What Makes a Worthy Sequel, Prequel, or Spinoff?
It’s almost a foregone conclusion nowadays that if a book, movie, TV series, or video game does well, and by “does well” I mean, makes a LOT of money, the studio, publisher, or producer will quickly commission a sequel and try and capture lighting in a bottle as many times as they can.
Sometimes, sequels, prequels, and spinoffs are better than the original. They build on the strengths of their predecessor, develop themes, deepen our love for that world and its characters, and advance the story in all the right ways. Other times, narrative follow-ups fall flat because they fail to capture the same magic that made the first story so iconic or beloved.
To quote the legendary Ian Malcolm of Jurassic Park (and I’m paraphrasing here), “sometimes we’re so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we never stop to think if we should.” This is a philosophy that also applies to the world of sequels, prequels, and spinoffs.
Financial success does not guarantee creative excellence just as great art doesn’t always guarantee financial success.
Not every story deserves a sequel. Not every character backstory is worth exploring in a prequel. Not every side character can successfully carry a franchise in a spinoff.
Sometimes “The End” really needs to be “The End.”
But beyond financial potential, is there a way to know, in pure writing terms, when a sequel or part two is worth considering?
Storytelling is a lot like playing make-believe as a kid. Eventually you do have to go home and say goodbye to the characters and world you’ve created. But sometimes, that world and its characters are worth visiting again the next day.
Sometimes, it’s good to play again, and when it comes to Sequels, Prequels, and Spinoffs, here’s when:
There is a Difference Between a Sequel and a Story Told in Parts
Let’s get something out of the way to start:
When a storyteller, for example, JRR Tolkien, sits down from the start to write a complete story broken into parts (aka The Lord of the Rings), he’s really just writing one extended narrative. The same can be said of George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter.
For argument’s sake, The Lord of Rings is a sequel to The Hobbit.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a prequel to Harry Potter.
Hobbs and Shaw is a spinoff of The Fast and the Furious franchise.
Rocky, Alien, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Hunger Games, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Fast and the Furious, The Godfather, and Toy Story are all stories that would still feel complete without their sequels.
The same cannot be said of The Fellowship of the Ring, A Song of Fire and Ice, or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. They are extended narratives told in multiple parts and should be discussed in a separate category.
What I want to discuss is when a self-contained first story deserves sequel or series versus when a single story should standalone?
No Sequel is Guaranteed
Not every story gets a part two, no matter how much the storyteller wants it.
If the book, movie, or video game doesn’t sell or connect with audiences, the chances of it getting a sequel are cut significantly.
There were plenty of future story premises hinted at in TRON: Legacy that could have led to a third movie; but because Legacy didn’t perform to expectations at the box office, a trilogy is unlikely to happen.
There’s also a saying that you shouldn’t put all of your eggs in one basket. If you’re a writer, though, holding back or saving ingredients for potential sequels is foolish.
Give the story you’re writing your best. An incomplete omelet will leave a guest unsatisfied and unlikely to return. Writers must give their readers and audience a complete first story that makes them want to come back for more.
If the first story can’t stand on its own, is too bland, or intentionally saves too many story beats for the sequel, you can probably kiss a sequel goodbye.
Anyone remember Universal’s planned Dark Universe that was supposed to kick off with The Mummy (2017)? No? Point made.
Stories Should Grow/Evolve with Their Characters
If you’re like me, you’re probably of the camp of people who balked at the idea of Pixar making a fourth Toy Story movie. Toy Story 3 had wrapped up the adventures of Woody and Buzz and their relationship with Andy so perfectly, and I know I wasn’t the only one screaming for the franchise to end there! And then I saw Toy Story 4 and realized, though the franchise should have ended with Toy Story 3, there are still stories and adventures we can go on with these characters, whether in feature films or shorts.
It’s also worth mentioning just how well Creed and Creed 2 have brought new life to the Rocky franchise.
Acting as both a sequel and spinoff to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, Creed didn’t try and throw Rocky Balboa back in the ring. That would be a little ridiculous. The writers instead transitioned Rocky into the role of the mentor, and it works!
For most of the Rocky franchise (most), including the Creed/Creed 2 continuation story, Sylvester Stallone has proven to understand exactly what makes a worthy sequel.
Rocky: the ultimate underdog story
Rocky 2: the rematch
Rocky 3: the hero and villain unite to defeat an even bigger, badder foe
Rocky 4: the hero must avenge a friend and fallen mentor
Rocky 5: the hero trains a protégé, only to realize he’s still got it
Rocky Balboa: the hero is called out of retirement to solidify his legacy
Creed: the hero (turned mentor) passes the torch and embraces his new role
Creed 2: the hero and mentor are forced to confront sins and villains of the past
Raising the Stakes
Great sequels will take the themes of the original story and increase the stakes with a premise that emerges from the logical aftermath of events in the first story. Rocky 2 is a prime example, as are The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Catching Fire.
Suzanne Collins never intended to write a sequel or turn The Hunger Games into a series, but when tasked with writing Catching Fire, the second book in the trilogy, Collins took an already terrifying premise and amplified it with something even more frightening.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss was forced to enter the Hunger Games to protect her little sister. What could be more terrifying than that? Forcing her to do it again. But this time, she’ll be competing against trained champions, not other children. This is the premise that guides Catching Fire. Same themes. Same motivation. Bigger stakes and greater consequences if the hero fails.
Great sequels up the stakes and amplify the obstacles from the previous story. Instead of having to fight one Alien, in Aliens, Ellen Ripley has to fight thousands.
When you come back to play, you want the story to be the same but also different somehow. The best way to go about writing the sequel is to naturally raise the stakes. It’s finding more danger, stronger villains, and a bigger mountain to climb.
Is There More to Explore in the World?
Sometimes sequels and prequels are motivated more by the world the storyteller has created that anything else. This is where video games tend to thrive. When there’s just more terrain and areas of the map we haven’t explored but actually want to, we’ve been prepped for a sequel, prequel, or spinoff.
This is a major reason, apart from money, why a Game of Thrones prequel(s) was always inevitable. There was just too much history and world to explore thanks to George RR Martin’s thorough world building.
George Lucas set himself up for the prequels from the beginning by giving A New Hope the distinction of being the fourth episode in a saga. Whether good or not, moving forward, Star Wars will always have more stories to tell because of the expansive galaxy Lucas established with A New Hope.
Likewise, Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl could have been a one-and-done for Disney’s theme park adaptation. However, when you’ve created a world as fun as the one inhabited by Captain Jack Sparrow, Elizabeth Swan, and Hector Barbossa, it’s hard not to want to set sail with these lovable characters again.
This is also a reason why I believe John Wick has taken off in recent years. Yes, Keenu Reeves is rock solid, but the world of assassins and their unique code of conduct established by screenwriter Derek Kolstad is too intriguing to ignore or leave for just one outing.
When you’re having fun, why stop?
Episodic Can Be Good
Sometimes an episodic narrative can lend itself to multiple sequels over the course of many years. Not every series needs a major narrative arc, despite what modern television and film franchises suggest. Sometimes self-contained episodic tales are enough to keep us coming back for more. This is the main reason why the James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises have fared so well. There will always be another mission, and as each mission ends, it ends with a semicolon, not a period.
Episodic stories lend themselves to limitless sequels. We’ve seen this a LOT in children’s literature with series like The Boxcar Children, The Babysitter’s Club, The Berenstein Bears, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, just to name a few. While each story is, for the most part, contained, each part in the series sticks to recurring themes and the same character voice/traits that allows for consistency.
Like a good sitcom, with an episodic series, we know what we’re going to get from the characters. The only real thing that changes is the situation and world the characters find themselves in. You’ll go on just about any adventure or play any game if you have the right friends to play with.
Scene Stealers are Prime Candidates for Spinoffs
The characters who consistently steal the spotlight are the ones who often emerge as prime candidates for a spinoff.
Some people may see the recent release of Hobbs and Shaw as a mere cash grab from Universal. However, when Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are the two biggest and most profitable names in the Fast and Furious franchise, it makes sense that they would be the ones given their own spinoff.
Considering other successful spinoffs such as Frasier, Better Call Saul, Angel, Bumblebee, Lego Batman, Puss n Boots, Minions, Deadpool, Creed, Wolverine, etc. the conclusion to be made is that a great character will drive a new adventure, and sometimes we find a new hero in a sidekick or secondary character.
Sequels, prequels, and spinoffs will always be a part of the storytelling process.
There are good sequels, amazing prequels, and delightful spinoffs being made every year, some even better than the first. When sequels, prequels, and spinoffs are motivated by believable premises, lovable characters, and worlds we actually want to explore, coming back for more can be as fun as spending time with your best friends. And as we learned this summer from Woody and Buzz Lightyear, sometimes you just want to play again.
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Thanks again. Now get back to writing!