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  • Writer's pictureDouglas James Troxell

Power of the Series: The Sequel


It's tough to write a successful sequel. Many have tried. Many have failed.

When I sat down to write this post, I tried to come up with a list of successful book sequels ... and failed. It's just so rare in literature for a sequel to outshine the original.

For that reason, I'll focus on movie sequels, which have a higher percentage of success (although still extremely low). There are a handful of sequels I consider to be top-tier: The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Terminator 2, The Two Towers, and The Dark Knight are in my top 5.

There are a few qualities that the bests sequels share. Let's look at a few:

#1: Raise Dem Stakes!

A successful sequel should raise the stakes from the original. In Empire, the Rebels aren't just trying to win a battle, they're trying to win a war. In Aliens, Ripley isn't facing off against one acid-spitting, double-mouthed xenomorph, now she has to face off against an entire planet of them! In Two Towers, Frodo must continue his quest without the rest of the fellowship. We've already seen the protagonist overcome a complication so the next obstacle needs to be bigger, better, or more dangerous to create that suspense once again. As the protagonist levels up, so must the danger.

#2: Be True to Thine Own Self

One of the reasons many sequels fail is that they send the protagonist on a similar journey as the original tale or erase what happened in the first go-around. After surviving the speeding bus in Speed, Annie must survive ... a speeding boat! It's the same damn story in a different vehicle! In Terminator 3, the emotional ending of T2 is pissed away when we find out Judgment Day is going to happen anyway. The protagonist needs to continue or build on the journey from the original story without canceling out what already happened. Luke must now start his training to become a Jedi master, Ripley must face her fears of failing as a mother, Sarah Connor must learn to trust the same machine that tried to murder her in the original Terminator. Just like real life, we want to see people grow and evolve in interesting ways.

#3: Welcome to the Party!

As much as we come to love the characters in our favorite stories, a lot can be said for fresh blood. A successful sequel often introduces at least one new character that changes the status quo (for better or for worse). Who could imagine Star Wars without Yoda or Lord of the Rings without Gollum? These are game changers who play important roles in the journies of our main characters. Plus, as a writer, you may need someone to kill off later ...

#4: Boss Fight!

Usually, the big bad is defeated at the end of the first story. That means there needs to be a new antagonist in the sequel. The big bad often makes or breaks the sequel. That's why the big bad in the sequel needs to be bigger and baddier. This goes along with raising dem stakes! In Aliens, we get the alien queen, in The Dark Knight, we get the legendary Joker, in T2, we get a liquid terminator who makes the original terminator look like a chump. The villain is going to be compared to his predecessor so he better measure up!

There you have it! Four ingredients for a successful sequel. If you figure out how to make a successful third installment of a series, please call up Hollywood and let them know.

See you in the sequel!

If you want to check out a sequel done right, read the second book in my After the End series, Crown of Flies. Buy it here.


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