Filmmakers and fans will often note how many bad sequels there are to great movies.
Speed II, The Matrix Revolutions, the list goes on.
However, sometimes you get a sequel that really works. The Empire Strikes Back comes to mind, as does Terminator 2 or The Road Warrior.
Here are 3 lessons we can learn about making good sequels from these movies.
These lessons apply to writing books as well as to making movies.
1. See if There’s More Story to Tell
Sequels seem to work well in two cases: they’re either stories in a seemingly endless series or stories that build on and continue what happened in the previous story.
Let’s focus on the latter case for this article.
This kind of sequel works because there’s more story to tell.
A New Hope ends on a great note. The heroes have won a huge battle, Luke has found a new family of sorts and started to inherit his father’s mantle.
The Terminator ends on a sad but equally final note. The killing machine from the title is finally gone, Sarah Connor has transitioned from being average to being brave and resourceful, ready to raise her son to fight the coming war.
Mad Max ends with the hero finally becoming what he feared he would turn into. He knew he was starting to enjoy the violence in his apocalyptic world, he tried to escape it, but once his family died he finally snapped.
However, each movie leaves more to be said.
Sure, the rebels had a great victory, but the war’s not over. Will they win in the end? Is Darth Vader still alive? Will Luke ever finish his Jedi training? Who gets the girl?
Sure, the Terminator’s gone and we know decades later a war between machine and humans will happen. What happens in the meantime? How does Sarah Connor’s son grow up?
Sure, Max has given into his darker instincts. But does he ever come back? What does he do for the rest of his life a post-apocalyptic Australia?
The sequels (The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, Road Warrior) answer some of these questions.
The Empire Strikes Back shows Luke getting more Jedi training. Darth Vader is back and worse than ever. Han and the princess go from being a potential couple to people truly falling for each other.
Terminator 2 shows a young John Connor and establishes how his mother raised him. He’s lived on the edge, trained from birth to be a soldier. We also see the events which set the stage for the coming war.
Road Warrior shows a Max who’s become truly mad. He needs no one, wants no one. Then something gives him a chance to get his humanity back.
2. Find the Sweet Spot Between Breaking and Revisiting Territory
If the sequel builds on the last installment’s story, you’ll probably explore new territory.
You’ll show that things aren’t quite how they appeared to be in the previous story.
At the same time, people want to taste what they loved in the first movie, so you need to include some familiar elements.
The Empire Strikes Back reveals that Luke’s father isn’t who he thought he was. In addition, it turns out training to be a Jedi is much harder than he thought.
Terminator 2 takes the first film’s killing machine and makes him the hero’s protector. Another killing machine, with entirely different technology and therefore harder to kill, is stalking the hero this time.
The Road Warrior takes Max on the course he chooses at the end of the first film and shows how emotionally dead he can become. He goes from being a nice guy to being the Australian version of Clint Eastwood.
However, each film includes things people loved from the first films.
Empire Strike Back has space battles and an epic final lightsaber duel.
Terminator 2 has Arnold Schwarzenegger playing an oddly endearing robot again and a final battle in an industrial factory.
The Road Warrior has impressive car chases and evil biker gangs that operate like cults, complete with Charles Manson-style leaders.
3. Improve the Quality
If possible, find out what you did well in the first story and do it even better.
Empire Strikes Back has space battles that take the heroes into situations they never experienced in the first film (including flying into a space monster’s mouth). The final lightsaber duel is longer and more intense.
Terminator 2 has more polished special effects than the first film and less rough edges than the low-budget first film. It also takes the time travel paradoxes to a whole new level.
The Road Warrior has even more elaborate and intense car chases than the first film. The biker gangs are even weirder than in the first film, with more elaborate costumes and stranger names.