It’s well established at this point that I don’t write sequels. It was something I just sort of stumbled into. It wasn’t a conscious long-term choice. When I was merely an aspiring writer (as if there’s anything “mere” about being an aspiring writer) I decided to write every story as its own separate universe with separate characters and completely unrelated to each other. The logic was simple. I wanted to have as much material as possible to put out there, and while having five or six books in a series completed would’ve been good if a publisher wanted the series, if a publisher didn’t, I’d be out-of-luck. I was just trying to avoid putting all my eggs in one basket.
Naturally, when I did finally get published, it was assumed by many that I would immediately begin a series. I even considered an expanding universe, turning Rockwood of Gil’s All Fright Diner into my own little playground with recurring characters and continuity. But then my publisher kept buying other books, so I lost interest quickly.
And now, eight books published and my ninth manuscript just about done, I don’t see any reason to go back to what I started. I could write a sequel to something, and I’m sure it would sell well. If anything, by playing hard to get, I might have increased demand for it. And, for the record, I’m not a big fan of sequels or series novels, but many are done well and have achieved a justifiable hardcore fan following.
The idea of a continuing universe or the further adventures of Character X works just fine for many. But as an artist (if I might indulge my ego for a bit), the pitfalls are many.
Tron Legacy was the sequel fans have been waiting decades for. And it wasn’t very good. But perhaps it would be wrong to place the blame on those who made Legacy. Maybe it’s just one of those stories that is perfect the way it is and no sequel could work. Allow me to be charitable to the filmmakers for just a moment and suggest that the Tron setting really isn’t good for many stories. The original is a neat film with cool ideas, but it doesn’t lend itself to much outside that. The world of Tron wasn’t designed with sequels and series in mind. Hence, the difficulty in creating any sort of continuing story about it. This would explain why Legacy mostly meanders its way through a muddled plot, stealing bits and pieces from other fantasy films, in hopes that they can be cobbled together into something worthwhile.
Let’s call it The Highlander Dilemma. What do you do with a story that was never intended to be expanded? You can add a weird alien background, a strange futuristic setting, and contrive reasons to bring back characters, but you’re still basically trying to push a boulder uphill.
Actually, Tron Legacy and Highlander 2 seem to be poster children for this particular problem. Or Men-in-Black 2. Or Hangover 2. Or Pirates of the Caribbean 2-who knows how many they’ll make. Heck, even the Star Wars prequels fall victim to this. They aren’t necessary, don’t add anything new to the story, and exist mostly because popularity and financial success demand it.
That’s the dilemma. Because whether or not I enjoyed any of those films listed above, they were all commercial successes. And people enjoyed them. I might think Legacy and Hangover 2 are dreadful, but my opinion is just one and hardly one that matters. Box office is what counts, and it should. A big, mainstream movie costs a lot of money to make, and who would bother if they didn’t think they’d get some return on their investment?
Another storytelling medium that continually suffers from this are comic book. Specifically comic book superheroes. I used to love comic books. But superheroes are always struggling between the need to tell ongoing stories and a contrary need to keep things exactly the same. No change in comic books is permanent. All characters will return to their original form. Given enough time, Barbara Gordon will get out of her wheelchair and walk again. Hal Jordan will somehow return from the grave and become Green Lantern again. Spider-Man will have his marriage magically undone, and everything will be exactly the way it started.
That doesn’t bother me. Not exactly. Although it is why any sort of ongoing continuity is always going to screw storytellers in the end. Because if you don’t change the characters / worlds, the audience can get bored. But if you do change the characters / worlds, the audience gets hostile. You really are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Given a long enough timeline, every continuity becomes a yoke around the storyteller’s neck.
Comic book superheroes have struggled with this dilemma for at least 30 years. Ever since comic book fans started reading compulsively and cross-referencing every bit of dialogue and display of power. Comic books are going through a hard time now, and I don’t think it’s solely because they’ve taken stories about flying people in long underwear and turned them into violent, blood-soaked fantasies. (Though that doesn’t help.) It’s because there’s really nothing new being done in comics. It’s the same characters, fighting the same villains, in the same way over and over and over again. While it’s easy to be critical, it’s also true that there’s just no clear way out of the continuity trap. Other than perhaps creating new characters and supporting them long enough that they might become a new generation of heroes and villains without decades of baggage already attached to them. But that’s not going to happen. Mostly because a new character would probably have to be supported for at least a decade before making headway against the much better established ones.
ASIDE: This is why I read and recommend Atomic Robo by Red 5 Comics. He’s a new character in his own universe. He doesn’t come with fifty years of backstory. He isn’t going to get shanghaied into some silly epic crossover. And while the comic does have continuity (and even uses it deftly and effectively), it’s also a great read without any of that. Atomic Robo is the comic book that makes me want to be a better writer and is just plain awesome. Pick up any of the collected graphic novels. You won’t be disappointed. BACK ON TOPIC
If my livelihood depended on sequels, I’d write them. I admit it. But as a novelologist, I’m lucky enough to have choices. I’d most probably be doing better at this stage if I was on book eight of an ongoing series, though I can’t say that for sure. I don’t rule anything out, but I’m earning a living writing standalone books. And I love the freedom it gives me in terms of storytelling. And I like being able to offer an alternative in a world full of sequels.
I’m damn lucky to do what I do, and maybe I’ve just been slipping below the radar up to this point. Maybe one day, the publishing police will bust down my door and smack me around until I relent. But until that day, as long as people keep paying me for writing what I enjoy writing best, I won’t complain.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,