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The art of the sequel

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. The art of the sequel. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, September:4–7.

A quick glance at the shelves of any video store or (pardon the anachronism) book store reveals a multitude of tales that have spawned sequels: Friday the 13th, Rocky, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars for the movies, and the novels of Louis L'Amour, Ian Fleming, John LeCarré, and Robertson Davies are examples that come quickly to mind, but a little thought will provide dozens of other examples. In fact, it seems at times that there are more sequels to be found than there are movies or novels that stand alone. Why is this?

First, there's the fact that some of the most powerful stories that have ever been written simply don't fit into the confines of a single book. Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, at some eight volumes, is one very good case in point; even in the condensed version, it weighs in at more than 500 pages, a long and absorbing read. Although there is no particular virtue in verbosity, a good writer soon learns that each story has its own inherent length. Attempting to expand a short story into a novel always shows the stretchmarks, just as condensing an epic into 200 pages or less leaves one with the sense that something is missing: the story may still "taste great", but the reader knows that it's also "less filling".

It takes a fairly good sense of what the reader wants from a story to succeed at writing. Someone once wrote that "the average article in People magazine should be just long enough to read in the course of an average visit to the toilet"—a comment that I find particularly appropriate to the caliber of writing in that magazine. (One wonders who did the market research behind that particular statement too; People is pretty popular.) On the other hand, most good works of history should be long enough to reward many hours of reading and pondering. Finding the balance between these extremes becomes a bit of an art, and one that some writers never learn. (Any opinions on that matter in regard to my essays are not currently being sought; this particular cherished delusion is one that I don't wish to have cured!) In any event, sequels often ensue when a story simply can't be fitted into a single piece of writing.

Another reason for sequels involves the difficult art of characterization. A good writer will usually (there are exceptions) make the development of an important character's personality a central feature of the story, even in an adventure yarn—most readers like to be able to identify with the protagonist of the book, and a good job of characterization makes this easier. In the best writing, the protagonist is easy to accept as a human being rather than a fictional construct. To achieve this effect requires, except in the case of the greatest writers, considerable effort, and this usually translates into a goodly amount of text. In a sequel, the writer has the advantage of providing the reader with a familiar character; consequently, less space is "wasted" in the sequel in covering familiar ground, and less time is required for the reader to become familiar with the character and begin concentrating on the story. Of course, the downside to this approach is that the reader may be required to purchase and read the earlier books in a series, and this may discourage some readers.

This brings up an obvious, if somewhat cynical, reason for the existence of sequels: publishers love them because they provide a built-in audience, and this is the surest way to guarantee a profit. Publishing, as any publisher will tell you, is a game in which the publisher gambles that he knows what the public will pay good money for. As with any game of chance, you lose more than you win, and any gimmick that will improve the odds will be eagerly adopted. The flip side of this fact is that a very select few authors ever manage to earn a living by writing; the rest of us write as a hobby or a source of extra income, and will adopt the same strategies as our publishers to improve the odds of finding or keeping a market. Once an author finds a market, there's an almost irresistable temptation to return to that market in the hope that they can make another sale. If this all seems a tad crass and commercial, then it simply reflects the reality of the literary world. But there are other, less crass reasons for lapsing into sequel.

In any work of fiction, tremendous effort may go into creation of the world in which the story is set. J.R.R. Tolkein spent many years just outlining the salient facts about his "Middle Earth", and many more years crafting the tales he set in that world. Nonetheless, in fantasy or science fiction, the task of world creation can be easier than in more traditional fiction because there is nobody to catch you up on mistaken facts (since you designed the setting, nobody knows it as well as you do); however, as you write more and more stories in the same setting, it becomes more difficult to keep everything logical and self-consistent. In classical or historical fiction, one must be thoroughly familiar with one's subject matter so that there will be no errors that stick out like a sore thumb. In this case, you are dealing with the real world and there will doubtless be many people who know more about this than you do. Regardless of the genre of fiction, the point is that the effort invested in creating and describing the setting of the story need not be duplicated to the same extent for the sequel; again, this allows the reader to slip into the story more easily.

If I've given the impression that readers are lazy by emphasizing that the author is trying to make things easy for them, then this is only partially true. Works of fiction are read for entertainment, and no one wants to work too hard at a book after a long work week. Any good author must know their audience, including how much it wants to have spelled out for it, and there is a definite art to knowing what to leave to the reader's imagination. Personally, I dislike books in which the protagonist is described down to the last scuffmark on their shoes; for me, there is more fun in creating my own mental image of the character within the limits imposed by the author's description. The advantage to this approach is that the act of reading becomes more personal for the reader, since the character they envision will differ slightly from that envisioned by other readers.

Both for characterization and setting, another advantage of writing a sequel is that additional information can be incorporated in the story, which will begin to make a character or setting seem even more real or familiar. Without the prequel (the book that precedes a sequel), all the old information would have to be repeated, which could become tedious or unwieldy. At its best, the use of sequels can create a richly detailed setting for a story that is so real you can almost reach out and touch it—J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy and the associated stories are a shining example. This sort of literary success has been compared favorably to putting on a comfortable old pair of jeans—you may well have a newer, bluer pair with fewer patches, but you certainly have nothing more comfortable.

I hope I haven't given the impression that sequels are necessarily good, as this is emphatically not the case. Sequels also provide a lazy writer with the ability to generate a stream of endless examples of the same story, periodically recycled with only slightly different plot or character gimmicks. This approach, called formula writing, has given us such shining literary examples as the Harlequin Romances, Doc Savage (in the realm of bad 1950s science fiction), and (some might argue) James Bond. The very worst formula writing gives us page upon page of descriptions of a character that are identical from book to book; in this case, the books differ only in the snippets of plot that are inserted between the repeated text.

No writer is immune to the lure of the sequel, and in my case, this takes the form of my series of "it's the little things" essays. Since I'm not being paid for this writing, I can avoid the accusation that I'm just trying to carve out a market for my writings. In fact, all my readers, having paid not a cent for these writings, have no incentive to read them unless I can keep them interested—hence, I can claim with some justification that I'm not being lazy and recycling the same old ideas or format. My purpose in these sequels is more to propose a few ideas that caught my interest but that probably didn't merit an entire essay in themselves. So to that extent, I can claim that I am still working on the art of the sequel. You may get to be the judge next month, if I return with still more little things. (I suspect the little beggars are breeding in the word processor.)

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