Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sequelitis

            Beginning with a minor aside, go see John Carter.  The original book, A Princess of Mars, has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid and I’ve referenced it here once or thrice for storytelling examples because it tends to be relevant.  I got invited to a press screening on Tuesday and loved it.  So go see it and prove a bunch of Disney marketing execs wrong.
           Continuing on to a second minor aside, ConDor Con was pretty fun.  It was a bit stunning to hear that another writer, Art Holcomb, reads this little collection of rants on a regular basis.  So expect me to be very self-conscious for the next few weeks.
            Anyway, on to the reason you all bother to show up here...
            I know I hinted that I was going to talk about dialogue this week, but two weeks back my friend Bobbie (who I know from a far classier place on the web) asked about sequels.  I started thinking about responses and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to say.  This wasn’t just something to jot off a quick answer to in the comments —it was a full post.
            So, here’s my thoughts on sequels.
            First off—and I can’t stress this enough—here’s my first thought about writing a sequel.
            Don’t do it.
            I don’t think you should ever write a book or screenplay with a sequel in mind.  Ever.  The only time to do this is when the person paying you says you’re going to get a sequel.  If I go to a publisher or a producer with a story that is “the first in a three part epic,” there is no possible reality in which I am going to be making a sale.  It’s just good math.  Most publishers and producers don’t want to be stuck with one manuscript from an unknown writer that doesn’t sell, so why would they possibly want to get stuck with two or three or more?  Why risk signing a contract for a three book/ movie series when you don’t even know if the first one’s going to do well? 
           Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  There’s always some chance of someone buying a series.  But the odds are already slim for an unknown writer, so why trim them down to almost nothing by writing something that’s going to put the publisher in an awkward position?
Seriously, would you think
this was getting a sequel?
            Ex-Heroes was written as a single, stand-alone book.  So was A Princess of Mars (see, it was relevant) and Rendezvous with Rama and Interview With the Vampire.  Same with Star Wars (no subtitle), Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix, and Planet of the Apes (both versions).  I got to interview Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci once--arguably the  most successful, highest paid screenwriting team in Hollywood today--and they both shook their heads and scoffed at the idea of working on a  sequel story before you even knew how the first one was going to go over.
            Now, if you've bothered to read any of the stuff I’ve written past this blog, you may be poised to respond.   Some of you may have already skipped to the comment section.  Yes, Ex-Patriots was clearly written with a sequel in mind.  And the only reason I got to do that was because the first book did so well the publisher guaranteed me two sequels.  When the third book comes out you’ll notice everything stops there.  If they both do well, maybe Permuted Press will offer me a fourth and fifth.  Or maybe just a fourth.  Or maybe another three.  It’s foolish of me to plan on anything until both of us know where things stand.
            So, to recap, never write something that depends on a sequel.  Never. Ever.
            With that out of the way, let’s talk about writing sequels.
            One of the big challenges in writing a sequel (but not the only one) is making it accessible for everyone.  Readers can’t feel alienated and left out.  If my manuscript doesn’t have an entry point for them, I’ve just ruined the chances of anyone randomly picking it up and enjoying it.  And they won’t say “oh, I should’ve read Book X first,” they’re just going to say “It sucked.”
            As a writer, I need to make sure everyone is up to speed.  I don’t need to revisit every detail of the first book in the sequel, but I do need to make sure readers have a basic grasp of my characters, the world they’re in, and any key events that happened in their past.
            Here’s a few ways you can do that.
            First is just honest recollections.  People talk about things that have happened to them in the past.  I do it here all the time.  Someone could go back and reconstruct a semi-decent history of my life just from this blog.  I didn’t lay it all out in order, but a lot of it’s come up at one time or another.  When my lovely lady and I talk, it’s not unusual to mention “the last time your parents were out here” or “that place we went mini-golfing.”  My friend Marcus and I talk about theater shows and movie nights and miniature wargames we’ve played.  When I talk with my friend Patrick, we sometimes discuss films or shows we worked on—some separately and some we worked on together.
            The trick, of course, like all dialogue, is that it has to be motivated and it has to sound natural.  Patrick and I don’t randomly discuss films, after all, it usually spins out of another conversation.  If I’m just going to have a character do an infodump then it’ll come across as awkward at best, false at worst. 
            Second is character descriptions.  Hopefully my characters have grown and changed a bit since the first story, so I can also add in hints of things that happened in the last book.  Maybe someone has a special coat or a piece of jewelry or maybe a new nervous habit.  It’s easy to mention where these things came from or the circumstances that led your character to them.
            In Ex-Patriots, for example, St. George now wears a long, dagger-like tooth on his jacket, a trophy from the final battle in Ex-Heroes.  He’s also got a web of scars on his arm where a zombie demon bit him.  And he can actually fly now, unlike the extended leaps he was doing in the first book.  Since all of these elements are part of his character, it’s simple to bring them up early on in the story.
            The Third way is the ignorant stranger.  Sometimes I have to tell someone else what happened before and why things are the way they are.  Maybe I need to explain why I have all these scars (like St. George had to explain to Captain Freedom in Ex-Patriots).  Perhaps Han Solo has to remind Leia he’s glad to help the rebellion, but he’s also hiding from Jabba the Hutt (in The Empire Strikes Back).  And I’m sure more than a few of us had to explain to the new kid what happened last summer between Wakko and Dot.  There are always meetings and debriefings and those awful Christmas catch-up letters.
            The ignorant stranger works very well with sequels because odds are I’m going to be introducing new characters.  As long as I’m not trying to do the “they were here all along” bit, that’s an instant excuse to explain things and talk about the past.
            And the Fourth thing you can do is probably the most important to remember.  Don’t do anything.  Sometimes we don’t need to know what happened before to understand what’s going on right now.  Most of the Friday the 13th films didn’t felt the need to explain Jason’s origins.  They understood that there’s not much we need to understand about a psychopath past “he’s here” and “he has a machete.” 
            Tell the things you need to tell, but don’t be scared to leave some things mysterious, too.  Let the audience piece a few things together on their own.  You want a story with an entry point, but you also want it to entice readers to go back and see what happened before.  If I spell out everything that happened in book one, there’s no need for you to go back and actually read it, is there?
            The best part about all these methods, of course, is that they’re all pretty natural.  I can slip them into conversations and introduce them into a story without much effort.  And that means I’m getting this information out to the reader without making it look like I’m beating said reader over the head with it. 
            Speaking of sequels, I need to get back to Ex-Communication.
            Next time, that rant about dialogue.
            Until then, go write.

5 comments:

  1. Hmmmm....

    let me make sure I have this clear though.

    What exactly do you consider a sequel?

    A continuation of a story?

    Or any story that takes place with the same people/world that was in another book?

    What if you have this great character or three then how would you work in various story lines that won't fit in one book?

    Or are you only talking about sequels when it comes to sales pitches?

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  2. Good question. I would say that a sequel is any story that depends on the events of a previous story for it to make sense, or for elements of it to have the intended depth.

    For example, Lee Child's Reacher books are a series, yes, but they're really not sequels. You can pick up any book and it stands alone fine. I'd say the Harry Potter books are sequels, however, since each one builds on the previous ones and requires you to have a bare knowledge of what's going on.

    I'm trying to think of a good "bad" set of sequels. One where book three or four is just unreadable if you haven't read the previous ones...

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  3. Unreadable I would say The Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind.

    Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.

    Then there is guys like Jim Butcher who can churn out long series where is book stands on its own merit in every way. Sure its nice to have read books 1 through 9 but the story isn't reliant.

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  4. Ugh...I need to create an account

    I'm the above quote

    ReplyDelete