Conquest of Greystone Valley will be coming out midway through 2016, and will be my first published sequel novel. In writing it, I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a good sequel. Novels seem to have a higher success rate than films, but both media have challenges when writing a follow-up story.
Novels and movies have different challenges, but a lot of similar lessons can be learned between the two. In thinking about what I wanted in Conquest, my mind continually gravitated to the best and worst movie sequels I could think of – specifically, The Dark Knight and Blues Brothers 2000.
Batman versus the Blues Brothers
The Dark Knight is one of the most successful sequels of all time. It blew away box office records, stunned critics, and even netted an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (posthumously given to the late Heath Ledger).
Blues Brothers 2000 was…not. Coming 18 years after the original comedy classic, it flopped both critically and financially. The time gap (or the death of one of the original Blues Brothers, John Belushi) certainly didn’t help matters, but there were a lot of factors contributing to its failure.
So in looking at two sequels from the opposite ends of the quality spectrum, what can we learn about storytelling?
Making the First Story Count
A frequent problem encountered in sequels is the tendency to go back to the formula of success from the first story. In many cases, this means needing to push a narrative reset button – the couple from a previous love story divorces, the Cinderella figure loses all her money, and so on.
This is not a trap The Dark Knight falls into. From the beginning of the story onward, it becomes obvious that Bruce Wayne’s deeds in Batman Begins made a difference. Crime is on the downswing. The mob is running scared. Even Wayne Manor is still in the rebuilding process after getting burned down previously.
Blues Brothers 2000, on the other hand, dives head-first into the trap. All the events of the first film get completely undone before the first act of this sequel finishes up. The “mission from God” that drove the original quest is rendered pointless, because the orphanage got demolished anyway. There are no signs that what the Blues Brothers accomplished had any lasting merit.
Going in New Directions
The other problem with hitting the reset button is that it puts the new story in the same place as the last one. This in turn prevents the narrative from growing and going in new directions. When that happens, the best the new tale can strive for is being almost as good as the original.
The Dark Knight moves beyond the problems of Batman Begins. While some beats remain the same, the story goes in new directions. Whereas Ra’s al Ghul waged war against Bruce Wayne, the Joker focuses his attacks on Batman, not even caring about the man under the mask. Bruce’s playboy personality becomes more defined. The story gets him to leave Gotham in the first act. His love interest moves on. He gains a new ally and eventual foe in Harvey Dent. But all these elements still feel like natural results of the previous story – at the core, this is very much a Batman movie.
While it tries to do some new things, Blues Brothers 2000 leans too heavily on the first story’s success. Once again we get to see Aretha Franklin futilely try to keep Matt “Guitar” Murphy from going back to the band. Both cops and criminals are on the hunt for the brothers again, with the Illinois Nazis of the first film replaced by infinitely less interesting Russian mobsters. When the film does do something new, such as introducing a voodoo queen capable of doing actual magic, it’s so far outside the reality previously set by the narrative that it falls apart. Blues Brothers 2000 only has two modes – serving as a lesser version of the original or pushing in directions that feel like they don’t belong in the setting as we know it.
Upping the Stakes
A film professor of mine once made the statement that the plot of a story should take place during the most important time of the character’s life. I don’t totally agree with that, but it is true that a dramatic story requires high personal stakes. In a sequel, they often need to be even higher.
Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight deal with the fate of Gotham, but the personal stakes for Bruce Wayne increase. He has to sacrifice more as the story goes on, ultimately losing his love interest, his chance to retire from crimefighting, and even his good name. Meanwhile, the Joker challenges him in ways that Ra’s al Ghul never did, with anarchic methods that never give Batman a chance to figure out the villain’s true plan.
In Blues Brothers 2000, the stakes have actually decreased. Elwood gets the band back together not to save his childhood orphanage but because he wants to feel the rush of performing again. Along the way, he commits multiple crimes with no real goal in mind other than winning a battle of the bands (which, by the way, they lose). That transforms the Blues Brothers from a band of miscreants wanting to do something good into just a band of miscreants.
I’ve put a lot of thought into ensuring that Conquest of Greystone Valley feels like a natural outgrowth from the original that pushes the story in new directions while staying true to the elements that worked well in Sarah’s first adventure. Moreover, the story gives me a chance to show my growth as a writer, tightening up my use of language and presenting something that is more technically well-written than before.
Will my thoughts and ponderings above help make sure that Conquest is the best novel it can possibly be? You’ll be able to decide that force yourself in just a few months.