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Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Mr. Monster: The Sequel Begins.

Long, long ago, having written a novel called I Am Not a Serial Killer and shopping it around for publication, I got a phone call from Moshe Feder, an editor at Tor, saying that he loved it and wanted to buy it. I was, of course, ecstatic, though I’d like to think that I kept my cool somewhat during the conversation. I told him I’d find an agent to help work out a contract, and he said something completely awesome and completely frightening:

“I’d like to do a contract for multiple books. This one and at least two sequels.”

Well. My level of excitement was, shall we say, somewhat boosted by this announcement. It was quickly tempered, however, by the fact that I didn’t really have any idea of what the sequels would be about. I said yes, of course, because one does not say no when an editor tells you they want to buy three times as many books as you expected, but I was a little nervous. The story in I Am Not a Serial Killer was fairly self-contained, at the time, and while I had thought about a series I had never really done any work on it; I just wrote the book and called it done. Where could I go from here?

I sat down that night and wrote out two quick ideas, about a page each, that would eventually become the two sequels: Mr. Monster and Full of Holes. In my opinion they are both better than the first book. I’ll talk more about those ideas later, but first let me talk a little about sequels in general. The first thing you should know is: they’re hard. For every Empire Strikes Back or Dark Knight, in which the sequel is better than the original, there’s a hundred Daddy Day Camps and Back to the Future IIs, in which the sequel is far, far worse. I see sequels as having three major obstacles to success:

1) The audience wants more of the same, but they also want something new. This is an enormous paradox that a LOT of writers are never really able to solve. One of my favorite examples is the American TV show Heroes, about normal people trying to deal with strange new powers they couldn’t understand. The first season showed them discovering their powers and trying to solve a larger mystery, slowly building up to a climax where they all finally met each other and worked together to defeat a scary villain. Everyone was excited for season two, and then it arrived and we saw…the same people, discovering the same powers and trying to solve a big mystery about the same, not-actually-defeated villain. The writers knew season one worked, and they were right to try to provide more of the same, but they neglected the “something new” aspect and basically just told the same story over again. I almost killed the show.

2) It’s very easy to mis-identify what the audience loved about your first work. Identifying this correctly is incredibly important, because it will let you know what elements need to be the same and what elements can be expanded or altered or improved. A great example here is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In the first movie, the creators were trying to reproduce the feel of the classic adventure serials they’d seen as kids, and they did a very good job and people loved it. What they didn’t realize is that the audience wasn’t responding solely to the concept, but to that specific execution of it: they loved the globe-trotting pulpiness, the 1930s period stuff, the nazi-bashing wish-fulfillment, and most importantly the perfectly tuned love/hate relationship between Indy and Marian. When the time came to make a sequel, they identified the wrong success (“Audiences loved having a movie based on old adventure serials”) and thus moved in the wrong direction (“Let’s make a movie based on other serials, like the jungle-stomping wilderness stories”). The movie they made was great, but it was missing most of the stuff people loved from the first one, and thus had a very poor reception. Go back and watch it today and I think you’ll agree that it’s a great adventure movie, but most of us remember it as "the crappy one" because, at the time, the audience felt a that it went in such an unexpected direction.

2) Your character has already had a strong arc in the first work, and now needs a completely new, unrelated arc that’s even better. Of course your sequel needs to be better than your first—if it’s not, people will feel like they got a bad deal. But how can you tell an even better story about the same character, when the first book already dealt with (presumably) their main personal issue? What do you do with Luke when he’s already learned how to use the Force? What do you do with Bruce Wayne when he’s already become Batman? There are plenty of stories to tell with those characters, but how do you give them the same emotional weight as the first installment after that central character hook has already been dealt with? The answer, of course, is to find a new hook. The first Spider-man movie showed a young, goofy teenager, slightly directionless and rebellious, grow up and learn responsibility. They hit those themes really solidly in the first one, and they told that story really well, and they couldn’t just tell it again; if they’d tried to rehash the same themes in Spider-man 2, it would have tanked. Instead they took it in a new direction, showing Peter Parker growing in other ways as he tries to cope with that responsibility and teach it to others.

These were the thoughts that rolled through my head as I sat down to plan out my series. Next week I’ll talk more about how these ideas helped create the story of Mr. Monster.

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