Hey everyone! This is the first of a new series based on current movies. Each entry will begin with a spoiler-free review of a movie that is still in theaters, so you can decide if
Hey everyone! This is the first of a new series based on current movies. Each entry will begin with a spoiler-free review of a movie that is still in theaters, so you can decide if you’d like to check it out. Then I’ll go into specifics about what the movie got right or wrong from a storytelling standpoint, focusing on one particular lesson we can draw from it.
This one will be a little different. Doctor Sleep is pretty much out of theaters by now, but I only discovered it last week, and I’m a tiny bit obsessed! It would be a shame to miss out on the lessons this movie has to teach us. But from here on out, I’ll try to post early enough that you can see it in theaters if you want to.
This movie is phenomenal. I kept waiting to see it, thinking that I should re-watch “The Shining” first. But you don’t need to remember the original, or even have seen it at all, in order to enjoy it. It’s not your typical horror movie, but it’s plenty horrifying. It isn’t fast-paced, but I was utterly enthralled the entire time.
As a writing nerd, I like to watch the time throughout movies, to note the key plot points. But with this one, I was so immersed that I forgot to check the time even once. That’s only happened one other time in the last 6 months, and I see 2-3 movies a week. And when it was over I was surprised at how long it had been because it felt like half the time.
The acting is terrific, it’s visually stunning, beautifully directed, and the villains are both incredibly creepy and fully fleshed out. I totally understood what was driving them, even though I couldn’t condone it. There are a lot of cool call-backs to “The Shining,” but the film doesn’t lean on them, nor do you have to even get them to appreciate it. They’re just the cherry on top for people who happened to enjoy the original.
So if you didn’t get a chance to see it in theaters, I really REALLY recommend catching it once it’s available to rent or buy. Even if you’re not a horror fan (I’m not). It’s just plain good cinema.
Spoilers beginning now. Consider yourself warned.
A note before I begin- I just bought the book, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so this will be based on the movie only. By all accounts it’s even better (no surprise there), but some points I make may be different in a discussion of the book.
The Key to Writing a Powerful Sequel
For a long time, my criteria for whether or not a sequel was good pretty much came down to whether or not it was part of a larger plan from the beginning. All the sequels and series I loved followed this rule, whereas the ones that didn’t felt more like the author or studio saying “Hey, that worked! Let’s do it again.”
But this isn’t always the case. I have since encountered several unplanned sequels that were just as good as the original. Doctor Sleep is an excellent example of this, so today I’m going to break down why it succeeds where others failed.
#1 Have a good reason to write a sequel
Let’s talk about why Stephen King decided to write Doctor Sleep in the first place. He hadn’t intended to, but over the years numerous people asked him about the little boy from The Shining, and how he turned out after such a traumatic experience. He started thinking about it himself, and it was an intriguing concept, so he eventually decided to write it, more than 30 years after he published the original.
Realizing there’s more story to tell and it’s interesting enough to merit its own book is a great reason to write a sequel.
“Hey, people seemed to like this, maybe I should write more of it”, or even, “I enjoyed these characters and this world and I want to spend more time with them” won’t cut it, at least not by themselves. It’s fine if they’re the catalyst to start you thinking about a sequel. But don’t go forward if you don’t have a new story to tell.
#2 Don’t simply rehash or update the original
Think about that word we use to describe the book that a sequel is based off of. The original. The trouble is, too many authors (and especially movie studios) seem to assume that future stories in that series are therefore unoriginals. Rinse and repeat.
It not only doesn’t have to be that way, but it shouldn’t be. There are a number of ways you can change it up while maintaining a unified story. You don’t have to limit yourself to just one of these, either. As long as you keep at least one aspect consistent, you can play around as much as you like.
You can go about this in several ways.
You can choose a new protagonist or set of characters for each book. Usually they are characters who were introduced in the previous book, but they don’t have to be. I would recommend having at least some of your original cast show up at some point during the story, though. One series I love that does this is Shannon Hale’s “Books of Bayern.”
You can also keep the same character(s) but give them different arcs. If they had a positive character arc in the first book, they could have a flat arc the second time around. They learned the truth for themselves, and now have taken responsibility for showing it to others. If they had a negative arc, they could be redeemed through a positive one this time around, or vice versa. Even if they have the same arc, they could learn a new truth (or sink even deeper).
A Different Type of Antagonist
Note that I didn’t simply say “a different antagonist.” No matter how original your first antagonist was, more of the same in the sequel will feel tired. If it was a single person, now it can be a group. If they were an enemy, this time make them a friend or family member. Or maybe it was a person, and is now an impersonal force like nature, a disease, or even fate. If you had an external antagonist before, now the character can wrestle with their inner demons. You get the idea. What you want to avoid is a fill-in-the-blank bad guy.
In The Shining, there are arguably two antagonists: Danny’s father, Jack Torrance, and the Overlook Hotel, which feeds off of Danny’s “Shining” and drives Jack insane. In Doctor Sleep, the antagonists are a group called the True Knot, who achieve something like immortality by eating the Shine given off by others. Interestingly enough, we learn that they themselves have (or had) the Shining. So, on the one hand we go from an impersonal and stationary force (the hotel) to a very mobile group of people. On the other hand, we go from a very personal antagonist in Danny’s father, an ordinary guy driven by blind rage and insanity, to a cunning and calculating leader with supernatural powers, who has no connection to Danny and isn’t even aware of his existence for the better part of the story. The unifying factor of feeding off of someone’s Shine, however, provides continuity.
This is one to be careful with, but it can definitely be done to great effect. My favorite example of this is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Glamourist Histories,” in which each book is a different genre, though all fall under the umbrella of fantasy. The first book is a straight up Regency romance a la Jane Austen. The second is wartime espionage. My personal favorite is the fourth book, which is a heist novel. She describes it as “Jane Austen writes Ocean’s Eleven… with magic.”
If you decide to do something like this, though, it’s important to identify what aspects brought readers to the original and keep those consistent. In the case of “The Glamourist Histories,” the main draws were the Regency setting and the magic (called glamour), which are both there throughout the entire series.
Of course, fans of The Shining weren’t going to want anything but horror, so that wouldn’t have worked here.
Like genre, this isn’t one to throw in lightly, but it can also be done well. The Harry Potter books have a gradual but marked change in tone from the first to the last book.
The Shining takes place entirely within the confines of the Overlook Hotel (and its grounds), and the threat is to Danny and his mother. The isolation and claustrophobia of this setting are key elements of the story. In Doctor Sleep, the True Knot ranges all over the country, and they are a threat to untold numbers of people with the Shining. Danny’s story goes from Florida to New Hampshire, and then finally back to Colorado.
#3 Stay true to the characters
Though you want to change things up in a sequel, don’t do it at the expense of your characters and continuity. Readers are most likely interested in a sequel because they’re invested in the characters, and they won’t appreciate you messing with them (except in the good ways, during the story 😉 ) Here are a few things to watch out for.
Learning the same lesson again
Your characters probably changed a lot over the course of their first book, which is great. They learned something important, made peace with someone, overcame a personal flaw, etc. Your readers struggled with them and felt every wound as if it were their own. They rejoiced when they finally achieved victory, and now they’re eager to see where the character will go next.
So don’t betray their trust by starting your character over at square one in the beginning of the sequel. I can hear the frustration now. You’re telling me they spent all that time and effort learning a lesson only to have to do it all again? If I wanted that I’d just read the first book again.
To me, the most egregious examples of this are the couples who finally get together in the end of the first book/movie only to break up before the sequel begins, so that the author can bring them together again (or give the protagonist a new love interest).
Ignoring the fallout from the previous book
This one is trickier, both to spot and to fix, but it’s worth it. Your characters most likely experienced some pretty traumatic stuff in the first book. And while you don’t necessarily want to be weighed down by that baggage in the next one, you shouldn’t ignore it either. If they lost a loved one, they will still be grieving (even if a significant amount of time has passed, though it will present differently). If they were in a life-threatening situation, they might have PTSD. Even if they don’t they would probably be wary of certain people or situations. If they were betrayed, they might have more difficulty trusting people now.
Dealing with this fallout can be a key part of your story in the sequel, or it can be a reality in the background. But if you ignore it completely, they can come across like video game characters who pressed the reset button before going off on their next adventure.
This is where Doctor Sleep shines (see what I did there 😉 ). There’s no way Danny grows up normal after being attacked by ghosts and having his own father try to kill him and his mother with an axe. In the beginning, we learn that he hasn’t spoken since they left the hotel. It’s not until the ghost of Dick Halloran shows him how to trap the Overlook ghosts when they come for him that we see him relax and start talking again. Later in life he becomes an alcoholic. That is an understandable outcome under these circumstances. But then we find out that the alcohol dampens his Shine, which is probably why he turned to it in the first place. Even after learning to trap the ghosts, he is defined by this fear from his childhood. We see this in his unwillingness to get involved in Abra’s search, and when he tells her to lay low and hide her Shine.
#4 Make the stakes as high as or higher than the original
The stakes were plenty high in The Shining as Danny and his mother fought for their lives. But in Doctor Sleep, it’s no longer just Danny who is at risk, but countless kids who also Shine. King takes it even further, though. This isn’t just a threat in the timeline of the book. The True Knot has been feeding off of children for millennia, and will continue to do so until they are stopped. We get a small taste of this when we see them capture the little girl, Violet, in 1980, and then find them again, unchanged and still at work, nearly 40 years later.
#5 Do provide some fan service, but don’t lean on it
Fan service gets a bad rap sometimes. To be fair, that’s because too many sequels wield it poorly. But done properly, it’s a lovely little gift you give to your loyal fans. The key is not to rely on it. It may be the reason they picked up the book in the first place, but it shouldn’t be the only reason to keep reading it.
Doctor Sleep manages this well. It starts off with familiar characters we recognize, but they are there in service of the larger story, not just as a wink to the audience. “Redrum” is the next major callback and occurs well into the movie. I really enjoyed the clever twist on the original, where Danny wrote “Redrum” and his mother reads “Murder” in the mirror. This time, Abra writes “Murder” (and why wouldn’t she? She’s a literate 13-year old… although they did keep the backwards R 😉 ), but Danny first sees the reflection of it in his mirror. Again, this is a lovely callback, but it serves a purpose in the story as well.
The most extensive bit of fan service happens at the end, when they make it back to the Overlook (and, to be fair, this only happens in the movie, as the hotel was destroyed in the book version of The Shining). Danny goes to ‘wake up’ the hotel and takes the viewers on a tour of all the iconic places from The Shining movie. But happening where it does, just before the climax, it feels earned.
That scene does break the other rule of fan service, though, which is that it shouldn’t be alienating to those who don’t know the original story. Ideally, it gives them a little thrill if they catch it, but if they don’t, they don’t even realize that they missed anything. You don’t want the reader taken out of the story, wondering what that was all about and if it’s important.
Doctor Sleep mostly manages to do this well, except for that final tour of the Overlook. For someone who hadn’t seen The Shining, it surely felt like a meandering detour with no clear purpose. As much as I enjoyed every bit of it, they probably should have cut it in half.
All told, I think Doctor Sleep is a wonderful example of what a sequel can and should be, especially if it wasn’t part of the original story plan. What did you think? Are there any other elements of a good sequel that I missed?