Updated: Jun 8, 2021
(In My Humble Opinion)
In my first blog with Culturally, I talked about how finding a good story to read or watch was challenging because of how set Hollywood seems to be on recreating (monetarily) successful stories via sequels and remakes. As young writers, we also feel the pressure from the successful stories that came before us, like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, to make series. “Trilogy” especially sounds like the level to strive for. But not all stories need a sequel.
On the other hand, sequels can be incredibly satisfying to the reader, and to the writer as well. They can provide senses of clarity, nostalgia, and resolution. We get to dive back into the world of characters we love to see how their story ends. But only if a sequel is made with care, because it can very easily be seen as selling out, digging up what should have ended, or ruining the first story.
So how do you know whether your novel should be a stand-alone or have a sequel? Ultimately, it’s up to you, but for me, that decision boils down to one question: does the story need a sequel? There are a couple of questions I ask myself to figure that out.
The first question: is the story over?
At the end of the book planning, are there questions still to be answered? Are there still loose ends to be tied up? Has the villain been defeated or are they still out there? Have their attempts been completely thwarted, or is there another villain in the shadows waiting for their opportunity, the way for which possibly paved by the original villain itself? Did your story do what it was meant to and deliver its message? If it’s clear to you that the story isn’t over, and if it’s impossible for you to answer those questions within the novel itself, then a sequel might be in the best interest of the story.
To me, this is the most basic requirement for a good sequel, the need to carry on a story. A good sequel isn’t one that just takes the same world and the same characters (or their children) and runs away with them, but is one that the story asked for, one that the story needs in order to have a concrete and satisfying resolution. As writers, we could talk forever about a world and its characters we have created, but does everything we can say need to be heard in the form of a sequel for the first tale to have the impact that we want it to? Not always.
A good example of a story that does not require a sequel is Selick’s (2009) film Coraline, based on Gaiman’s (2002) book of the same name. It still doesn’t have a sequel 12 years later, despite the pressure of fans to make one. A few weeks ago, a fake advertisement for Coraline 2 circulated around social media, but Gaiman denied its existence on Twitter, claiming that he would write a sequel if and when a story came to him that was as good as or better than the first.
I love Coraline. It is by far my favourite movie and I watch it at least once a month. But even I am not pushing for a sequel. The movie ends on a completely satisfying point: the world beyond the little door crumbles into nothingness, with the Other Mother trapped there to starve and die without the lives of any children to eat. Coraline’s word is now filled with brightness and she is on better terms with her parents. The souls of the ghost children have moved on. Even Wybie and his grandmother now understand a traumatic event that has spread through generations. The stories have come to rest, and I don't believe they should be disturbed (though, of course, that’s up to Neil Gaiman).
The second question: are your characters where they are meant to be?
Have the characters gone through all the character development that they needed? Have they achieved their most fundamental goal or realized their deepest dream? They might not necessarily be where they want to be, but are they where they need to be? If a character’s journey extends beyond the plot of the book, then a sequel might be the solution.
For example, Frozen (Buck & Lee, 2013) ended satisfyingly in terms of the plot—Elsa’s powers became welcomed by the kingdom, and she was able to end the eternal winter and repair the years of damage between herself and her sister Anna. However, Elsa’s character hadn’t finished developing. It’s clear throughout the movie that Arendelle is not the right home for her. She wants to be free. After all, who sings an entire song about freedom and builds themselves a giant ice palace at the top of a mountain if all they want is to be surrounded by a kingdom of people? That’s why I believe Frozen II (Buck & Lee, 2019) landed as well as it did; Elsa’s character development could finally come to an end as she fully embraced her powers and learned where she belonged. The kingdom of Arendelle also got a new queen, Anna, who prioritized it above all else, and Kristoff got the family he had been searching for since childhood.
We can compare this movie to Moana (Clements & Musker, 2016). The story of the film wrapped up nicely, not just because Te fiti’s heart was returned to her, thus restoring life to the islands, but because the characters also returned to their voyager roots; in the last scene, Moana and her people travel the waters looking for new islands, which, as we know from what Maui said about the sea choosing Moana, is also what the sea wanted. The characters in the story are where they are meant to be: Te fiti is restored, Maui has his hook, Moana is perfectly balanced in her people-loving sea-loving heart, and the sea is content to be traversed again. A movie like this does not need a sequel.
Now, how do we make a sequel that would do the first tale justice?
If you listen to what your story has to say and learn that it hasn’t finished yet, you can absolutely make a sequel. But know that you are not limited by the Hollywood structure—you can play with your storytelling.
I wrote a book a few years back that was extremely centered on the perspective of one character, but she was surrounded by all these interesting characters with intricate and profound backstories that she didn't know about. At the end of the book, the plot was over—the main villain was defeated—and the main character was where she was meant to be, but the rest of the characters’ stories weren’t fully resolved. I decided I would write a collection of short stories, “spin-off” style, that would delve into each character’s backstory to help the readers understand things that the main character didn't.
On top of sequels and side-stories or spin-offs, writers have prequels to consider as well. They follow the same rules as sequels, in my opinion: did the underdeveloped and necessary storyline or character come before the time of the main character? Are there secrets about the world you have built that the narrator didn't discover, but that readers have to know?
Whatever you decide to do to continue your story, my biggest advice for writing a good continuation is this: start planning it before the main story is published. If you plan your sequel, prequel, or side-stories after the main story has been released out in the world, your new plot points, characters, and world-building features run the risk of coming out of nowhere if not handled with care. You must remember that everything in your story’s world is canon from the moment it came into existence in that world, not from when you got the idea. And that’s tricky, absolutely—how do you plan for something you don't yet have the idea for?
You can get around this by letting the main story sit with you a bit longer while you flesh out the continuation. This way, when you create these new characters, plots, or rules, you are still able to jump back into the first story and drop a hint about it. Then, when the sequel comes along, readers/viewers will say, Ohh, cool, so that’s where that came from! It doesn’t have to be a huge reference to be effective, just a subtle nod toward what’s to come so that when it does appear, it isn’t out of nowhere. For example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Columbus, 2001; Rowling, 1997), Harry is sneaking around the castle and trying to find a place to hide, and remarkably finds a room containing the Mirror of Erised. A few years later, in The Order of the Phoenix (Rowling, 2003; Yates, 2007), Dumbledore’s Army discovers that room again while trying to find a place to practise their magic: The Room of Requirement. Its first appearance was a subtle but effective nod toward the future so that it didn't come out of nowhere in The Order of the Phoenix.
This type of planning is especially important for prequels because everything that occurs in a prequel is canon in the main story—the prequel is in the past and everything else happens after it. If a person, place, or object exists in your prequel, where is it in the main story? If something happened in the prequel, people would know about it in the main story; it might therefore show up in conversation, or at the very least affect the characters’ actions or personality (depending on how prominent the event was to them).
For example, Frozen II tied up Elsa’s character development, yes—and I also love it immensely, yes—but if young-Elsa and -Anna learned the story about the enchanted forest (Frozen II) on the same night that Elsa accidentally hit Anna in the face with a blast of magic (Frozen), why were the story, the lullaby, the Northuldra, Ahtohallan, and the forest not mentioned for the next nearly 20 years until Frozen II? An entire people, two locations, and a history of magic that were important enough to shape an entire sequel definitely should have been included in the main story, even in passing or in hints. Queen Iduna’s scarf, an important key to unlocking the mystery of the past in Frozen II, would have been a very cool detail to place discretely into the first film, such that when it reappeared in the second film it would have had more of an impact. Also, the sequel helped us understand why the late king and queen of Arendelle travelled by boat in the first film, but that discovery would have landed so much more profoundly on viewers if there was some inkling in the first film that the reason for their boat trip was vague or questionable.
As workers in a workforce, we can all be tempted to follow whatever route will make us the most money or the most popular, and I know it’s easier said than done, but what sets art apart from some other industries is that we put our art first, even above consumers, even above ourselves. I believe that stories choose the writer that tells them, and that the story is out there in its entirety, slowly revealing itself to the writer as they go along their lives; we as writers must tell that story in the way the story wants to be told, the way it deserves to be told. To stretch it out as far as it can go to see how much money can be squeezed out is to do it an incredible disservice.
Tell your story the way it needs to be told—sequel or no sequel. Only you know how to do that. But whatever you do, do it with care.
Buck, C. & Lee, J. (Directors). (2013). Frozen. [Film]. Disney Animation Studios.
Buck, C. & Lee, J. (Directors). (2019). Frozen II. [Film]. Disney Animation Studios.
Clements, R. & Musker, J. (Directors). (2016). Moana. [Film]. Disney Animation Studios.
Columbus, C. (Director). (2001). Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. [Film]. Warner Bros. Pictures.
Gaiman, N. (2002). Coraline. Boomsbury & Harper Collins.
Gaiman, N. [@neilhimself]. (2021, March 31). I'm waiting for a Coraline story that's as good as or better than Coraline. There's no point in making...[Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/neilhimself/status/1377196910469992448?s=20
Rowling, J.K. (1997). Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Bloomsbury.
Rowling, J.K. (2003). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Bloomsbury.
Selick, H. (Director). (2009). Coraline. [Film]. Laika.
Yates, D. (Director). (2007). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. [Film]. Warner Bros. Pictures.