Hollywood has made the act of revisiting old fan favorites something of a gimmick. With a rising wave of returning franchises, classics like Star Wars, assorted horror and superhero movies, Star Wars, numerous 2D-animated films,* and Star Wars have made their way back to the big screen, drawing mixed reviews and more than a few raised eyebrows. Despite this recent trend, reopening completed stories is hardly a new phenomenon, and it’s certainly not one that’s limited to the realm of film. But no matter who’s doing it or what medium they’re working in, following up a beloved work is a delicate task. Each strategy has its own benefits and pitfalls, so tread carefully and choose wisely.
Writing a Sequel
Series and sequels are common in the world of storytelling, but things get more complicated when the original work was not written with a continuation in mind. Generally, sequels feature the same cast of characters facing a similar conflict in the universe where the original took place. However, if the first work was intended to stand alone, plot threads have probably been neatly tied off and character arcs have been completed. Because the original was wrapped up, forcing it to continue can result in arcs that are either unsatisfying or disconnected. Storytellers easily fall into the trap of retelling the same story – if it worked the first time, why not do it again?
On top of this, using a sequel as a follow-up means tackling the challenges even planned sequels face: upping the stakes, retaining the story’s heart, deciding what happened to the original characters, etc. Many a strong opening act has been ruined by bumbling later additions.
That said, sequels are also inherently exciting. Readers are already invested in the plot and characters from the get-go, giving you a built-in audience. Writers can explore story elements from their original work or expand their world, and the author’s familiarity with the preexisting work can make ideas flow more freely. Many writers have inklings about what happens after the story that don’t make it onto the page, and sequels give them an opportunity to express those ideas.
Before picking the sequel strategy, ask yourself some questions.
- Does your story lend itself to direct continuation?
- Does your plot have enough open threads to make for a compelling, new storyline?
- Do your characters have something to learn or some way to grow?
The goal of a sequel is to develop the themes or continue the plot in a way that not only preserves the core of the original but also expands upon it. If you feel up to this, then a sequel is the way to go.
Creating a Prequel
This strategy has a bad rep for a reason. Prequel stories have to impart the feel of the original, set up the original in a meaningful way, have consequential stakes despite the audience knowing the eventual outcome, be consistent with the original, and in many cases, end where the original begins. That’s a lot of constraints from the original!
A large part of the appeal of prequel stories is seeing characters at different stages in their lives or elaborating on how the situation at the beginning of the original came to be.* How did character A meet character B? Where did the magical McGuffin come from?
A prequel can answer questions like these, but to do so, it must work within the narrow box of consistency. For instance, the arcs the characters can have are predetermined by their state in the original work. An emotionless fighter can’t have a prequel arc about learning to sympathize with others if their starting position in the original is “emotionless fighter who can’t sympathize with anyone.”* In many cases, it’s best to go the Rogue One route and relegate the original cast to glorified cameos if they exist in the prequel at all.
Prequels can go wrong in many ways, but that’s not to say they have no merit. They are uniquely positioned to shed light on the workings of the story’s universe and expand its world. How did the corrupt monarchy rise to power? What happened to soldiers in the great war that divided the nation? The stakes in a prequel can still be about survival and perseverance, as long as they aren’t focused on whether a character from the original will survive. (They will, obviously.)
Overall, prequel storytellers have an important choice to make about how many familiar elements they want to depict, knowing the difficult constraints that come with them. If you have great time and/or distance between the two stories and limit the interactions between original characters and prequel characters, you’ll have more flexibility. That will probably result in a better story. But it won’t offer the tie-ins that existing fans will probably look for.
If you set your prequel directly before the original and keep many of the original characters relevant, be prepared to do a lot of rereading and flipping back and forth between the two works. You’ll need to search for creative ways to keep everything consistent while making a satisfying prequel.
Whatever you choose, remember that a similar tone and style are key to a good prequel.
Where sequels and prequels are limited relative to the original chronologically, anthology stories know no bounds. They can happen anywhere in your universe, at any point in time. Want to tell a story about the random lady your characters bought a Bundt cake from in chapter 2? Go for it. What about that bird that stole the villain’s toupee? Absolutely.
The immense flexibility and versatility of anthology stories has both problems and benefits. Anthology stories can’t have immense planet-sized stakes every time or readers will wonder why there seems to be an asteroid or plague or volcano every other week. On the flip side, an anthology whose universe is a smaller world, such as a single town or city, might find itself unable to fit multiple stories in the same place or time without straining believability. If super strong heroes from previous stories exist, why aren’t they the ones solving a given problem instead of your anthologized protagonist?
It’s easy to accidentally tell stories that contradict each other or are inconsistent with the rules from other stories. In follow-up works, especially those based on stories that were not written with anthologies in mind, elements that seem natural in the original can become contrived. Tone is also something that will seem odd and disorienting if inconsistent; a lighthearted rom-com in the sunny countryside does not flow naturally as an anthology to a gritty war story about surviving in a muddy apocalyptic wasteland.
However, the flexibility of anthology stories is also a major draw. Readers who grow attached to the world a story takes place in will be hungry for more content taking place there, regardless of who’s doing the telling or where. The stories don’t have to be in any particular order, which can make the world they take place in seem lived-in and expansive. Writers don’t have to imagine a whole new universe each time they have a story to tell, nor do they have to worry about narrative consistency the way prequels and sequels do. There’s no need to even engage with the original, meaning no shoehorning in an unnatural continuation or irreparably fudging the setup. The work that goes into having a vast and comprehensive world is exciting and rewarding for many authors.
If you’re as enthralled (or more so!) with your world as you are with your plot, an anthology might be right for you. Are you prepared to put vast amounts of work into expanding, theming, and codifying your story’s universe? Do you see enough conflict in this universe for multiple stories to take place, and is it large enough to hold them all? Flexibility is an anthology story’s greatest asset and greatest pitfall. Use it wisely.
A remake, in broad terms, is the same story told in a different light. In most cases, a remake is simply the same story with a notable twist. This can take many forms. Perhaps it’s from another character’s perspective, or now it takes place in ancient Rome, or everyone is now an expressionless CGI puppet. How much of the plot changes depends on what story is being retold and who is doing the retelling, but usually changes are minimal: remakes seek to preserve the original more than expand on it. For this reason, it’s easy for them to seem gimmicky. What’s the point? Why is it necessary to retell this story? What can be added to it while not detracting from the original?
This is the thin line remakes must walk: retell the story, but make it just different enough to be distinct. The changes that get made in the process are another tricky factor – what is and isn’t changed can seem random and nonsensical. Does the change advance the plot or a character’s growth? Does it enhance the audience’s experience or clarify something in a meaningful way? If not, why change it?
An example of a pointless change in a remake is the scene when Belle ventures into the West Wing in Beauty and the Beast. In the original 2D movie, the Beast slumps in regret after he screams at Belle to get out. In the live-action remake, instead we get a shot of him brooding over the rose with his face barely visible. This noticeably detracts from his character – instead of a humanizing moment where he regrets not treating Belle better, the film opted for an expressionless wide shot.*
Remaking something can prove an interesting challenge, and creativity in this area has given us some innovative results. Modern-day remakes of classic stories like Romeo and Juliet have the task of modernizing the now-antiquated aristocratic relations of rival noble families, and the innumerable retellings have all approached this in different and unique ways. Are they rival gangs in New York? Competing crime families in Mexico City? Gnomes in different yards?
Polishing and retelling a story can be rewarding, too, as it can fix plot holes and contrivances in the original with less risk of angering fans. (After all, it’s the same story.) Telling the same story from a different point of view can change the entire nature of the original, adding a fresh perspective without altering the source material.
The first and most important thing to know when remaking a finished work is what you’re trying to accomplish. What are you bringing to the table that hasn’t been brought before? The complaints many people have about the recent surge of live-action remakes is that there’s simply not a point for them to exist besides “Look how impressive our CGI is.” To write a good remake, you need a good reason.
Next, think about the twist and how you’ll implement it. How will your remake be unique? What challenges come from the twist you wish to take advantage of? If you have something unique to add to a beloved story or a fresh new way to tell it, a remake is the right strategy for you.
Taking Advantage of Multiple Strategies
It can be hard to tell, sometimes, what strategy a work is using. It may exhibit traits of multiple categories, making it hard to pin down. Is Dumbo (2019) a sequel or a remake? Is Mad Max: Fury Road a sequel, a remake, or an anthology story?* These are both category crossovers, a rarer yet perfectly viable follow-up strategy. Because crossovers straddle multiple strategies, the challenges and advantages their creators face come in a mix-and-match that changes from story to story.
With crossovers, it’s especially useful to remember that taking a non-traditional route to address challenges can ultimately lead to a stronger follow-up. Though people will expect a follow-up to mirror the energy and core of the original as much as possible, sometimes a divergent aesthetic can be refreshing and invigorating. Let’s look in depth at Mad Max: Fury Road as a successful crossover strategy that subverts many usual follow-up trends.
Where the original movies are set in a muted color palette of browns and grays and followed protagonist Max navigating the brink of the apocalypse, their follow-up goes in a completely different direction. It’s widely accepted that the titular Max isn’t even the protagonist of Mad Max: Fury Road – he is simply a viewpoint character catering to the story’s actual hero, Furiosa. Though most of the story takes place in the desert,* the color palette is bright and loud, with the chaotic and dirty aesthetic that the originals introduced amplified to the extreme. Fury Road is difficult to fit into the timeline of the originals, too – it seems to take place long after the environmental apocalypse, yet Max isn’t much older, for example.
Overall, this crossover story is strong enough that, in the end, the audience has no reason to get hung up on how long it’s been since the apocalypse or how old Max is. Fury Road sidesteps the challenge of consistency by throwing it to the wind and is much richer for it.* The storytelling path this example took is a difficult one to navigate. The writers faced many challenges, such as managing fan expectations, maintaining the energy of the original, continuing Max’s arc in a meaningful way, and still being unique. But approaching the story in an innovative and unexpected way paid off.
On the other hand, crossovers can flop easily, as with Dumbo (2019), which seemed at first like a straightforward live-action retelling of the classic 2D movie with a new aesthetic, and then, once it had completed the original story, jarringly turned into a sequel partway through.*
This is the nature of crossovers: high risk, high reward. If you wish to tell a story that follows up the original yet can still be seen as completely disconnected from it or even contradict it, crossover stories are the way to go.
Revisiting a completed work or franchise is exciting and appealing. It’s easy to get swept up in the thrill and overlook the potential pitfalls these types of stories face. The important parts to know about following up a finished work are what your goals are, the steps you’ll take to reach them, and what sorts of challenges you’ll face along the way. Once you understand these, whatever path forward you choose will enable you to tell the story you wish to tell.
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