The Continuity Trap

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,

Lee

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5 Comments

  1. Bill G.
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree with what your saying. Being a comic book reader my whole life I think you make a valid point and I also have found myself falling away from the superheros I once loved. But I believe another issue with mainstream comics today are the fans themselves. Take Spider-Man after the Civil War story. They finally took him down a different path where you actually felt that the character was emotionally affected by the events around him. It made him more desperate and willing to go to places in himself that he never went before. Spider-Man was actually interesting again. But because of fan backlash they pulled that Mephisto magic crap exactly like you said and put him back to square one.

    I know what I said sounds strange because the fans are what drives comics (books, movies, ect.)to be written. But I feel that the fans get so stuck believing this is the ONLY way a character will act that it handicaps the writers. I think (and not being a writer myself this is only a guess) that the writer then feels that they have to fit these characters into preset rules and emotions to appease the fans. Thus causing the characters to then become stagnate and fall into that cycle you were talking about.

    Like you I find myself going away from the superhero genre and more towards independent, standalone titles like Mouse Guard, Scalped and Fables. Hopefully taking a break from these characters for awhile will renew my interests in them again but only time can tell. As much as I would love to read another Automatic Detective story it is very refreshing to read something new from you every time. It also makes the anticipation of a new book that much better because you don’t know what to expect. So thank you very much for your great writing.

  2. Bob Bob
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I think fans want/demand a sequel, because you don’t feel as if you should have to write a sequel. Also, because of the excuses…the separate universe excuse, the i-don’t-like-sequels excuse, the i-don’t-think-a-sequel-is-necessary excuse, etc. Even if every excuse is valid, your fans demand a sequel; therefore, law of supply and demand.

    If you wrote a sequel, you would never be asked to write a sequel again. Why? Not because it will suck. Not because it will be unnecessary. Not because suspension of disbelief. But because it proves, in the readers/fan’s mind, that you can write a sequel. And that the excuses are valid.

  3. Gideon Crane
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I dont think a sequel is necessary at all. I do enjoy some series, but I also enjoy a new idea with new characters and worlds. I read enough series that I am happy to read fresh novels once and awhile. Keep doing what you are doing. Cant wait to read Chasing the Moon!

  4. Al
    Posted June 11, 2011 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    MIB might not be the perfect example. Had a cartoon that worked alright.

    On the other hand, a cartoon’s allowed a lot more snapback than movies. On the third hand, the cartoon built the world a lot more than the second movie, which spent a fair portion of its runtime just undoing the stuff at the end of MIB 1. Cartoon skipped the step of returning the team to the default, taking it as a given, but it allowed other odd bits and bobs to stick.

    Of course, Atomic Robo is an interesting case as well. 90 years of continuity, all to get to what the reader takes as baseline from issue 2.

    Which means… which means that possibilities don’t get sealed off like with Marvel and DC. Just jumping back to WWII if you want more GI Robo. Jumping to the present if Clevinger wants Jenkins and Dr. Dinosaur. All planned by the same team.

    Meanwhile, Marvel and DC have an odd balance where the C list hero you’ve had an absolutely brilliant story idea for, the guy you’ve been waiting years fir because you know exactly what
    you want to do with him or her, can be offed without comment in the latest mega crossover, and then you can’t do jack. Also, the guy you were glad was finally dead is back in the same thing, and editorial is fond of him, so no, you can’t give him a payback waxing.

    Not sure what to say, but it’s an interesting mess no matter the angle.

  5. Dave G.
    Posted June 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to shed some light on why I like to read sequels. Some of the reasons that I read a particular author’s books are; first, I have bought into the books idea, second, I have bonded with the characters in an emotional way, and third, I appreciate the style of the story telling (for me, a nice mix of dialog and narrative, all with a humorous bent). The idea for the sequel then is to follow the characters to see where they will go next. They become like friends to me in that I’m interested in knowing how their life continues.

    I agree that your novels stand on their own and I really do appreciate that since I can pick up a book and know that the entire story is there. However (you knew this was coming), with the way that you write your books, I can see how you could revisit characters without revisiting the original idea of the first book. It is the characters that drive the interest. For example, although it would be kind of cool to know what happens with Gil’s All Fright Diner, I’m more interested in knowing what happens to Duke, Earl and Cathy and that probably doesn’t happen around the diner.

    Books are a different medium that allow for the detailed development of characters as long as the ride is interesting. For instance, an author I think of when I think of sequels is the late Robert Jordan. His sequels were chapters in a very large story which took you through the character’s development through the series. The only problem with that approach is that not every book seemed like a stand alone story, but the characters did grow through the series. I also think of the late Isaac Asimov and his Foundation series. Each book in that series was stand alone and yet took you through the development of Hari Seldon leading to new characters through the series to bond with. I disregard the prequel books in that series (and most prequel books/movies/comics for that matter) because I believe that the original character’s background is usually defined well enough in the current timeline. Also, for me, it is what happens now that hooks me into the character to begin with so I’m more future looking with regard to character development.

    Anyway, just some food for thought and keep up the great writing!

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