Thursday 7 May 2015

On Writing Sequels by Jason Rohan

It's not uncommon for writers to be awarded a two or three book contract which can come as something of a shock if the author hasn't thought about this before. 

The situation is much the same for a musical artist who has had years to write ten songs, perform them to perfection and lands a multi-album deal. The pressure is on to deliver a second album on time that is every bit as good as the first one and we all know bands who have struggled with second-album syndrome.

Similarly, there are dozens of terrible movie sequels churned out to cash in on the success of the original, which essentially rehash the first film with little wit or imagination to redeem them.

With this in mind, I approached the task of writing a sequel from a different angle, namely I studied that rare beast: the sequel that is better than the original. 

For me, there are two kinds of sequels that flop. The first kind includes films like Beverly Hills Cop 2, Ghostbusters 2 and Men In Black 2. With each of these movies, it's obvious that the writers had no idea how to continue the story and essentially wrote a remake of the original.

The second kind of dud sequel to me is the dreaded Part Two of a trilogy. Much as I admire The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Matrix Reloaded, each middle film is obviously an Act Two, meaning there can be no satisfactory resolution and what you have is a bloated entree without a starter or a dessert.

At the same time, there are sequels which stand out as marked improvements on the original, such as Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back and Superman 2. Looking at these, the common element is that each one takes the established characters and setting but continues the plot rather than repeating it. Equally important is that each film extends the theme - more on that later. A common problem with Hollywood movie series, as evidenced by Spider-Man 3, is the perceived need to cram in more of what the audience supposedly wants, at the expense of the core characters. 

The super-hero movie trilogy usually begins with the hero's origin and acceptance of his powers. The second film is often the best because the main character is free to move forward, revel in his abilities and save the day, after questioning his sense of purpose and coming to the decision to fight on. The third movie is often a dud as the conflicts of purpose have been done and all that's left is to throw in more bad guys. Any sense of fun and adventure is lost.

Armed with this knowledge, when I came to write the sequels to The Sword of Kuromori, I had already planned a narrative throughline and character arcs that wove through the three books, the idea being that each would work as a standalone novel but if you read all three you would be getting a richer tale. As I always say, "know your ending before you start."

My second maxim was, "More of the same, only different." Successful sequels retain the elements that worked in the original (such as the xenomorph in Alien), but add a twist (next time, there are hundreds of them and a big mama alien). Alien 3 ran afoul of this by losing both Hicks and Newt and reduced the threat. Boo! 

The final part of the picture, for me, is Theme, that all-important, hard-to-pin-down flavouring that makes or breaks a dish. Aliens has a whole new theme with the mother/daughter dynamic introduced through Ripley and Newt but also mirrored by the mother alien and her brood. The Empire Strikes Back (spoiler alert!) famously brings in the sins of the father and whether the son will follow in his footsteps, which is quite a change from just blowing up Death Stars. And Superman 2 had the splendid theme of Kal El giving up his godlike powers for the love of a mortal woman, unknowingly putting the whole world in jeopardy.

In case you're wondering, the theme I chose for my sequel was the classic Samurai dilemma of duty to one's master versus the desires of the heart. Come on, it's set in Japan - what else could I do?

Jason is the proud father of The Shield of Kuromori, a brand new sequel, packed with action, adventure and weird monsters, set entirely in modern Japan.

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