Once Upon A Time...

Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick

To sequel, or not to sequel? That is the question

by LJC

Once upon a time, you read a wonderful story that you never wanted to end. But end it did, and it left you with a craving for more. It's that same all-encompassing hunger for "more" that drives us to write or seek out fan fiction in the first place. And so as readers our immediate desire upon finishing a truly wonderful, original fan story to to locate and consume more of the same. Immediately. And one of the first things almost any reader asks a writer is "Is there a sequel?"

As writers, a similar condition exists. The positive feedback we receive from writing spurs us on to write more—but the question remains: do we write a new story? Or do we simply continue the story we have begun?

n. Abbr. seq.

  1. Something that follows; a continuation.
  2. A literary work complete in itself but continuing the narrative of an earlier work.
  3. A result or consequence.
Sequels are funny things. Many of the stories that fan writers label "sequels" are not in fact, according to the definition above, a sequel. For example, if I write a novel, and then write a second novel with the same characters that is set after the first novel, it would only be a sequel if the plot of the first novel was being extended and continued in some way. There is a difference between true sequels, and a series of works set in the same universe.

Since the majority of television series are episodic and serial in nature, there is no surprise that an author would continue to write stories that build on one another as she goes along, considering the format of the source material. However, there is a difference between building on what has gone before, and rehashing the same plot and themes. For example: films like the Star Wars and Godfather series are meant to be taken as a whole. Star Wars in particular is one story broken into three parts, with plots and arcs that are self-contained and resolved within each section, but with a sweeping plot and arc that defines the structure of the trilogy.

However, films like Die Hard and novels like Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, Eight Skilled Gentlemen and The Story of the Stone, are true sequels—the characters are reliving the same plot and arc each story, only on a grander scale and with some character development from story to story. And as sequels, they suffer to an extent. By giving the audience exactly what they wanted —more of the same— they can entertain, but they also run the risk of losing their impact as they do so, simply because we've seen it before. The trick becomes how to show it to us again so that it feels new.

The first question an author should ask herself is "Does the first story require a continuation?" Do the characters continue to evolve beyond the first work in a logical fashion? Or is it a forced evolution, and not the logical continuation of an arc begun by the first work? What this boils down to is whether the first story can actually support a sequel—or if a sequel will only dilute the impact of the first story. When you're sitting down to write, you have to take into account how you're going to continue to develop both the characters, and your universe.

The second question is "Am I doing this simply because the first story was well received, and the readers want more of the same?" This is even more important—because if the author starts pandering, then it's a slippery slope. A story should be told because it demands to be told—not because the readers demand it be told. Or, unfortunately, because the author enjoyed the feedback and wants more of the same. As this column has stated time and time again, the quality of the work should come before the author's ego, and writing sequels simply to gander more positive feedback is one of the greatest crimes of authors. An author writes because the story demands it; not for the kudos. While praise can be a wonderful motivator, it should not be the sole motivator when it comes to new work. The plot and emotional arc needs to be solid and as tight as possible, and oftentimes it is the plot and the characters who suffer for the sake of an author's pride and greedy appetite for feedback.

If an author simply wants to write a serial that never truly ends but goes on and on ad infinitum, then the author should know that from the on-set and write accordingly. There is a place in the world for serials. Certainly soap operas would not be as popular since the radio days until today if this were not true. But keep in mind that stories that matter have endings. It is the very fact that they do end—and that the characters are in a different place than where they began, be it emotionally, or in their knowledge of themselves, or their knowledge of their world—that gives the story meaning and resonance.

Each new story set in the same universe should reveal something new either about those characters, or that universe. Each story should build upon the last one in a logical way. If the logical progression of a character is derailed—or the progression forced by the demands of a sequel rather than the character herself or himself—then what once was a coherent, solid whole can be made weaker with each subsequent story until the characters and universe themselves no longer resemble in the slightest either the canonical characters and universe, or the author's own writing universe. So authors should always, when deciding to pen a sequel, take care that they do not end up destroying the very thing that they have created.

LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts