Understanding Sequels, Prequels, and Spinoffs
Updated: May 8, 2020
It’s almost a foregone conclusion now that if a movie, book, 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 or series.
Sometimes, sequels, prequels, and spinoffs are actually better than the original (The Dark Knight, Aliens, The Godfather: Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, etc.) They build on the strengths of their predecessor, develop themes, provide closure, 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 narrative sequels.
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.
On and off the page, sometimes “The End” really needs to be “The End.”
But beyond financial potential, is there a way to know, in pure story terms, when a sequel is worth exploring?
Storytelling is a lot like playing make-believe as a kid. Eventually you 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. I’ll even go so far as to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe follows this form as well to an extent.
For argument’s sake, The Lord of Rings is a sequel to The Hobbit just as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a prequel of Harry Potter and Hobbs and Shaw is a spinoff of The Fast and the Furious.
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 Game of Thrones, 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 contained, complete first story should get a sequel or series versus when a first story should remain the only story?
No Sequel is Guaranteed
Not every story gets a sequel, 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 reduce 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 ever happen.
There’s also a saying that you shouldn’t put all of your eggs in one basket. When it comes to writing, the storyteller needs to be careful not to hold back or leave too many ingredients out of the initial recipe. An incomplete omelet will leave a guest unsatisfied and unlikely to return to that restaurant in the future. 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 there were actually more stories and adventures we could go on with these characters.
What I realized this summer is that Toy Story is a perfect franchise for sequels and spinoffs because it is centered around children at play. As Andy (now Bonnie) grow up, their toys grow with them, opening up a world of stories born of new adventures and evolving human experiences and emotions. As great characters grow, both in age and character, their adventures should evolve.
It’s also worth mentioning just how well Creed and Creed 2 have continued the Rocky franchise in the same way. 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 ridiculous given his age. The storytellers transitioned Rocky into the role of a mentor, and guess what, it works! The new Star Wars trilogy also took this approach with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia transitioning into mentor figures, though not as well as Creed or other hero-to-mentor sequels.
Going back to Creed, with the exception of Rocky V and Rocky Balboa, 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 to unite to defeat a bigger bad
Rocky 4: the hero must avenge a friend and fallen mentor
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 modern arena to protect her little sister. What could be more terrifying than that? Oh, I know. Forcing her to do it again. Oh, but this time, she’ll be competing against trained champions. Yikes. This is the premise that drives 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, you guessed it, 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. 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 of family and political drama 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 popular theme park adaptation and that would have been it. However, when you’ve created a world as fun as the one inhabited by Captain Jack Sparrow, Elizabeth Swan, and Hector Barbossa, it’s impossible not to want to set sail and simply play again.
This is also a reason why I believe John Wick has taken off in recent years. Yes, Keenu Reeves is incredible, but the world of assassins and their unique code of conduct created by screenwriter Derek Kolstad is too intriguing to ignore or leave for just one story.
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.
Likewise, Indiana Jones can always continue beyond The Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull if the storytellers want. Yes, replacing Harrison Ford will be nearly impossible, but if the filmmakers ever decided to go the animated route… I’m just saying.
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 to lead 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 spinoffs. And by the way, I don’t think they’re just names. They are forces to be reckoned with and were excellent additions to the franchise. I actually think that giving Hobbs and Shaw a spinoff was a wise move on Universal’s part. It doesn’t outright hand the Fast and the Furious franchise over to Johnson and Statham. Vin Diesel, Ludacris, and company are still in the driver’s seat. Now, however, Johnson and Statham have their own franchise to steer. We’ll just see if they can both share the road.
Considering other successful spinoffs: Frasier, Better Call Saul, Angel, Bumblebee, Lego Batman, Puss n Boots, Minions, Deadpool, Creed, Wolverine, 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.
That’s all for now. Thank you so much for reading or stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, hit the heart or subscribe to Perspectives off the Page for news and fresh content. Next week I’ll be discussing everything Reboots and Remakes. Hope to see you then.
Until Today, Storytellers