Monday, August 3, 2009

Prequels, Sequels and Stand-Alones

When it comes to movies you almost always hear, "The sequel wasn't nearly as good." That's true as far back as Dirty Harry and The Godfather -- which are the first movies I can recall with sequels. Sure, there are outstanding exceptions, such as the Starwars films, but for the most part, if there's a II, III ... VII after a movie title I tend to say, "No thanks." I'm perfectly content to let my imagination figure out what happens to the characters after "The End." Mind you, I'm not talking about an epic such as The Lord of the Rings, which had to be three movies in order to be true to Tolkien's triolgy. I'm talking about a script that's thrown together to ride the coattails of success of what was meant to be a stand-alone movie.
Yet producers continue to pour tons of money into one sequel after another on the chance that movie goers will be drawn in by a popular title. There's even the fairly recent phenomenon of the movie prequel, which sets out to show how the story began ... which seems to me to be the purpose of the original movie -- but what do I know?
That begs the questions, does the same hold true for books? Are sequels and series worth the money publishers put into them? We all know the phenomenal success of the Left Behind series -- and we can debate the merit of that all day -- as well as the success of the Mitford series, which is much easier to understand from a craft perspective. But I believe their success is the exception to the rule. I'm currently reading the second book in a trilogy, the first of which I thoroughly enjoyed, but this second one ... not so much. Maybe because I'm not as engaged with the POV character this time around, or maybe because the writing and the story are not on the same par as the first book. I have to say I'm really disappointed. I wanted this and the next book to be as good as the first. But once again, it didn't happen.
Still, publishers seem to like sequels and series, so they must be profitable. But do readers buy books 2, 3, 4, etc., in the hope they'll be as good as the first, much as movie goers buy admission tickets with the same hope, only to be disappointed on both fronts?
In Charles Dickens' day "serialization" was a popular way to present a novel, publishing a chapter at a time in monthly periodicals (which I wouldn't like one bit). But sequels and series in fiction, as in movies, are a fairly new practice. I mean, can you imagine The Grapes of Wrath: The California Years, or Moby Dick: Let's Have Another Go? What would that even look like?
As an author I've yet to entertain the idea of writing a sequel or a series, though I've been asked many times if I were planning a sequel to either Every Good & Perfect Gift or Lying on Sunday. Sure, it's bittersweet to say goodbye to my characters at the end of a book; still I'm always ready to move on to another story and another set of characters.
As readers, are you attracted to sequels and series? If so, how often are you satisfied/ disappointed?


Katie Ganshert said...

I enjoy series where the main character's change, but there's something connecting them - like a minor chracter in book one becomes the main character in book 2. Or the setting and time is the same, etc.

I'm writing my first series. I've written two stand-alones. Then just finished book one of a three book series I'm looking forward to writing.

As long as the characters are intriguing and the writing is strong,then I'll read series or stand-alones.

Anonymous said...

Sharon, your comments are so apt. They touch, in fact, on some of my deepest fears as a writer.

When I began Latter-day Cipher, I used a character (Eliza, the Native American woman) from my first novel which is unpublished. And now I'm sending in a proposal for a sequel to Latter-day Cipher.

I deliberately left the ending of Cipher ambiguous so that the reader would make assumptions about whether or not the villain escaped -- assumptions that would, I hoped, punctuate the novel but also allow for a sequel.

So-- in my case, the prequel did indeed come first, and the sequel (if accepted by the publisher) will come third in the actual writing process.

However, the secondary issue is the expectations raised when one writes a sequel. Just as in Stephen King's Misery the author must challenge himself with the question, "Can he?" -- I feel the same pressure.

Anyone else feel that way?
Latayne C. Scott

Kristen Torres-Toro said...


I do enjoy reading sequels a lot more than I like watching them as movies. But I also like the books more than the movies that they are made from, so that's probably why. So far, I've only written stand alones. But I know that could change.

I really don't have a problem with either, as long as they are good stories. I think it would be a lot of fun to "play" with certain characters again, but it must be really challenging to craft another story with them. I really admire writers who do this!

Nicole said...

It's a tough call either way with films or novels, but I would agree it's perhaps done successfully in novels. I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but none of them could equal the first.

My favorite series is Kristen Heitzmann's Secrets, Unforgotten, and Echoes, although Echoes was the weakest of the three for me. I'm loving James Scott Bell's series Try Dying, Try Darkness, and now I can't wait to read Try Fear. I preferred Try Darkness, the second, but it's been a great series.

I started a sequel to my first novel but set it aside to write several stand alones. We'll see what the Lord has me do with it.

Unlike some of you, I want the same character focus in the next book in a series. I don't want some obscure or peripheral character to be the protag/heroine of the next book because if I really liked the first story, I want more of the protag/heroine in that story.

Stace said...

I must confess to a love of sequels, but . . . and it is an enormous one - it must be a continuing of an epic or familial storyline. If it is just a so-and-so gets into trouble once again sort of thing, then I pass. I love investing in characters for the long haul, and little makes me happier than well-told epics that go beyond even the typical trilogy - as long as the story and the storytelling hold up.

Latayne, I'm thrilled you are proposing a sequel to Later-Day Cipher, and I pray that it is accepted favorably. You have characters that can have more room to grow, more to learn. Even with a completely different villain, Selonnah and her family issues and the friends she made along the way have legs. There may well be other stories in there worth the telling.

PatriciaW said...

I love series books because it means I get to spend more time in settings with characters that I've grown to love. Likely the prominent character is now a former secondary one whose story I wondered about. I think it's a testament to the writer when readers clamor for stories about the secondary characters.

Sequels, less so. Because it means the story didn't end. There's more to tell. And if the telling of that story doesn't measure up to the first installment, I start to become disenchanted with the story as a whole. I think sequels are much more difficult to pull off than a series.

Keli Gwyn said...

If I like an author's work, I'm inclined to read every book in a series. I prefer those where a different hero and heroine take center stage and characters from previous books made cameo appearances. However, if the hero and heroine are strong enough characters whom I really like, I'm happy to read more of their story.

Bonnie Grove said...

There is a difference between a sequel and a series.

When publishers sign an author for a series, it's often (but not always) because the author has pitched the project as a series (i.e. the author already has the books outlined and the arch of the books laid out for the publisher to decide on).

Sequels are different - they are conceived of after the original book or movie has been released and declared a hit. They aren't usually part of the original deal or concept.

Sharon mentioned the Mitford books - which were always intended to be a series of books, and is one of the many reasons they have prospered and continue to prosper.

Intentional followup books (a series that was always intended to be a series) tend to hold my attention. There are exceptions of course - I loved Diana Gabaldon's first two books in the Outlander series, but after that -

I admire series writers. They keep so much information straight over long periods of time. A gift and a skill, to be sure!

Lori Benton said...

"There are exceptions of course - I loved Diana Gabaldon's first two books in the Outlander series, but after that -"

Bonnie--and those are probably my least favorite of the series. :) She caught my attention with the fourth book.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate all your comments. Bonnie is so right, there's a difference between sequels and series. But even with series books, most of the time I'm disappointed beyond the first or second installment. There are always exceptions, of course. But Patricia is right, sequels are hard to pull off. That said, Latayne, I can't wait for the sequel to Latter-Day Cipher.

Last night I finished the book I was reading that gave me the idea for this blog post. Sorry to say, I was unengaged through the whole story, even though I loved the first book.

Lyn Cote said...

As an author, I love to write series since the characters I've grown to love have a chance to continue to have a "life."
I think often too that my second book is even better than my first since I know all my characters and the setting better.
And I must be doing something right because readers write asking for more books in my 3-4 book series. Editors however usually stop with 3-4 books in a series unless of course you're doing a cozy mystery series. Well that's my two cents. GRIN