Sequel Fatigue

By Mark Alpert

Summer is the time for movie sequels, so I went with my wife and daughter this week to see Incredibles 2, the long-awaited follow-up to the blockbuster 2004 animated film about a superhero family. And I was disappointed.

It isn’t a bad movie. Parts of it are funny. And the animation is beautiful. But it just didn’t live up to the original Incredibles. There’s no way it could’ve.

When the original came out, my kids were five and three. We got the DVD, of course, and over the next few years we watched it at least a dozen times. I became convinced that this was a perfect movie. Better than Shrek or Toy Story. Even better than Finding Nemo. (As you can tell, I was watching a lot of animated films back then.)

So the bar for the Incredibles sequel was set very high, almost impossible to reach. And many book sequels face an equally tough challenge. Dune, the first novel in the sci-fi series by Frank Herbert, was far better than any of the books that came after it. The same thing can be said for The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Magicians, and Ender’s Game. But it’s not true of all series, of course. The Harry Potter books, in particular, seemed to get better as the series went on. I felt the same way about Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. (It’s hard to make a similar judgment about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels because he hasn’t finished the series yet. My favorite book so far, though, is the third one, A Storm of Swords.)

I guess you could say I’m suffering from sequel fatigue. I recently wrote a trilogy of Young Adult novels published by Sourcebooks — The Six (2015), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017) — and in retrospect it seems that the first book was definitely the best. So now I’m back to writing standalone novels. The Coming Storm, a thriller about our very dysfunctional government, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January. And right now I’m working on a Young Adult novel about God and faith. It’s kind of a crazy stunt — publishers hate books about religion because they’re bound to offend someone — but I can’t stop myself. At least it won’t have a sequel.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

6 thoughts on “Sequel Fatigue

  1. Loved The Incredibles. Haven’t seen the second one yet.

    I think the best sequel was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

  2. I love series, both reading and writing. In romantic suspense, they’re more “connected” books rather than true sequels, as the cast of characters changes. In my mysteries, I stick (for the most part) to my main protagonist, but I’ve let a couple of his cohorts take center stage in the novellas. I just finished book 8 in my Blackthorne series and (at least according to my editor–and my mom, but she’s biased) they get better as my writing grows and improves.

    Sometimes an author will veer away from the initial premise, and I like some books better than others, but in the mystery genre, I’ve been following Lucas Davenport, Joe Pickett, the original Spencer books, Peter and Rina Decker, Kate Burkholder for years. And of course, there are plenty of great choices from the gang here at TKZ. Louis Kincaid holds up well.

    JD Robb’s In Death series is still going strong, and I still love watching the characters grow and change. I think she’s closing in on 50 books now.

  3. I’ve got a theory about series and sequels,viz., that some concepts are inherently “one-off” concepts and others are not. So this is a source of problems for sequels that goes beyond the problem of maintaining the quality of writing that Mark and Terry refer to.

    I have not liked what I’ve seen of the sequels for _Legally Blonde_ or _The Princess Diaries_. The concept for _Legally Blonde_ is “ditzy fashion major decides to go to Harvard Law School.” Can’t do that twice. So a sequel is essentially trying to duplicate without duplicating. Hopeless. I recently watched _Moonstruck_, at Jim’s recommendation. Another one-off concept.

    Other concepts such as “secret government agency managing alien residents and fighting alien bad-guys” lends itself to multiple stories. _Men in Black_, in addition, has a story arc that extends beyond _MiB 1_.

    I think the possibility of a story arc (be it character development or some unfinished business (_Star Wars_)) can enable a decent sequel to a one-off concept, if the seeds are planted. But just bringing back the same characters would not seem to be enough.

  4. Mark, if you think about it most every movie coming out, and for all those redone, or reproduced staring the children of the original actors are sequels. The original stores had to be good cause they didn’t know how to blow up things, topple skyscrapers, no robots, and surely we can’t overlook the casual sex.
    And if you think a little further today is just a sequel of yesterday, our seasons cutouts of former ones. A good reason to enjoy the day, a good day for sitting in a favorite chair and finding out what your character wants to do today. Or drinking a cup of coffee while rereading a old line, only to find your character had gotten older and now doesn’t see things as he once did, so you have to rewrite that line to please him.
    And as I discovered yesterday the true meaning of the old song, “Did you leave your chewing gum on the bedpost over night?” What I’m suggesting is the importance of putting an idea down as quick as possible so you get it right. Your sequel thought is never the same. The taste changes, like you’ve picked up a piece up a piece of grit making the original a bubble off plum. The Shadow always knows, and can tell the differene.

  5. I’ve never seen The Incredibles. Last night, we watched a 2003/2004 remake (whole other discussion) of The Big Bounce, and loved it. Sometimes the remakes are better than the original.

    As for series, I agree with Terry. I love a good series. With each new book it’s like reuniting with old friends.

  6. Spoiler alert:

    There is a huge story error in Incredibles 2 that if the villian had done nothing the Incredibles would have been broke, homeless and illegal. This was bad story telling and so it was disappointing.

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