1. Commit to Characters
The first decision a storyteller must make about their sequel is what to do with the main characters from the previous installment. The first option is to simply use the same main characters. If they still have room to grow, or if they’ll fit well into your new plot, then you’re good to go. On the other hand, you might want a new cast of main characters, either because you crave something new or because you tied up the previous story so well that those protagonists have nowhere to go.
Either option is fine, but the key is to pick one and stick with it. If you’re using your original crew, don’t flood the story with a crop of new characters, especially not their children. If you’re crafting a new team of heroes, keep the old ones out of the story. They won’t do anything except steal the spotlight.
Failed Attempt: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
This is a story that doesn’t know who it’s about. At first, it looks like the play* focuses on Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, children of the previous main characters. They have an arc about being stereotyped for being Slytherins. That can certainly carry a story.
But then the story spends a lot of time focusing on the original trio and the trouble they face as adults. Hermione struggles with being the Minister of Magic, Harry doesn’t know how to talk to his kids, and Ron is jealous of his wife.* There’s also a new dark wizard threat on the horizon.
This split in attention pulls the story in two, with the original trio stealing the kids’ thunder at every opportunity. Even when the two storylines finally join up, it seems like the narrative should have just stuck with the original characters as adults.
Successful Attempt: The Ghost Brigades
The second book of the Old Man’s War series, this story focuses on genetically engineered commando Jane Sagan. Sagan was introduced in the previous book, so readers are familiar with her, but she wasn’t a main character. The protagonist of that book, John Perry, is off doing something else, so he won’t get in the way.
Sagan allows for a very different kind of story than the previous installment. Perry was a regular human recruited into the space military, so his arc was about adapting to the life of a soldier. Sagan is the reverse. She was grown in a lab to be the perfect soldier, so battle is second nature to her. Instead, her arc focuses on learning how to be a person outside the strict confines of her military identity.
Because The Ghost Brigades doesn’t have Perry around to steal the spotlight, Sagan becomes a full-fledged character in her own right. When the two of them meet up at the end, it feels natural that they’ll take on the next book together.*
2. Raise the Stakes
If the sequel you’re working on is using the same type of story as the previous installment, then you’ve got to make the stakes bigger and more exciting. Audiences expect an upward trend in their series; it’s boring to watch characters try to solve a problem that’s less important than something they’ve already dealt with. A simple way to do this is to make the villain threaten more people than last time, or threaten the protagonists with something worse. The stakes can also be raised by depowering the good guys or by making the threat more personal than before.
If the stakes aren’t raised, the story will lack urgency. Imagine if Harry Potter had gone from fighting Voldemort to matching wits with a garden gnome. Even if the gnome were a particularly vicious one, audiences would have been snoozing in no time.
Failed Attempt: The Wild Ways
The second book of the Gale Women series, The Wild Ways is about the adventures of a magical family and the trouble they get up to. In the previous book, our heroes tangled with a family of Dragon Lords. If they failed, the city of Calgary would have been reduced to ruin. Oh, and they would all have died. High stakes indeed!
From that epic adventure, The Wild Ways follows up with a story about how a mean oil company is trying to drill where a family of selkies lives. If the oil company wins, the selkies will have to find a new home. That’s not nearly as exciting. The main character isn’t a selkie, so she has no personal investment in them. The selkies aren’t even very likable. Worse, the oil company is just a regular oil company. They don’t even have shady mercenaries. All they’ve got is one witch who summons a couple of monsters to help them out. Compared to a family of Dragon Lords, that’s nothing.
The Wild Ways is supposed to be about protagonist Charlie’s internal arc as she decides whether to settle down or to keep her wandering ways. But her arc falls flat because the external stakes are so low. None of her decisions feel important when so little is on the line.
Successful Attempt: Stranger Things 2
Season one of Stranger Things has a handful of plots, all brought together by the threat from the Upside Down. The most obvious manifestation of that threat is the Demogorgon, a vicious monster that feasts on human flesh. That’s a tough act to follow, but season two succeeds with aplomb. The Demogorgon is fierce indeed, but at least it’s a single entity. It can only be in one place at a time. The next big bad has no such restrictions.
Instead of a lone monster, the villain of season two is an all-encompassing shadow entity. Dubbed the Mind Flayer, it has no physical body to attack. Instead, it spreads its influence by growing tunnels underneath the town and raising an army of monsters to follow its command. Even burning its tunnels doesn’t defeat the Mind Flayer; that just makes it angry.
While it’s never directly stated, the show heavily implies that the Mind Flayer is what devastated the Upside Down in the first place. This gives the show a smooth progression in antagonists. Season one had a creature of the Upside Down causing mayhem. Season two brings in the Upside Down’s source, threatening to turn our own world into a blasted wasteland.
3. Change The Conflict
Sometimes there’s no meaningful way to raise a sequel’s stakes. If the last installment’s villain was trying to blow up the Earth, expanding that to blowing up the solar system doesn’t help. Everyone is dead either way. This is especially common in stories that weren’t planned with sequels in mind. The storyteller didn’t leave room for the plot to escalate because it was supposed to be a one-off.
When a story hits the escalation ceiling, the only option is to find a new variety of stakes to keep the audience entertained. This is a horizontal step rather than a vertical one. Instead of making the problem bigger, the storyteller changes the problem’s nature, which increases the sequel’s novelty value. If the previous story was about defeating a dark lord, the next installment might be about keeping the peace now that there’s no longer a dark lord to rally against.
Failed Attempt: Hellboy II
The first Hellboy movie* is about Nazi Rasputin trying to summon an elder god and consume the Earth. Those stakes are about as high as it gets, so there was no way to top them. This didn’t have to be a problem though, because Hellboy II had a very different villain.
In the first film, Rasputin wants to destroy the world because he’s evil. In the second film, the villain is Elven Prince Nuada, and he has a legitimate grievance. It seems that long ago, humans and elves made a treaty to share territory,* and humans have violated that treaty left and right in the last few centuries. Nuada’s mad about this, and he’s summoning an army to fight back.
That could have been the foundation for an excellent story, one that Hellboy couldn’t solve just by punching. Sadly, it was not to be. Nuada’s motivation is never addressed in the film, and Hellboy defeats him via punching, the same way he defeated Rasputin. Except that Nuada isn’t nearly as powerful as Rasputin was. His Golden Army is just a bunch of golems, and they could be defeated by a squad of marines with rocket launchers. Hellboy II ignores a perfect opportunity to change the stakes and instead proceeds with a less exciting version of what it did before.
Successful Attempt: Aliens
At first glance, it looks like Aliens is a standard case of raising the stakes for a sequel. The film features more xenomorphs, plus a whole lot of military firepower. But on closer inspection, the scope of the conflict is actually the same. In both Alien and Aliens, the survival of a small group of humans is what’s on the line, so the stakes don’t really increase between movies.
Instead, what changes is the nature of the conflict. The first movie draws inspiration from haunted house and slasher films, with one powerful monster slowly whittling down a group of humans. Even when the humans go after the monster with flame throwers, they have no real chance of killing it. Aliens is more like a war film. The xenomorphs are still threatening, but the characters are now armed with military hardware. They can fight back.
Instead of being hunted, the characters in Aliens are waging war. Their enemy is bizarre and terrifying, but it is a war nonetheless. While the previous film’s heroes mostly ran for their lives, in this film Ripley and the marines* strategize on how to bring the fight to the enemy. They’re not just trying to escape; they’re trying to wipe out the xenomorphs by dropping a nuke on them.*
4. Retain the Core
While it’s important for a sequel to bring something new to the table, storytellers must also be careful to preserve the vital elements of the original. Otherwise, audiences won’t be interested. They’ll say something is missing, that the sequel just doesn’t feel like the original, even if they can’t describe exactly what the problem is.
When planning a sequel, you’ll have to decide which element is critical to retain. It might be a physical enemy, like the xenomorphs from Aliens. Or it might be a worldview, like Star Trek’s optimistic vision of the future. Sometimes you’ll have more than one element to choose from, but the more you can preserve, the better original audiences will like it.
Failed Attempt: The Subtle Knife
The Golden Compass is an adventure story about Lyra and her daemon,* Pan. She is the core of that novel. She grows and changes, but there’s still a lot left unresolved in her character arc at the end. For one thing, she still has to deal with her evil parents. Perhaps even more important, she’ll soon be hitting the age when her daemon settles on a single shape, an important rite on the way to adulthood.
But instead of continuing Lyra’s journey, the next book shoves her aside in favor of Will, a new protagonist who doesn’t even have a daemon. Or a character arc, for that matter. He does have a cool knife though, so that’s nice. Lyra is still around, but she’s firmly in a secondary role. There’s even a moment where Lyra’s truth-speaking artifact tells her that she must dedicate herself to helping Will, in case there was any doubt about who’s the main character now.
Without Lyra at the helm, the story loses its strongest driver. Lyra was a charming protagonist, her approach to problem-solving both clever and endearing. Meanwhile, Will is all serious, all the time. Perhaps the author thought Will was a better fit for the later book’s plot about killing god, but he’s just not able to carry the story the way Lyra did.
Successful Attempt: Rogue One
On the surface, Rogue One looks as different from the original Star Wars trilogy as it’s possible to be and still be set in the same universe. The original films are a light adventure story, with morally impeccable freedom fighters going up against a mustache-twirling empire. Meanwhile, Rogue One is a gritty war story about insurgents doing what they have to do in order fight a much stronger enemy. Plus, none of the good guys in Rogue One have a lightsaber.
The critical element Rogue One retained was the story of resistance. Even though the Rebellion is shown with more shades of gray, that isn’t to make the Empire look less evil. The movie is still very clear that the Empire must be defeated. Instead, Rogue One’s closer look at the rebels is to humanize them, to show the toll that fighting such a powerful opponent takes on people.
With the rise of the far right in the real world, more and more people are looking for stories to inspire them, and many of them have turned to Star Wars. In that context, keeping the theme of resistance was critical to Rogue One’s success.
5. Commit to Diversity
Ideally, all stories would have diversity built in from the beginning, but that’s often not the case. Many storytellers create homogeneous casts without thinking, and only think to add diversity when the story gets popular and people start asking where all the POCs, women, and queer folk are. This is a good impulse, but it can’t be something you go halfway on. New characters have to be fully integrated into the story, or else they’ll end up feeling vestigial and underdeveloped.
If storytellers only make a half-hearted effort, it can be worse than doing nothing. Diversity advocates are not known for their lax standards, and they will not be pleased with scraps. More than a few popular stories have gotten in hot water for such pandering.
Failed Example: Stranger Things 2
The cast of Stranger Things’ first season is mostly male and almost entirely white. In the second season, the creators tried to address that, but their strategy was apparently to add diverse characters on top of the existing cast and hope everything would work out. It didn’t.
The most prominent addition is Max, a skateboarding arcade wizard* who joins up with the D&D kids. Max is a fine character, but she isn’t well integrated with the rest of the story. While most of the characters are investigating the Upside Down, Max is dealing with an abusive brother. Time that could have been spent getting Max involved with the plot is instead used for the other kids to argue about whether or not to let a girl join their group.
But Max is nothing compared to Kali and her crew. This highly diverse group actually opens the season, so it seems like they’ll be important, but then you don’t see them until episode seven. When they finally return, it’s so they can have a side adventure completely unrelated to the rest of the plot. Even in that episode, they play second fiddle to a white character from last season. Then they disappear, never to be heard from again. Maybe they’ll be back in season three.
The weird thing is that while the writers were busy shoving Max and Kali off to the side, they found time to add two new white dudes: Bob and Dr. Owens. Both men are integral to the plot, at least as important as the original cast. If the writers wanted to add diversity, why not cast people of color in those rolls? That would have given the show much needed diversity in a way that actually mattered to the plot, though it would have made killing Bob an even worse idea.
Successful Example: Caliban’s War
Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse, stars two white dudes. The three secondary protagonists are another white man, a man of Indian descent, and a woman of mixed African-Asian descent. That’s not a great ratio, especially considering that the two leads, Miller and Holden, get the vast majority of screen time.
Cut to the second book, Caliban’s War, and the situation vastly improves. In this installment, the author* added two new women of color to the main cast: Bobbie and Avasarala. Bobbie is a badass marine who makes first contact with the novel’s antagonist, so she’s involved in the story right away. Meanwhile, Avasarala is a powerful UN politician, and it’s her decisions that shape how the story eventually turns out. Both characters are essential to the plot and are just as prominent as the original cast.
Just as importantly, Miller was killed off at the end of Leviathan Wakes, leaving more room at the top. This is the kind of choice an author needs to make if they are serious about adding diversity. It’s rarely possible to do it properly while also keeping everything the story already has.
6. Cut What Doesn’t Fit
Speaking of not being able to keep everything, the hardest task a storyteller faces when crafting a sequel is what to retain and what to cut from the previous installment. Some elements that worked great the first time around just won’t fit anymore, either because they’ve played themselves out or because you’ve got a different story in mind this time.
These elements might even be fan favorites, but you’ve still got to cut them. Either that, or change the story so they fit. Otherwise they’ll be mere shadows of their former selves, extraneous debris left in a story out of nostalgia. You respect your story too much to do something like that, right?
Failed Attempt: Heroes
At time of this writing, Heroes’ decline in quality after its first season is so well known that it’s become a joke. The reasons for this drop are myriad, but one stands out above all the others: Sylar.
In the first season, Sylar is a terrifying villain who steals his victims’ powers by cutting open their skull and consuming a part of their brain. A huge chunk of the story revolves around stopping him from killing a teenager with the power of regeneration because that would make Sylar invincible. You might even remember the tagline “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World.” The good guys succeed at saving the cheerleader, and one of them stabs Sylar through the chest in a glorious victory.
But instead of being vanquished, Sylar survives. I can only assume the writers thought he was too popular to let go. Unfortunately, they had no idea what to do with him after that. They tried a redemption arc, but that failed, and Sylar bounced back and forth from hero to villain for the rest of the series, getting more irritating with each switch.
Sylar’s story was done at the end of season one. He was thoroughly beaten, so he’d never be as threatening a villain again. At the same time, he was clearly evil, so any attempt to make him a good guy would inevitably fall flat. All keeping him around did was deprive newer characters of screen time.
Successful Attempt: The Legend of Korra Season Four
The Legend of Korra’s first three seasons had major problems. Too much story was crammed into too few episodes, and it showed. In season four, that all changed. The writers inserted a three-year time jump, which gave them a chance to pare down anything that wasn’t working. First, they cut or significantly reduced several extraneous characters. That helped a lot, clearing the way for the characters that mattered.
The writers also cut the love triangle that had been dragging the show down since the beginning. For most of the show, Mako swung back and forth between Korra and Asami, even though he had all the personality of a brick. In season four, that ends, and Mako focuses on being competent in his job as a police officer. Cutting the triangle left room for Korra and Asami to begin their own relationship, which is adorable.*
With fewer characters and a more focused love story, season four went on to be easily the best part of the show, even rivaling Korra’s predecessor, The Last Airbender. If the writers hadn’t been willing to make major cuts, the season would probably have ended up as an overburdened mess.
Crafting a sequel means you have the blessing of a built-in audience, but it also means a lot of added responsibility. You’re messing with something the audience likes, and their expectations will be high. Do well, and they will reward you with enthusiastic patronage. Do poorly, and you will earn their ire.