This week we have a guest post from Beth Overmyer, author of The Goblets Immortal, mentioned in our last episode. The sequel to Goblets hits the stands on February 16. It’s thus a timely moment to take a look at the special complications of writing a series.
Take it away, Beth!
Writing a Series — Beth Overmyer
There are many things to take into consideration when writing a series. Will it be two books (a duology)? Or maybe it’s going to be a serial, books that pick up right after one another and could be slapped together as a single volume (The Lord of the Rings, anyone?) How do I keep track of all my information? Where do I even get started?
Let’s start at the end . . . of the first two books in a trilogy, that is.
Some writers advocate that it’s important to know where your book/series is headed. If you aim at nothing, they reason, that’s what you’ll get. Knowing the ending of the series before you pen page one of book one can be helpful and gives you something to reach toward. When I was writing The Goblets Immortal books, however, I had only a distant idea of what I was aiming toward. Not necessarily a clear target, but an emotional note I wanted to end on.
There are different types of endings, and each book in the series might have a different one. Book one might be a HEA (happily ever after) or a HFN (happy for now), while book two might be a cliffhanger, and the final book might end in a tragedy. I don’t necessarily recommend this path, however. Despite liking surprises, readers also tend to want consistency from the author.
And I don’t recommend making every book a cliffhanger. A lot of readers don’t like them. A cliffhanger, of course, leaves the characters in a crisis. The reader might be frustrated that they have to wait a whole year (or more!) to find out what’s going to happen next. Also remember your genre’s expectations. Fantasy endings can vary, but a romance or F&SF romance needs a HEA or a HFN.
Let’s take a look at the endings of one series’ first and second installments.
The end of the story sees the episode’s main conflict resolved (the Death Star is blown up), but there are enough loose ends (Vader’s alive, the Emperor’s out there, Imperial Troops abound) left to keep things open for future installments. Yet this movie could very much be a standalone. Many Book Ones wrap things up to a greater degree than Book Two.
The near-end offers up a few surprises, but the very end (Han is spirited away on a bounty hunter’s ship) sets up the opening conflict for the next movie. This movie is less of a standalone, but it could be watched and understood without watching the first movie.
“But how do I keep track of all my information?” I hear you ask. A very good question. One simple way to solve this: reread the first book/s in your series before you write the next installment. Not only will this give you a refresher course on the details of the story, it will put you back in that world and remind you of the voice you’re writing in.
Another way to keep track of information is to make a series bible.
It’s impossible to keep every detail about every character (appearance, personality, catchphrases, etc.), location, event, and timeline in your head . . . especially if you’re a pantser or plantser and haven’t written all the details out. Once book one’s been written, it might be a good idea to put together what is known as a series bible. In fact, it might be better to develop one as you go along.
A series bible is a document full of details from the books in a series. When you have a question about a character’s appearance, flip back to their page and look it up. Forget the name of a town? Flip back to the locations section of your bible.
When I started writing book two in The Goblets Immortal series, I already had notes on each Goblet Immortal, what that Goblet did, where it originated, where it was at the end of book one, and other important details. I also had a few character notes.
We’ve looked at endings and keeping track of details. But how does a writer even get started with a series?
Let me start by giving you permission: you are allowed to write out of order. If you have an idea for a scene later down the road, jot down notes or go right ahead and write. You can always revise it to fit your opening better later on.
As with writing any other book, follow your preferred method. Are you a plotter? Write an outline for book one, and jot down notes for the books that will follow. Are you a pantser? Roll up your sleeves and dig in. Plantser (a mix of a plotter and a pantser)—jot down some notes and get started writing.
The best thing to do, besides getting some experience under your belt, is to read and study other series. What did you like about your favorite trilogy? What made you stop reading your least favorite one? Don’t make their mistakes, but emulate their triumphs—without outright copying, that is.
Another word of advice: keep a running list of questions that need to be answered in later books. If a missing magical knife is mentioned in book one but is not referenced again in book two, remind your audience of it before its grand appearance in book three. I have a document titled “Loose Ends,” and I highlight things in green once I’ve taken care of them. Things I’ve mostly taken care of, I highlight in yellow. Things that I’ve decided to let go of, I cross out.
So, there you have it. There are some good resources out there on series writing, though not as many as you would think. For your reading pleasure, might I suggest trying: How to Write A Series: A Guide to Series Types and Structure plus Troubleshooting Tips and Marketing Tactics (Genre Fiction How To Book 2) by Sara Roset, and Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas by Karen S. Wiesner.
Thanks, Rick, for hosting me!
Keep your nose in a book and your pen on the page,
Beth Overmyer Beth’s Web Site
So, okay, I gave in and signed up for Disney+. It’s not as if I needed the streaming service to see the Disney fairy tales, or Star Wars, or the Marvel movies; I have those on disc. But there were these other things. First, I wanted to see the Hamilton movie (just as impressive as it’s cracked up to be). Then, since I was already subscribed for a month, I figured I’d check out The Mandalorian, if only to keep up my geek cred—it had taken me a while just to figure out where all the “Baby Yoda” memes were coming from.
By the end of the first month, I’d scanned the offerings and marked down a bunch of other things that I’d sort of wanted to see, or that I hadn’t known about but looked interesting, and now could get without paying more than I already was. And I was off and streaming . . .
One of the unanticipated things I turned up was a set of ancillary videos related to the 2010 fairy-tale adaptation Tangled, Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story. And thereby hangs a blog post.
A Tangle of Sequels
I’ve always been fond of the Tangled movie. But the continuing story also turned out to be remarkably good. As a rule, sequels to Disney princess movies tend to be humdrum affairs dashed off to exploit the movie’s popularity—though I must admit that I say this without having seen very many of them; ventures like The Little Mermaid II or Cinderella II: Dreams Come True never seemed to deserve even a look. (Frozen II is a decided exception.)
But the Tangled folks managed to pull off some impressive work in the follow-up media. To discuss it in detail, of course, I’m going to have to deploy detailed spoilers.
In 2012 Disney released a six-minute cartoon, Tangled Ever After, which is basically a comic bit about the exploits of the animal characters during the wedding of Rapunzel and her romantic interest, Eugene Fitzherbert (who previously used the name of legendary rogue-hero “Flynn Rider”). Nothing of interest there.
However, in 2017 the Disney Channel debuted a 55-minute short film, Tangled: Before Ever After. As the title indicates, this story takes place before the wedding sequence. The day before Rapunzel’s coronation, her lady-in-waiting, a tough-minded and capable girl named Cassandra, helps her sneak out beyond the kingdom’s walls to get away from the stress and chaos of the preparations. At the site of the magic flower that originally gave Rapunzel’s hair its healing powers, they find a stand of mysterious pointed black rocks. When Rapunzel touches one, more rocks suddenly sprout from the ground, forcing them to flee. But Rapunzel’s hair, which was cut short and returned to its natural brown in the original movie, suddenly turns blonde again and reverts to its 70-foot tower length.
This business with the black rocks is the story’s “One Ring,” the MacGuffin that links the old story to the new and provides the plot driver going forward. It isn’t explained or resolved in Before Ever After, but serves as the hook for the three-season TV series (2016-2020) that followed. The series was initially labeled “Tangled: The Series,” but in its second season was rechristened Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure. Season 1 follows Rapunzel’s experiences in her parents’ kingdom; Seasons 2 and 3 take her and her companions on the road on a long-running quest. Wikipedia has a handy list of the episodes.
The series is where most of the plot and character development occurs. It concluded in March 2020. At this point it’s pretty clear that no further follow-ons are necessary, though one can’t rule out the possibility (“never say never again”). There’s also a stage musical (a version of the movie) and a video game, which I haven’t seen and assume are not in the continuity. Wikipedia’s convenient overall reference for the Tangled franchise is here.
Opening Out the Ever After
The first challenge in making a sequel to a fairy-tale movie is what to do about the ending. Traditionally, these stories end in a romantic happily-ever-after. If the main characters marry at the end (or immediately afterward), we’ve resolved the romantic tension. In addition, it may be hard to reconcile the vague vision of enduring happiness with the kinds of perilous adventures that would give life to a sequel.
The “before ever after” notion is thus productive. The characters can have further adventures even before their happiness is, as it were, sealed. We can stave off the fairy-tale ending, without subverting it entirely. To ruin the romance would be opprobrious, diminishing the appeal of the original story; but there’s no reason it has to come to fruition (presumably in a wedding) at once.
It’s particularly easy to take advantage of this idea if the couple hasn’t actually become engaged in the original story (even though the audience knows perfectly well that’s going to happen). Some reduced degree of romantic tension remains if the character still has to work up the nerve to propose, though the issue becomes more comical than dramatic. (A similar tactic was used in Frozen II.)
Thus, Eugene proposes to Rapunzel several times in the course of the sequels. She doesn’t accept at once. She wants to marry Eugene, but she isn’t quite ready yet. This brings out the familiar “moral” that a girl’s future is not solely bound up in marriage. It also makes psychological sense—and this is one of the ways in which the Tangled sequels intelligently carry forward the original storyline. As other characters point out, Rapunzel has spent almost all her life locked up in a tower, never meeting another human being but her “mother” captor. It seems hardly appropriate to expect her immediately to enter into a marriage.
Of course, Rapunzel could marry and still have adventures. The story thus plays around with the notion that “happily ever after” means the end of adventures and of our interest in the characters—a notion I’ve criticized elsewhere. It both dodges, and runs into, that trap.
The World and the Plot
Since the continuing story takes Rapunzel into new territory, both within and later beyond the Kingdom of Corona (which turned out to be a somewhat infelicitous name for this year, however appropriate for a princess), it was also necessary to expand the world. The writers carry out this worldbuilding exercise with enough novelty to earn some credit. For example, one of the new secondary characters is a young alchemist named Varian. Although his alchemy is technically magic, he firmly takes the position that it’s science, not fantasy. He thus adds a sort of steampunk vibe to the whole business.
The second season of the series introduces a secret society of crack warriors who are in some way protecting or defending the source of the black rocks. An enigmatic woman named Adira provides them with clues, along with ominous nonspecific warnings, and occasionally ends up sparring with the suspicious Cassandra. She and other members of the “Brotherhood of the Dark Kingdom” sometimes end up opposing or challenging the main characters, though they are basically on the same side. This secret society’s stance is reminiscent of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The most striking element of the plot is the long-running plot arc, which begins with the black-rock episode in Before Ever After and isn’t completed until the final episode of the series. The black rocks are tied in with the “sundrop flower” that originally gave Rapunzel her powers, so they link back neatly into the original movie. Keeping such an über-plot going over sixty episodes is a challenge, and the writers lay in enough complications and reversals to make it work.
This long-term development isn’t perfectly uniform. There are one-off episodes sandwiched in, often with throwaway plots (Max the noble steed is threatened by a competing evil horse! The queen’s annoying sister shows up for a visit!). Nor do the “side quest” episodes always make sense. In one show (Season 2 Episode 6), Rapunzel and Eugene decide to go off on a “date” while the group is encamped on the road in the middle of nowhere. (Butterbur in The Lord of the Rings: “Well, you do want looking after and no mistake: your party might be on a holiday!”) At the same time, these one-offs do sometimes have a point. The “date” introduces some characters who eventually turn out to be crucial to the plot. For another example, in a primarily silly episode (S2 E18) which turns most of the characters into toddlers, we get a fairly interesting lecture on parenting styles, courtesy of Rapunzel and Eugene.
The metaphysics, the “theory of magic,” is somewhat murky. Rapunzel’s “sundrop” and the “Moonstone” source of the black rocks have a sort of yin-yang relationship, but the Moonstone power is sometimes presented as evil, and sometimes as merely complementary. Rapunzel’s long hair, as restored in Before Ever After, has lost its power to heal, but has now arbitrarily become invulnerable—uncuttable—just like the black rocks. The conclusion of the story does make some degree of sense, though, so this particular worldbuilding weakness isn’t fatal.
The story is willing to deal with serious issues. For example, the story introduces some genuine moral dilemmas, as when Rapunzel has to break a promise to Varian in S1 E16, which leads to no end of trouble for everyone. Some cogent sociopolitical points are raised, unlikely though that seems in a cartoon, in the second and third episodes of Season 2. Rapunzel and her followers want to reform the city of Vardaros, whose citizens have collapsed into a state of mutual distrust and predation. Rapunzel’s effort to use sheer niceness to show the inhabitants a better way doesn’t work: the locals don’t trust these strangers. Instead, Rapunzel and company have to convince the former “sheriff” everyone trusted to come back out of retirement and lead the reform. The success of this strategy is still a bit cut-and-dried, but for two 24-minute episodes, it’s handled pretty well.
Other character developments can also be surprisingly sophisticated. The scheming girl Eugene was supposed to marry ends up being reformed—but she still steals the party’s money; she doesn’t suddenly become sweetness and light. An entire episode (S1 E2) is devoted to showing that, even though Rapunzel is so adorable that everyone loves her, there’s one old guy in Corona who doesn’t—and he’s a good guy, respected by everyone, kind and helpful; he just doesn’t especially care for Rapunzel. And the moral of this story is that you don’t have to make everyone like you—a good thing for a young viewer (or even an older one) to recognize.
The sequels are thoroughly genre-savvy—a good platform for ringing new changes on the stock fairy-tale conventions. In S2 E 23, the characters are threatened by “…lethal, inescapable traps.” An array of nasty spikes springs up—and immediately crumble into ruin. “They’re old,” one character remarks, pinpointing one of the silly aspects of Indiana Jones-type adventures where centuries-old mechanical devices work perfectly without deterioration. And at the end of the second season, the characters walk into a whole series of classic Star Wars and Lord of the Rings tropes in succession—surely on purpose.
Carrying On the Characters: Rapunzel
The most interesting aspect of the Tangled sequels is the treatment of Rapunzel herself.
Rapunzel’s role in the movie is that of a “fish out of water” character—the naïve newcomer to the world, to whom everything is new and fascinating. That’s one of the things I like about the movie. Another is that she faces this brave new world outside the tower with kindness and wonder, though not without a sensible caution that’s sometimes deployed against the wrong targets, for comic effect. It isn’t by accident that Eugene calls her “Sunshine.”
Although she has to deal with progressively more fearsome and even heartbreaking problems as the series goes on, Rapunzel doesn’t lose that essential innocence. Yet, imperceptibly—and that’s the artistry—through the second and third seasons, she develops into the genuine leader of the group. She becomes capable of making difficult decisions. She isn’t intimidated by threats. When she has to take over governance of the kingdom, she falters at first, but later on becomes perfectly capable of running things without her parents. The changes are highlighted in the “dream trap” episode, S2 E19, where the matured Rapunzel speaks with her earlier self.
She even becomes a capable fighter in her own right. Rapunzel uses her long, indestructible hair like Indiana Jones’ whip, as both a weapon and a tool. Of course, this is cartoon physics. This slender girl hurls around what’s essentially a 70-foot rope without any issues of strength or leverage; it catches onto things and releases them just as she wishes, like Indy’s whip. The hair only gets in her way, or is used against her, when the plot requires it. It never frizzes or becomes unruly (fortunately for everyone nearby). Nonetheless, her trademark feature, which seems a romantic beauty mark at first glance, transforms her into a melee fighter, who can hold her own in a scrap.
While Rapunzel is no longer a magical healer, she does gain the ability to use ‘sundrop power’ over time. This power is erratic and not dependable, but it does rise to cosmic levels at the point where she can blow up an entire landscape at the end of Season 2. TV Tropes rightly cites her under the Films–Animation section of Badass Adorable.
The really remarkable thing about this maturing process is that Rapunzel is not altered out of recognition. She retains that essential sweetness of character that made her so likable in the movie. To depict a character who is both powerful and “nice” is difficult, and rare. When we have a chance to see the character visibly grow into that maturity, with both continuity and change, the writers’ achievement is noteworthy.
Romantic interest Eugene, in the sequels, gets somewhat dumbed down or, in TV Tropes’ term, “Flanderized”: turned into a caricature of himself. His vanity, a nicely balanced flaw in the movie, becomes tiresome when played out in every episode. His capability is uneven: sometimes he’s clever, sometimes clueless; sometimes he’s a formidable fighter, sometimes ineffective—as the plot may require. This is a classic problem in a continuing series, where different writers may produce inconsistent characterization.
Rapunzel’s parents, also, are not too well managed. In the movie, they’re merely props: the welcoming family to which Rapunzel can finally return at the end. In the series, we’re told that her mother, Queen Arianna, was once a sort of adventurer herself—but we see little of that. Her father, King Frederic (what a promising name!), tends to play the overbearing, irrationally restrictive father, generally as an obstacle to Rapunzel’s self-assertion. The two of them tend to fade out almost entirely toward the end of the series to give Rapunzel sole center stage.
The great prize among the new characters is Cassandra. Her edgy but loyal personality makes her a perfect foil for the sunny Rapunzel. That same sardonic cynicism makes it plausible when she veers from the path of righteousness and aligns herself with the enemies at the end of Season 2, a development that is carefully shaped over much of that season. In particular, she highlights an aspect of hero-stories that doesn’t get much attention. What happens if you’re not the Chosen One? If the whole motion of the plot is toward Rapunzel’s destiny, how does the henchperson feel whose role is simply to support the main character? Doesn’t she have a destiny too?
The series as a whole shows a certain bias toward what we might call the “Arthas Effect,” a plot staple in the World of Warcraft game: an initially good character becomes corrupted and turns into a major villain. The two most prominent secondary characters, Cassandra and Varian, are both subject to this kind of transformation at different times. The basically positive tone of the Tangled story is borne out by the fact that each eventually repents and returns to the side of good. But the “turn to the Dark Side” motif helps keep the tale from becoming too optimistic or Pollyanna-ish.
The Tangled sequels honor the original movie’s romance. We see from the very beginning that Rapunzel and Eugene do get married eventually. But that aspect is sidelined in such a way that the impetus of the romantic interest is largely lost.
During the entire first season, Rapunzel and Eugene hang around the castle, waiting for—what? We noted above that Rapunzel puts off the wedding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But her reasons remain rather vague, and we don’t see much of the longing or attraction I’d expect from a couple of young people who are very much in love. It’s as if the writers every now and then remember that there’s supposed to be a love affair going on, but mostly take that to be understood.
The diverging development of the two characters also creates a somewhat unsatisfying disparity. While Rapunzel develops in power, competence, and maturity, Eugene has no comparable character arc. As a result, by the end we may ask ourselves whether he’s really sufficient for her. The lovers are “unevenly matched,” a problem I’ve noted before.
The key theme of the extended Tangled story, as I see it, is that power and innocence are compatible. You can be a consummately nice, caring, pretty, cheerful sort—and still have the determination, endurance, capability, and courage to fight what needs fighting.
Rapunzel is not the only example of such a seemingly-paradoxical character. But the writers were able to take advantage of the extended development of the TV series to showcase in detail how a person can grow to take on that mantle. It’s something we always need to see more of.
Some quick, spoiler-free comments on The Incredibles 2, which I had a chance to see this weekend.
The First Incredibles
The original Pixar film The Incredibles (2004) is a great favorite of mine. My fondness for superhero stories goes way back, and The Incredibles does an irresistible job of both exemplifying and spoofing the genre. Moreover, it’s a character-driven story, little as one might expect that from a superhero flick. It’s got a gallery of memorable characters—not just the family, but distinctive supporting cast members like Frozone and Edna. And they change over the course of the tale in ways that are plausible, illuminating, and heartwarming.
The Incredibles is genre-savvy enough to be both worldly-wise and innocent. It starts with a premise that borders on the cynical: these costumed brawlers cause so much damage that a public outcry forces them to go underground and live normal lives, in a sort of witness protection program. There’s a note of realism there that contrasts with the usual comic-book conventions. We see it again when the business of creating the colorful costumes itself turns out to require expertise worthy of James Bond’s Q—giving us Edna Mode as an independent contractor (and style maven).
This issue of collateral damage seems to have preoccupied superhero movies a lot in recent years. It’s a primary plot driver in both Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Batman v. Superman (2016). But The Incredibles was there first, twelve years earlier. What that says about contemporary attitudes is something at which we may want to take a closer look, another time.
The New Incredibles
The first question that arose when a sequel was announced was, where do they go from here? Of course, superheroes are almost by definition open to continuing adventures. And The Incredibles ended with an obvious starting point for another story: the appearance of a new villain, the Underminer. But at the end of the first movie, the character arcs, the development of the main characters, had all been neatly completed. Could the director and screenwriters come up with something equally good from that starting point?
The answer was always: if anyone could pull that off, it’d be Pixar.
I enjoyed The Incredibles 2 immensely. I’ll have to let it settle for a while to evaluate how it stands with respect to its classic predecessor. But the movie is a lot of fun, and it manages to carry forward a story that’s consistent with the first movie, yet departs from it enough to avoid simply repeating the original. As we’ve seen, this a tricky business.
Despite the fourteen-year gap in realtime between the first and the second movie, the latter picks up exactly where the former leaves off, with the appearance of the Underminer. This tunnel-drilling villain is an obvious shout-out to Marvel’s Mole Man, who was introduced in the very first issue of The Fantastic Four.
Since the Incredibles have always been a kind of retake of the F.F., the Mole Man connection has a pleasing nostalgia aspect for the long-time comic-book fan. There’s a similar homage to the F.F. in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City comics—a superhero group called the “First Family.” (Their last name is actually “Furst,” making them another instance of the proverb that the last shall be Furst, and the Furst shall be last.) Busiek, incidentally, may have been the first graphic novelist to highlight the collateral damage question; the matter of “everyday life in a superhero universe” is treated not only in Astro City (which started in 1995), but also in his revisiting of the Marvel universe, the limited series Marvels (1994).
Time and Tide
The time lapse (realtime) between Incredibles 1 and 2 is less disruptive than one might imagine, because both movies are set in an alternate past, not in our present. One article concludes that the main action of The Incredibles takes place in 1962, based on a newspaper date. This fits with the fact that Brad Bird’s inspiration for the film came from the comic books of the 1960s. The time period is visible in the charmingly retro designs of the homes and cars in the original movie, not to mention the big rocket used by the villain.
So we’re not disturbed by the fact that the characters in The Incredibles (1 or 2) don’t carry around cell phones or use personal computers. There are, of course, computers and other high-tech devices in both movies. But this is consistent with the standard comic-book depiction of advanced technology in the hands of certain individuals or groups, as opposed to the society as a whole. (This convention also applied in other adventure stories, like the Saturday morning cartoon Jonny Quest, one of my childhood favorites, which makes a brief appearance onscreen in The Incredibles 2.) We might see high-powered computers and such in the Batcave, or a villain’s lair—or even in some hidden country, like Marvel’s Wakanda (which first appeared in 1966). But these were always “islands” of high technology, having no effect on the technological level of the overall culture.
There is a subtle difference between the 1960s depictions of advanced technology and what we see in the Incredibles movies, which may throw us off a bit. A 1960s-era imaginary supercomputer looked like an extrapolated version of 1960s-era mainframe computers. One thinks of old James Bond movies showing computers ornamented with slowly rotating tape drives, which now look ludicrously anachronistic. But this nostalgic re-creation of 1960s-era high-tech has the advantage of knowing how the future actually turned out. Thus, in an early scene from the first movie, Mr. Incredible is tracking a car chase in his Incredimobile—and the electronic tracker looks not unlike a GPS, albeit one with primitive graphics. When Mirage sends a “This message will self-destruct” recording to Bob, it’s on a tablet strangely reminiscent of a modern iPad. In effect, the movie designers are reimagining the imagined future of the 1960s, by reference to the actual future (our present). The mind boggles a bit.
All in all, The Incredibles 2 does a very good job of resuming the story fourteen years later with a minimum of retcon. Compare Back to the Future II, which required a distinct revision of the closing scene from the first movie, only four years after episode 1 was released.
Managing the Handoff
There were a couple of things I didn’t quite expect in the transition from the end of episode 1 to the beginning of episode 2. But they weren’t really retcons—more like things I’d assumed at the end of The Incredibles that turned out not to be quite so simple. These aren’t really spoilers, since they become apparent almost at once in the new movie.
The Parr family and Frozone are publicly acclaimed for defeating Syndrome in episode 1, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods yet. The anti-supers law still hasn’t been reversed. When the story was wrapped up in a single movie, we would reasonably assume that such things would automatically be resolved after the movie ended, just as we assume that the main characters’ romance will proceed swimmingly when a movie fades out on a kiss. But there’s still work to be done on society’s acceptance of supers in The Incredibles 2.
Then there’s baby Jack. We saw Jack exhibit a variety of assorted superpowers in the first movie and the associated short subject (“Jack-Jack Attack”). But his family didn’t quite see that; they don’t yet know he has superpowers. Of course, as the trailers make clear, they find out pretty soon . . .
I heartily recommend the sequel; most fans of The Incredibles should enjoy this follow-up.
And one bit of practical advice for the moviegoer: the closing credit graphics are entertaining, but there’s no need to wait around for the very end. Our 1960s-ish superhero family has not yet adopted the modern practice of putting a “stinger” scene at the conclusion of the credits.
Ever find yourself approaching the end of a new book—and you realize there’s no way the author can tie up the plot in what remains of the novel? It’s that moment when you realize: we’re in for a sequel.
That realization may be awful, or it may be exciting, depending on how much you enjoy the story so far. But it changes the way you look at the book you’re reading, to know it isn’t complete in itself, but only part of a larger tapestry. Your sense of the pacing and the shape of the story has to adjust.
But the story alone hasn’t told us there will be a sequel. Rather, we’re drawing on something outside the text itself—our knowledge of how much of the book remains—to tell us something about the story.
Years ago, when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation, I almost missed the last chapter altogether. The conclusion of the novel consists of a series of successive surprises, each overturning the last. The second-to-last chapter seemed to end so conclusively that I only turned the page because I was in the habit of reflectively turning over the blank endpapers of a book. —And there was the final chapter! I could only make that mistake, however, because the last chapter was so short—six pages in my hardcover edition.
It’s harder to make that kind of observation in an e-book, where there are no physical pages to observe. You can usually find a percentage or “location” indicator, but it’s not quite as obvious as the physical thickness of the pages.
Let’s call this process of drawing on outside information “meta-reading.”
Sources of Meta-Information
There are a number of sources from which we glean this meta-information, consciously or not.
Starting from the broadest case, we get some information from the genre to which the book belongs. If you find a book in the science fiction section of the bookstore, then no matter how mundane the opening scenes may be, you can be pretty sure that something out of the ordinary is going to turn up at some point. If you’re reading a genre romance, you can rely on the ironclad rule that a genre romance must have a happy ending: either “happily ever after,” or at least “happily for now”—HEA or HFN, in the jargon of the trade. Even if the characters’ relationship seems doomed as you approach the ending, you can be pretty sure it’ll turn out well—which may not be the case in a “mainstream” novel.
Getting to know an author’s habits and preferences is another way to guess what’s going to happen in the end. If we’ve read a fair sampling of an author’s work, we can gauge fairly well the chances of a happy ending, the likelihood of violence or sex scenes, the kinds of characters you’re likely to meet up with. It’s a little more tense approaching the end of a book by a new author, because we’re not yet familiar with what kinds of tricks the writer may (or may not) be willing to pull at the denouement.
Then there’s the back-cover blurb, or the flyleaf—often the reason we pick up the book in the first place. The half-dozen paragraphs or so of teaser text on the flyleaf are designed to tell us just enough to get us interested. They shouldn’t give away the whole plot, but they do create expectations—which the book as a whole may or may not meet. Something that comes as a complete surprise to the characters may be something the reader is already primed for, because it’s part of the plot setup that the blurb describes.
Reviews take this principle further. A review may include spoilers, but even without actual spoilers, it tells is something even before we open page one.
Once we get into the book, there are still more clues. Chapter titles are out of fashion these days, but if there are such titles, they inevitably tell us something about what’s going to happen. In my current novel-in-progress, I use temporary chapter titles that remind me what happens in the chapter, but remain obscure enough not to telegraph the outcome to test readers. Still, when you reach the chapter titled “The Battle of Tremont,” you’re inevitably going to have an idea what to expect.
Finally, in the example I started with, the length of the book tells us something. As we move through the story, we can measure our sense of pacing with the literal progress through the pages. There have been a number of cases where it’s looked as if the plot was being wrapped up nicely, and I’ve looked at the mass of material still to come and thought, Something’s bound to come unglued here . . . or we wouldn’t have a hundred pages to go.
This kind of insight relies on an awareness of narrative practices. There are internal necessities to good storytelling. Guessing the imminence of the climax from the number of remaining pages, for example, depends on our assumptions about how much time after the climax will be devoted to wrapping things up—which, in a long story like The Lord of the Rings, can take quite a while.
Likewise, gauging the amount of space needed to resolve the plot assumes that the plot will be resolved: good authors, at least, don’t leave things totally dangling. Our use of meta-reading plays off our assumptions about how stories are told—and can go awry if the author’s views are radically different from the reader’s.
For that very reason, the writer of a story has to take into account the context in which the reader encounters the story, and the expectations raised in that context. The reader doesn’t come to the story as a blank slate.
If there will be major surprises in the tale, the writer (and publisher) need to make sure they aren’t given away in the blurbs. If the author wishes to undermine the expectations created by genre classification or advertising, it’s important to be aware of the consequences. Subverting reader expectations can be illuminating and satisfying to the reader, but it can also be annoying and frustrating. The implicit contract between writer and reader—‘I’m going to tell you a story you will enjoy’—places boundaries on just how subversive one can be without leaving the reader feeling cheated.
The writer’s conversation with the reader, then, extends well beyond the contents of the text itself. It’s something that’s useful to remember for the writer—and the reader as well.
The last post took off from the impending premiere of the movie Independence Day: Resurgence. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this release; I’m no more than cautiously hopeful about whether it’ll be any good. But there’s more to be said about this kind of sequel.
In a lot of stories, a sequel can start out more or less where the original tale did, because the status quo ante is preserved. Each James Bond movie starts in our everyday world, because the world-changing plans of the villains were foiled in the previous episode. It would be a very different world if the villains had succeeded in starting a nuclear war or whatever. (The only real changes in Bond’s “initial conditions” come from the fact that the films have been produced over the period of half a century, and the real world itself has changed in the meantime: the Soviet Union falls, a female head of the agency becomes plausible, actors age out and are replaced, and so forth.)
Even in the Star Wars saga, despite the world-shattering events of each movie, the situation tends to cycle back to the starting point. Episode IV: the rebels are on the run. Episode V: the rebels are on the run. Episode VI: the rebels are still on the run. Episode VII: we have a new set of rebels with a different empire to fight – but they’re still on the run.
A story that has far-reaching implications can still fail to change the world much. At the end of E.T., Elliott’s life has certainly been changed. And there’s a batch of scientists who know something radically new: there’s other life out there. But the whole matter has been handled with such mystery and secrecy (for no very good reason) that one can imagine California going right back to its old ways afterwards, after a nine-day wonder about why some government agency swathed Elliott’s house in Saran Wrap for a day or so. And there’s no reason to think the aliens will be coming back. (Once they get home, the galactic TripAdvisor probably lists Earth with one star at best: “Lousy health care, and primitive communications facilities.) (Of course, there’s only one star in our solar system to begin with.)
But it’s a different matter when the original story changes the world completely. A sequel to The War of the Worlds would have to be quite different from the original, because Earth could not lapse back into its pre-invasion ignorance of extraterrestrial life—nor ignore all that advanced alien technology lying around for the studying. Whatever humanity might do in response, it’s unlikely that history would have proceeded as it actually did. At least one sort-of-sequel to The War of the Worlds recognized this, with Earth’s nations uniting to build a space fleet for a counterattack.
This means that the sequel to a movie like Independence Day needs to be a distinctly different kind of story from the original. We will not be starting from the same status quo. Technology will have changed, and with it, ordinary lifestyles. (“Turn on the force field, would you, dear? Junior’s going to fall down the steps again.”) International relations will have changed. The economics of recovery from mass destruction must be considered. And most of all, we will not have unsuspecting Earthlings shocked by the extraterrestrial incursion. We’ve “seen the elephant.”
Science fiction books can get this right. The first book of David Weber’s Dahak trilogy, Mutineers’ Moon, starts in the near future and reveals an age-old conspiracy with advanced technology. As a result of the battle against the ancient mutineers, a world government is formed and preparations are put in motion for an attack by an age-old menace. The second and third books start in a world very different from the present day and logically carry forward the consequences. (The trilogy is a great read, by the way.)
The marketing difficulty with a film sequel is that the second movie, coming from such a different starting point, may have to be quite different from the first. This disturbs Hollywood, which typically wants to capture the same audience by giving it more of the same. There’s a disturbing tendency to pull back from the implications and somehow paste the previous status quo back into place. For example, Ghostbusters 2 went to considerable trouble to achieve a just-barely-plausible reset in which the universally adored heroes of the original are now forgotten and reduced to underdogs again.
So far, it looks as if the Independence Day sequel may be following Weber’s example. The tagline for the movie is: “We had twenty years to prepare. So did they.” It sounds as if the Earth that faces another invasion will have changed based on the first story. How much, we’ll have to see. Will we start out in a plausible future twenty years on from the end of the first movie? Time to find out!