When I looked at my social media streams Friday morning, I was flooded with news about Steve Ballmer’s announcement that he would be leaving the helm of Microsoft in the next year. That story was interspersed with dismayed proclamations about Ben Affleck being announced to play Batman in the next movie of that franchise. These two events got me thinking a little bit about sequels.
The uproar around these two events highlights an inescapable fact about sequels: People are always excited by the prospect of sequels, but everyone is ultimately disappointed by what they actually get. Steve Ballmer could never live up to the legacy of Bill Gates. No one has seen Affleck’s Batman portrayal yet, but everyone seems certain that he is an inferior choice to whoever went before (which I guess I don’t know because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Batman movie).
Whether it’s a movie or a book (or a business), I have one simple approach to dealing with sequels: Don’t expect anything. You know, don’t get your hopes up, and you’re less likely to be disappointed.
Movies and books that generate sequels do so because the original was successful. People like the characters, the milieu, the action, or whatever. But it’s all but impossible to re-create the success of the original by revisiting that setting. That doesn’t mean the sequel can’t be good in its own right and own way. If you go in expecting it to be the original only better, you’re setting yourself up for heartbreak.
Here’s a perfect example: the recent fourth season of Arrested Development. This might not be considered a sequel in the classic sense, but when you take that much time off and come back to a series, it pretty much has the same effect. As a viewer, and one who had watched the first three season several times, I was excited by the prospect of a new set of episodes—but at the same time knew not to let my expectations rise too high. How could they achieve the same level of excellence, even with the same cast and creative team?
Nonetheless, I watched the entire fourth season the weekend it debuted on Netflix, and thoroughly enjoyed it—contrary to the reactions of others from much of the Internet commentary I’ve seen. I recently rewatched it at a somewhat more leisurely pace. It’s good; funny. Yes, it’s different—and it’s also the same. Yes, it repays additional viewings to pick up on some of the repeated jokes and call backs to the original seasons. Not having expectations allowed me to take pleasure in what they did with this season.
What about when it comes to writing a sequel of your own? I have simple advice for that situation as well: Don’t do it.
This advice might seem strange, considering I’ve read largely from the fantasy genre all my life and am inclined to write them as well—and this genre seems built on the notion of sequels. I’ve long felt that the publication of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy created the trilogy as the standard for fantasy writers. However, Tolkien didn’t write a trilogy; he wrote one story that was divided for publication by the publisher.
OK, sure, LotR was technically a sequel to The Hobbit. But really, it was all part of one great story Tolkien was developing, the history of Middle Earth. Those just happened to be the portions he managed to write. And that would be my lesson for writers of this type of sequel: If you’re going to do it, make sure you’ve got a plan for the whole series from the start. Know where you’re going.
And perhaps most importantly, have an end in sight—avoid these epic, never-ending stories that have become standard in the genre, popularized by the likes of Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. I’m not saying these aren’t good stories. The problem with them is, first, that they take too long to write. For the readers, there’s nothing good about having to wait year after year for the next installment. Second, even if I wait until the whole thing is published before I start, I’m probably going to get bored with it all by a few thousand pages in, no matter how exciting it is.
So, in summary, for other people’s sequel’s, don’t expect too much. For your own, just don’t. If you find you must, have a definite end in sight, hit it, then move on to something new.
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins