Indiana Jones and the Temple of DoomThe Matrix ReloadedBridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.  What do these movies have in common besides silly titles?  They are all sequels, and they are all frustratingly, disappointingly, infuriatingly worse than the original.  And the list of failed sequels could go on and on and on.  No matter how good the original, sequels have a tendency to flounder.  There are of course exceptions (The Godfather: Part II; The Empire Strikes Back), but they are disappointingly few and far between.  And the same goes for novels, particularly when the sequel is the second book in a trilogy.  All too often these books leave anguished readers like myself demanding ‘why?’  Why!

Well, now I know why.  Sequels are hard.  The thrill of discovery is gone.  First books or first movies are about establishing characters and exploring the world in which they live.  This sense of discovery helps to drive the story and keep readers interested.  The second time around, the thrill is gone.  This means that plot becomes more important, but this too is problematic, since in a trilogy, the major plot conflicts will not be resolved until the third entry.  So, if the first book is about establishing characters and the third one is about resolving conflicts, what exactly does the second book do?  One answer – one that is particularly popular in Hollywood – is to offer more of the same: take whatever was good about the first film or book and offer a lot more of it.  Unfortunately, Hollywood types seem to have a hard time figuring out precisely what was good about the first film.  But even when they get that right, the problem remains that simply offering more of the same leaves the audience feeling like, well, they’ve already seen all of this before.

So what to do?  How to make the sequel fresh and as compelling at the first entry in the trilogy, and to make it more than just a journey from point A to point B in preparation for the finale?  This is a question that I have been wrestling with as I work on Kingdom, the sequel to Eagle.  When I started writing Kingdom, I was confident.  The book was going to be a breeze.  I had already done all the hard work of establishing characters and building storylines.  Now it was time to have fun!  But to my dismay, the sequel turned out to be harder to write than the first book.  I was writing about very exciting events, but somehow, the tension was missing.  Sieges and battles to the death were coming across as oddly dull.  Seriously, how many times can a man overcome overwhelming odds to save his life before he develops a James-Bondian insouciance?  “Time for you to split,” John smirked as he cut his enemy in two at the waist…

Thankfully, I found the key (or a key, at any rate) to unlocking the sequel before any lines that bad made it into Kingdom.  The problem I was having did not lie in the action or the plot, but rather with the characters.  When I first started writing Kingdom, the lead characters – John and Yusuf – were behaving more or less the same as they had at the end of Eagle.  They had ceased to be dynamic individuals and become something like chess pieces, to be moved about the board at the behest of the plot.  And the book suffered for it, because even more so than parts one and three in a trilogy, the second act is all about character arcs.  Take, for instance, one of the greatest sequels of all time: The Empire Strikes Back.  Not much happens in the movie in terms of plot, but the characters are challenged and taken to new places.  Han and Leia’s relationship deepens.  Luke spends most of the movie fighting against himself – struggling to control his emotions in order to become a Jedi.  Darth Vader transitions from a menacing force of pure evil to a real character, who just happens to be Luke’s father.  Each protagonist must face self-doubt and defeat.  Star Wars created a universe and gave us characters; Empire puts them through the ringer.

And that is precisely what sequels should do.  Once I realized how dramatically the events of book one would have changed John and Yusuf, then the second book took off.  Eagle is all about the relationship that these two men forge.  Kingdom is about what happens when that relationship is put to the test.  In effect, this is what all second parts of trilogies should be about.  There are plenty of ways to do this:

  • Break up relationships that are strong; perhaps even have friends forced to work on opposite sides of a conflict.
  • Force former enemies to work together.
  • If two characters are in love, introduce a third party.
  • Have previously victorious characters suffer defeat, and vice versa.
  • Put established characters in new settings.
  • Change characters’ status in terms of power and rank.  Have the mighty fall or the low rise.

None of this is rocket science.  Successful sequels have been using these devices for as long as people have told stories.  Still, sometimes it’s good to stop and remember what a sequel should be all about.  (Preferably, one should do this before starting to write the sequel.  Oops.)  It’s not about producing a bigger and better version of the original.  Nor, ideally, should it be just about watching the same old characters go through a new set of adventures.  Sequels are about how characters change.  And how will the characters of Eagle change?  All will be revealed next March, when Kingdom is published.  Until then, feel free to guess!

Next week: Who decides what goes on a book jacket? (hint: it’s not the author)