Back in the early days of March I started a blog series about the process of writing my first sequel, Mr. Monster, which had just debuted in England and which US audiences will get in October. I had just enough time to write the first two posts in that series before my computer broke on an international flight, and I missed a full month of blogging, and then blah blah blah I never finished the series.
Isn’t it about time I got back to it?
I began the series by talking about the three main problems of sequelhood: 1) you need to be the same, but different, 2) you need to correctly identify what the audience liked about the first work, and 3) your protagonist needs a new character arc as good or better than the first one. Today I want to talk about that third piece, because it was one of my main focuses when I down to write Mr. Monster.
Let’s consider, for a moment, Spider-man. In the first movie, Peter Parker is a young kid, still in high school, struggling with a lot of really big problems: he’s in love with a girl who doesn’t care about him, everyone at school hates him, and his primary father figure is murdered–and that’s not even counting the crazy new superpowers he doesn’t understand, or the insane flying supervillain trying to murder everyone in New York. That’s a lot for any kid to deal with, and it sets up a lot of really interesting character arcs for a very multi-dimensional character. By the end of the movie Peter has grown up, gotten a job, overcome his feelings of inadequacy, won the girl (sort of), and learned some difficult lessons about responsibility. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, but done well and made to feel very fresh. And then it made a jillion dollars, and the studio wanted a sequel, and…crap, now what?
Peter Parker ended the first movie with more or less everything he needed; he had resolved his major issues and learned his major lessons, so where else was there to go? His arc in the first movie was powerful, but they couldn’t just re-use it, and whatever they found to replace it had to be just as good or better. I can’t stress the better part enough, because that’s what an audience wants–what an audience needs–if they’re going to love your second work and not feel let down. So the writers for Spider-man 2 had their work cut out for them, and they had to sit down long and hard and figure out what they could do with Peter on a second outing: what obstacles could he overcome, and what lessons could he learn? It’s not enough to just toss out another villain and let the hero beat him up–you need a strong emotional arc, and solid character growth, or the audience just won’t care.
The Spider-man 2 writers started by looking at the end of the first movie to see exactly where we’d left our hero. He had power, responsibility, and a strong sense of selflessness, but he didn’t have the girl–he’d given her up, on purpose, to protect her. So there’s one arc: we can finally get him together with Mary Jane, which will require him to make some very difficult choices about priorities. That’s new and interesting. What else…at the end of the first movie Spider-man is hailed as a hero, so let’s take all of that away from him. The newspaper hates him, and of course his best friend blames him for his father’s death, so let’s play that up and really vilify Spider-man, to the point that even Aunt May thinks he’s horrible. Last of all, let’s shatter the sense of control that Peter seemed to have at the end of the last movie–his problems aren’t solved, they’re just getting started. Being Spider-man keeps him so busy that he can’t stay on top of any of his other responsibilities, causing him to get fired from his job, lose his tenuous friendship with Mary Jane, and get horrible grades in school. His life is literally falling apart at the seams.
Giving Peter this new set of challenges forces him to make painful, personal decisions, and setting up Mary Jane as an ultimate goal gives those decisions a sense of direction and purpose. We’ve essentially created a movie that hearkens straight back to the questions of the first–choosing between a real life and a superhero life–but it feels new because the obstacles are different, the goals are different, and ultimately Peter’s decision will be different. We’re not repeating the first movie, we’re re-examining it, forcing the character and the audience to consider the issues in light of newer, deadlier, more emotional realities. Spider-man 2 is practically a master’s class in how a sequel can fulfill the promise of a first work while still exploring new territory and finding new insights.
Which leads us (in a very roundabout way) to Mr. Monster. The first book was about–spoiler warning!–John Cleaver’s decision to break his rules and let his inner monster loose. He is faced with the agonizing decision to either let a killer go free or become a killer himself, and decides in the end that it’s better to kill one man than to allow, through inaction, that one man to kill dozens. He lets his dark side loose, feeds his most dangerous tendencies, and sacrifices his own innocence to save his town. A friend of mine, reading the manuscript, remarked that “it shouldn’t be easy to put the monster away again; if it is, then it’s not a monster.” I took this brilliant insight and essentially built the entire second book around it: we begin book 2 with all of John’s rules already broken, and all of his self-control in shattered ruins at his feet. In book 1 he lets his monster out, and in book 2 he realizes just how hard it is to lock it back up.
But no matter how much I liked that direction, I knew it was obvious and I wanted to complicate it. Locking up the monster is a new conflict, but it’s still the same basic theme John has already dealt with: a tough moral decision between good and evil. I needed to skew it off in a new direction, and give John not only new obstacles but a new flavor of obstacles. So, what has John not dealt with yet? We’ve seen him face dangerous situations, combative situations, and stalking situations; we’ve seen him spend a lot of time alone, hiding from villains and his family and the world. What we’ve never seen him face is a social situation. We’ve seen him hide from people, but we haven’t really seen him try to fit in–to navigate the social and emotional minefield of personal interaction, which his sociopathy would make almost impossible. I thought this sounded like fun, so I tossed in a new character and magnified an old one who would both force John far outside his comfort zone into situations where his deadly inner monster will be more of a hindrance than a help.
Last of all, I mixed these two ideas–the growing dominance of his urges to kill, and an enforced proximity to people he doesn’t know how to deal with–with a sense of mounting pressure from his Mom, who’s taking an active hand in his psychology, and the FBI, who have not only stepped up their search for the Clayton Killer but begun to focus more and more on John himself. This creates a painful buildup of tension, which casts John’s ongoing dilemma (“Am I a good guy or a bad guy?”) in a new and more dangerous light.
That powderkeg of emotions explodes, I should mention, about halfway through. Why wait? In book 1 I revealed the killer halfway through, and then had even more fun dealing with the aftermath; I wanted to do the same in book 2, and besides: an exploding powderkeg is a really fun aftermath to try to deal with.