1. The Conflict Is Maxed Out
Star Trek: First Contact pulls out all the stakes in its conflict. Not only do our heroes fly into battle against a Borg invasion and win, but they also go back in time and stop the Borg Queen from changing history so the Federation never existed. That’s about as high as a conflict’s stakes can go, and it doesn’t bode well for any sequels.
Insurrection, the next Trek film, has Picard and company doing battle against a previously unknown enemy called the Sona. After watching the Enterprise vanquish a Borg cube, it feels like these new aliens should be pushovers, which makes them hard to take seriously as villains. Even when they prove stronger than the Enterprise, it seems more like a contrivance than a danger.
That’s what happens when a story ramps its conflict all the way up to eleven. It’s very exciting in the moment, but it leaves sequels with nowhere to go. As audiences, we naturally expect the stakes to go up with each installment of a story. If they don’t, it’s a letdown. If the storyteller tries to raise them anyway, it’s meaningless. Once a story gets to the scale of saving all life in the galaxy, adding more danger just doesn’t feel real.
Sometimes, storytellers can get around this problem by changing the type of conflict instead of raising the stakes, but this is rare. It requires that the story be able to support more than one type of conflict, and that the storyteller be interested in something different. Those two factors rarely align, so if the first book in a series has the heroes save the Milky Way from destruction, there’s a good chance the sequels will have nowhere to go.
2. The Hero Is God-Moded
The first Matrix film is about Neo unlocking his potential and becoming The One. We’re told this will give him unlimited power, that he won’t have to dodge bullets anymore because mere fighting will be beneath him. The film’s climax certainly bears this out. Neo possesses ultimate power, and he’s going to use it to destroy the Matrix once and for all.
Then the sequel rolls around and he… hasn’t. Somehow the Matrix is still there, and Neo’s much-vaunted ultimate power has been reduced to flight and superstrength. You know, things that are useful in all that fighting he’s not supposed to do. At times, the filmmakers still pretend he’s all-powerful, but he obviously isn’t.
Neo’s powers aren’t the only thing wrong with the later Matrix films, but they’re a big part of the problem. We were told he was all-powerful, then we were told that “all-powerful” didn’t mean what we thought it meant. Not only is this confusing, but it invalidates the original story that we loved so much.
Any time a story makes a big deal about giving its hero unmatched power, it’s a major warning sign about sequels. If the storyteller fulfills our expectation, then the sequel will be boring because the hero is all-powerful. If the storyteller tries to weasel out of their promise by introducing even more powerful bad guys, then it invalidates the previous story. Plus it’s often just unbelievable. “Yeah, sure, I promise these extra-strong villains were here the whole time. Pinkie swear.”
3. There Are Too Many Characters
Winter Tide is an excellent story of intersectional oppression, cosmic horror, and subverted Lovecraftian tropes. It’s got compelling conflict, a likable protagonist, and cool magic. The only problem is that it has way too many characters. By the time the story ends, there are between 8 and 12 main characters, depending on how you count them.
In the sequel, Deep Roots, it’s even worse. Not only are all the characters from last time still around, but the novel keeps adding more. Each character added means less screen time to go around. The author tries to address the issue by handing out flashback scenes, which do nothing but inflate the novel’s word count. Before long the characters blur together, and it’s often difficult to remember who is doing what. It’s a disaster, and the only upside is taking bets on how many characters the third book will have, if there is a third book.
Keeping a story’s character count low requires a lot of self-discipline on the author’s part, and even the most disciplined stories will generally acquire more characters with each installment. If an author already has too many characters in their first installment, it shows they simply aren’t willing to make the necessary cuts, and that’s only going to get worse. Writers almost always have to add new characters to make a sequel work. Pretty soon each scene feels like an all-hands meeting, and lord help you if the author decides that every character needs their own viewpoint.
4. The Conflict Requires Special Circumstances
In Jurassic Park, we see a dinosaur theme park go horribly wrong as the dinos escape their enclosures and feast on delicious human meat. This happens because every one of the park’s safety precautions fail due to sabotage and because there are only a few humans on the island.
That’s a fine premise for one movie, but it’s a terrible setup for a sequel. Dinosaurs aren’t magical monsters; they’re big animals, and they’re only dangerous to humans when everything has gone wrong. Nevertheless, the powers that be saw fit to make four more Jurassic Park movies, each less credible than the last.
Sequels work best when a story’s setting is capable of supporting more than one kind of conflict. This scenario is the opposite of that. The first story’s conflict only happened because something out of the ordinary took place. For a sequel to have a similar conflict, something similar must go wrong, and that stretches audience belief past its breaking point.
So how can you tell if a story’s conflict depends on special circumstances? Just ask if removing a factor or two can stop the conflict in its tracks. In a story like Fellowship of the Ring, Sauron is still coming for the Ring of Power, even if Frodo never takes it up. In Jurassic Park, the characters would have had a fun family trip if an employee hadn’t sabotaged everything so he could steal dino-embryos.
5. The Hero Is Dead
Season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends with the Slayer heroically sacrificing herself to save the world from an evil portal. And that’s a wrap, right? You can’t very well have Buffy the Vampire Slayer without Buffy.
But then the show was renewed for two more seasons, and they weren’t going to do that without the titular character, so Buffy is resurrected in a previously unknown magical ritual that, of course, is never used again. The writers tried to cover for this by spending a lot of time on how traumatizing the resurrection is for Buffy, but all they manage is a story so depressing it’s hard to watch.
There’s a reason stories rarely kill off their main characters. Not only is it a major bummer, but it makes the story really hard to continue. In most stories, everything revolves around the main character, that’s why they get the title “main.” While the hero’s death can certainly make for an effective climax, it also leaves a big hole in any future stories.
This leaves the storyteller with two options, both of them difficult. First, they can try to bring the hero back from the dead. This is almost always a bad idea. It raises the question of why this resurrection method is never used for anyone else, but more than that, it undoes the last installment’s ending. That’s something sequels should always strive to avoid, since it gives audiences the feeling that nothing in the story matters; it can just be reversed next time!
The second option is to continue the story without the main character. This is possible if it’s set up in advance like we see with the death of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. But if the writer doesn’t know exactly what they’re doing, the story is likely to flounder without its hero, like X-Files without Mulder or Stargate SG-1 without O’Neill.
6. Everything Is Resolved
Whatever its flaws, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows did a complete job tying up loose plot threads. Our heroes take Voldemort down, of course, resolving the main series arc, but there’s more to it than that. We get resolutions to Snape’s and Dumbledore’s arcs,* while every other character is either dead or romantically paired. This story of the wizarding world is firmly tied off.
So naturally, Cursed Child came along and tried to pick out some of those threads. With nothing to actually build on, that story went with the idea that Voldemort had a secret daughter, and that of all the people who died in the books, it was Cedric Diggory’s death that really ate at Harry. Sure. Cursed Child has numerous problems, but present throughout is the unshakable feeling that the story isn’t actually about anything.
There’s a constant tug-of-war in stories between satisfying the audience with a strong resolution and leaving hooks open for sequels. Tying up every thread generally leads to maximum satisfaction, but it also means there’s nowhere to take the story afterward. That’s fine if you’re writing the capstone to a long series and you don’t plan to have any sequels, but sometimes authors just can’t help themselves.
This is why I’m actually glad we didn’t get a fourth season of Avatar: The Last Airbender like one of the show’s creators has recently been talking about. Avatar’s ending is incredibly satisfying, completing every character arc and tying up nearly every plot thread. It’s hard to imagine a fourth season that wouldn’t have been a letdown after that.
7. Nothing Is Resolved
The Collapsing Empire opens with a fascinating premise: The hyperspace lanes that connect humanity’s interstellar empire are collapsing, and the emperox* has to do something about it. Cut to the end of the book and… we’re pretty much exactly where we started on that front. A bunch of side characters have had their own adventures, but the main story hasn’t moved at all. Next time, the book promises, we’ll actually get to see the emperox take this problem on.
Unlike the other entries on this list, I haven’t read the next book in this series, so for all I know it actually does move the emperox’s plot forward. But I’ll probably never find out because when a book ends without any resolution at all, I have no incentive to pick up the next installment. The story’s already broken its implicit promise to me once, so who’s to say it won’t keep stringing me along forever?
This is what happens when that tug-of-war I mentioned in the previous section goes the other way, as storytellers go overboard in leaving unresolved issues for the sequel to deal with. Sometimes this is done intentionally with an eye toward building a series, but other times it’s an accident by authors who don’t know how to wrap things up.
Whatever the reason, it’s just unpleasant to spend the time needed to consume a story and then have no satisfaction at the end. The longer the story, the greater the irritation. If a movie’s ending isn’t satisfying, that’s a couple hours wasted. For a novel, it can be anywhere from 10 to 30 hours or more.
Even if the sequel does provide the promised resolution, you’ve just consumed two stories for one story’s worth of satisfaction. It’s even worse if the sequel isn’t out yet, and now you have to wait however long it takes for the author to put words on paper, all in the hope that they won’t just pull the same trick again.
Sequels are popular for a reason: they give us more of a story we already love. Unfortunately, that same desire often leads to disappointment when a much-anticipated sequel fails to meet expectations. It’s always possible that a story will beat the odds and have a good sequel, but if you see one or more of these signs, maybe check the reviews first.