There is a lot to like about conventions, the carousing, the food, the panels, the walking away with a swag of new books. But, my favourite part is the social side. Not only do you get to catch with old friends, but it is also a chance to meet new people and plug into the wider wrtiing community. I am always fascinated to find what is happening outside my usual circles, and to realise that even in my own city there are exciting new writers producing great work that I haven’t yet had a chance to hear about. At Continuum I found myself on a panel with a writer whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting before, but by the end of the panel I’d learnt he really knew his stuff and had convinced me I needed to check out his work. So, it’s great to have Travis McKenzie here today to draw on his own experiences with writing a trilogy.
The trouble with trilogies, part 1.
Sequels are hard. They are like the second big relationship you get into when you’re in your mid 20s. You know a bit about yourself, you know a bit about girls, and you know things better be better this time around. A good one can expand everything; fulfil expectations and hint at wonders still to come. A bad one can be little more than a rerun of the first, all the time that old refrain ‘fool me twice…’ echoing in your head.
The problem is, I love sequels. I can’t get enough of them, and for my chosen genre — Epic Fantasy — they are as much a part of the territory as dragons, wizards and prophecy. I always knew my story would span a series, that was the point, in fact, of starting it in the first place. I saw the basic premise of my story (a world where everyone does magic and one boy who can’t) as a natural trilogy. The problem was, I only began with a vague outline of where everything was going.
I was what we call a ‘pantser’ and by the seat of them I flew — well, perhaps stumbled — through book 1. This is fine for some, and I know many writers swear by it, but for me, I needed a different approach for book 2. I needed structure.
I read recently about an abandoned sequel for E.T. with the dubious title of E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears. The plot went something like this. The Aliens from the first movie return, but this time they are evil — a genetically identical, but philosophically opposed race of ‘E.Ts’ who want to take over Earth. And its up to Eliot and the original E.T to stop them. Now on the surface that is a catchy plot, might even have worked, if it wasn’t for the little problem that it would have destroyed the entire theme of the original. Spielberg had the good sense to abandon that one — if only Lucas had as much restraint.
Another sequel that should have been avoided (and there are many, but this is my personal favourite) was Highlander 2: the Quickening. The problems of this can be summed up by the catchphrase of the first: There can be only one. To be more clear, for a movie that told us in no uncertain terms that there can only be one immortal, when they suddenly introduced an entire planet of them, the premise, and any connection to the first was destroyed. The list goes on, but the lesson remains the same; from Speed 2: Cruise control, to Teen Wolf Too, bad sequels either try to repeat the first or change it so dramatically all connection to the first is lost.
The lesson from this? If you change the rules, you change the story. The easiest way out of this problem is to change nothing at all and merely have new problems face the characters like so many TV shows that re-set at the end of each episode. There is the illusion of a bigger plot unfolding, but scratch the surface and you find only melodrama. You can dress it up with wizards and magic, but there are many series out there that feel like Days of Our Lives, and for me, hold about as much interest. I want change, I want expansion, and most of all I want resolution. But that last one, at least, is a problem for book 3. First, I have to make sure my sequel is Empire Strikes Back, and not Matrix Reloaded.
I think the answer lies in narrative structure. We have all taken creative writing 101 — whether in an actual class, via wikipedia, or Stephen King. We all recognise virtue of plot arcs, be they 3, 4, or 5 acts in length — and it is relatively easy to achieve this in one self-contained story. Characters are introduced, they face ever more complex predicaments, then climax, and resolution. Cut to black. Yet we often forget that an entire series must also follow a greater arc if it is to be satisfying.
In my day job I teach art. I recently set my year 11 students the task of defining their own principle of beauty. This is one of those impossible problems that I love giving my students. It instantly creates discussion, and forces them to back up whatever arguments they want to make with specific examples — the core of any good essay. My favourite this year was a student who argued that beauty is like fractal regression; any small part must itself work as a complete composition, no matter how you divide the work. He used Van Gough’s Starry Night as an example and demonstrated that if you zoom in, every magnification seems to work as its own complete abstract work of art.
He got an ‘A’ — and his essay made me consider that when it comes to writing, the opposite is true. When we expand a story over multiple books, there must be a coherent structure that each new episode becomes a part of. Just as Act One of a tale can be defined as ‘call to adventure’ so too does book one of a series perform the duty of introducing us to the world and characters of the bigger story. Act two has been defined as (warning tvtrope link — you may not return) ‘Confrontation’ by some, ‘rising action’ by others. If you consider some of the worst sequels you can recall, they do not so much as raise the action, as reset it.
If you follow that link you find a great quote from Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz, who sums this up perfectly,
“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.”
I think too many of us, instead of setting the tree on fire, tend to put our characters up a slightly taller tree, or worse, throw them in front of a bus.
Right now, I’m piling the kindling. I promise that everyone will be safely home — if not a little singed — by the end of book 3.
Born just before the ‘80s began T.B McKenzie grew up in South Gippsland Victoria, where boys either surfed or played football. He did neither and, as this was a time before the Internet, he found his escape in books. Somehow he missed the boat on Tolkien but discovered instead the works of Lloyd Alexander, Terry Pratchett and Ursula Le-Guin, who all had a lot to say about things people seemed to have forgotten.
He never looked back and ever since his first story — written in grade four about a monster, a sword, and a hero — he knew he wanted to be a writer. He lives now with his wife and young son in Melbourne, where he makes money to pay the bills as an art teacher and stays up way past his bedtime writing the sequel to The Dragon and the Crow.
Dragonfall Press is a small independent publisher of science fiction and fantasy, located in the Hills of Perth, Western Australia. Commenced in late 2010, their goal is to get unknown Australian authors known and to promote the wonder of worlds within words.