First Draft: The Ten Commandments of Writing a Great Sequel

5. Thou Shall Take the Original Characters Forward.
Ghostbusters 2 failed to do this.

On the other hand, look no further than Aliens, The Godfather: Part 2, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, The Road Warrior, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, etc. These are all sequels that took their characters forward. Not only story-wise, but also their overall character arcs.

A franchise often lives and dies by its characters. There are exceptions in certain franchises (mostly horror properties like Paranormal Activity, Saw, etc.); however, in most, audiences love the characters, and because of that, they want to see the characters move forward together.

Aliens moved the character of Ripley forward in such an amazing way and, as a result of the events of the first film that she survived, her character arc was outstanding (enough to earn an Oscar nomination, mind you). Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which is also one of the greatest sequels of all time (standing next to the original, rather than above it), accomplishes this amazingly as well, as we see Sarah Connor’s character so drastically different as a result of what she survived.

Luke, Han and Leia in the Star Wars original trilogy were always moving forward. Michael Corleone was always moving forward. Woody, Buzz and their friends were always moving forward. This is what audiences crave. They want their characters to continue on in their journeys. Speaking of characters…

6. Thou Shall Remember that the Original Characters are the Franchise.
Look no further than the Fast and Furious franchise. If there is any example of the characters being the franchise, that’s it. The chemistry of the characters (R.I.P. Paul Walker) is the true core of any franchise. The sequels where Paul Walker and Vin Diesel weren’t present and/or weren’t together were the films that didn’t do well at the box office. All too often, if you focus on retaining the original characters, you can overcome otherwise lackluster villains and storylines in sequels.

The Lethal Weapon films thrived on this element. Audiences loved those characters. Riggs and Murtaugh, as well as the supporting characters of their family, friends and loved ones, were the primary reason audiences kept coming back for more.

The worst thing that can happen to a sequel is lose its original characters. This happens in Hollywood, due to contracts or actors not wanting to have another go around. Remember Speed 2: Cruise Control? It lost Keanu Reeves. ‘Nuff said.

Don’t forget the characters. Everything for a sequel starts with them, and audiences will never forgive you and the powers that be if you lose their favorite characters.

7. Thou Shall Embrace the Mythos Created by the Original.
Indiana Jones has his hat and his whip. Riggs has his martial arts and rage. Mad Max has his car (well, at least for the first two). Han Solo has the Millennium Falcon and Luke Skywalker has his X-Wing.

These are but just a few of the examples of mythos and overall atmosphere set by the original installment.

I was fortunate enough to pitch Rambo V to Millennium (the rights holder at the time), write the script (Rambo: Last Blood), and have the powers that be consider it. It was a dream come true. And you can bet that I had a reluctant warrior moment, a bow and arrow sequence, a knife, a cave, and many more subtle cues to the mythos of that franchise. That’s what makes a Rambo sequel feel like a Rambo film.

Embrace the mythos created before: those character cues. An attitude. A history. A scar. A line. It wouldn’t be a Die Hard film if John McClane didn’t have a variation of “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”

That said, you can’t rely solely on those mythos either.

8. Thou Shall Not Reinvent the Wheel.
This thought might be attributed to some of the other points above, but here we’re talking more about tone and genre. Highlander II: The Quickening turned the mysterious immortals into alien beings from another world. It was set in the future with a lot of future tech, while the original film was embedded in reality and the past with the low tech of swords. The sequel was suddenly a bad science fiction movie.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch turned into a neon-like black comedy while the original was actually a horror film with comedic elements to lighten the load and make it more accessible to the masses.

You want to offer something new with a sequel, but you can’t take it too far and make it into something the original never was.

9. Thou Shall Know that a Sequel is Only as Good as its Villain.
Villains are key. A weak villain makes for weak conflict, which makes for a weak story that weakens the characters.

The Lethal Weapon franchise didn’t always have the greatest villains (with respect to Mr. Joshua), but the third film was the weakest in that respect by far, which made that film the weakest of the four.

Die Hard sequels could never top the original’s Hans Gruber (although the third film was smart enough to directly build off Hans).

The Dark Knight Rises was arguably overshadowed by the memory of Heath Ledger’s inimitable Joker.

The Karate Kid sequels never had their Johnny.

Rocky V’s antagonist couldn’t  stand up to Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago.

The characters are only as strong as the ones they go up against.

10. Thou Shall Ask these Key Questions.
What did they accomplish in the original or predecessor? What did they learn from that accomplishment? What conflict(s) can we throw at them to challenge the skills or knowledge that they had learned? How will they deal with that challenge and conflict? There’s the sequel…

Sequels should be a pleasure to write. Most of the time you’re working with characters that audiences already love. Most of the time you’re working with a core concept that audiences are already engaged by. There’s no need to reintroduce the characters or the concept in the opening pages because we have the original films for that. All screenwriters need to do is to take things forward, to embrace the core characters and concepts, throw more conflict at them, and take the audience on another great ride. MM

This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

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