable, stay discoverable because there’s such a massive amount of books being published that I think they can often be pressured into writing sequels just to keep going. Again, this isn’t always good for the original story.

      Thank you for commenting 🙂

  6. I am a chronic series dropper and often procrastinate reading the next book out of fear.

    I really wish many authors had my English teacher. She would make us write 500 word stories to teach us to write concisely. When I went to college it was difficult, because the professor would assign a 5 pg paper but I said everything I wanted to in just 3 pages. Many authors take a trilogy to tell a story that should fit into a Novella.

    1. Yes, yes exactly – the ‘three novel’ story is very popular – which is interesting because it reflects the three volume work of the nineteenth century round the birth of the novel. I just don’t happen to think that it’s always needed. And sometimes I like an ambiguous ending.
      Thanks for commenting – lovely to discover your site! 🙂

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