Sequel-itis.

Yes, I saw “Pirates of the Carribean” this weekend.  And I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There were indeed a few times that our beloved Johnny seemed to cross the line between character and camp, but I ignored those and loved the movie.  The plot was comprehensible, the effects were marvelous, and the secondary love story was “awwwww” inspiring.

And then I came home and went online and –lo and behold– I learned that I probably shouldn’t have enjoyed it so much because it suffers from “sequelitis.”  The term was explained as: “That’s when the decision to make a movie is driven by economic imperative — there’s still money to be squeezed from this thing — rather than by artistic impulses.”  Further, it was explained that the story arc was finished, nothing more could be revealed about the characters, and so why make the movie?

Oooh, oooh!  Let me answer that one.  Entertainment?  Fun?  A new story to tell?  Because isn’t that what story telling is about?  What’s wrong with putting a fabulous character like Jack Sparrow into another adventure?  Yes, he struts and swaggers and yes, there isn’t much of a “character arc” for him in this story, but I already know him for a flawed hero, and I don’t care.  I liked all of the sound and fury, though personally, I would have added more of a twist to the ending.   I would have made it harder for him to do what he does. . . no spoiler here, mates.

So do I think they made “Pirates” just to make money?  Oh, yeah.  But for a movie to be this entertaining and interesting and, yes, creative. . . somebody, somewhere had to really care about the story and doing a good job of showing it.  It delivered for me and probably for millions of other fans if the box office receipts are to be believed. “Artistic integrity” in movies (and books!) and enjoyability don’t necessarily go together. . . remember “The English Patient?”  Remember “Pan’s Labyrinth?”  Painful to watch.   And as for books, ever read James Joyce?  I rest my case.

But there’s another form of “sequelitis” that I want to talk about.  That’s the kind where an author starts a series of books, it becomes wildly commercially successful and about the fourth or fifth book, the author and series go totally off track and for a book or two, NOTHING HAPPENS.  And then books fail to come out as promised and deadlines get pushed back and back and back. . . and back.  

Yes, George R.R. Martin, I’m talkin’ about you.   I know there are other book series where this has happened as well, but the one I’m involved in just now is The Game of Thrones.   When the HBO series started, I watched the first two episodes with growing discomfort.   None of the characters seemed especially “good” to me, not even Ned Stark, the main character of the first part of the book.  He’s stubborn and “too honorable.”   By that I mean that his definition of honor is so narrow and unyielding that it is self-limiting. . . it cramps his action and ultimately gets him killed.  Though he was the best of the characters, you could see that flaw and it was strangely hard to take his part. 

The world Martin created is brutal to the max, ruled by sword and vengeance and greed.   There are several sets of gods and no generally accepted ethos, no common sense of “law” or right and wrong.  The commons folk have NO rights, and women are raped and brutalized without compunction.   Sex is degrading, hurtful, and tellingly “doggie style”. . . even the incestuous relationship between the queen and her slimy-but-handsome brother.  Watching it made me feel uncomfortable on several levels, but I couldn’t seem to turn away.  A friend mentioned she was reading the books and that they gave a lightly different slant on things.  So I downloaded them and started to slog through.  Now I know more of the characters’ backgrounds and motivations, but I still don’t like them. 

I dislike the world even more.  Not a book goes by without slaughters, rapes, and mutilations galore and nasty men doing horrible things to children. . . I can’t mention them here or I’d risk alienating blog readers.  Yep, THAT bad.  Not a world I’d EVER want to be in.  (My ancestors were undoubtedly peasants who kept their heads down when battle axes were swinging.) 

But apparently I’m as susceptible to developing a purient interest as the next guy. (And yes, I think this series was meant to appeal to a purient MALE sensibility.)  Because I read and skimmed and winced my way to the fourth book– where sequelitis squeezed the life out of the story.

In the fourth book of the series, only one or two of the main characters even appear.  Most of them just seem to have dropped off the face of the earth.  The nearly 800 pages are filled with minor characters who have no great part in moving the grand arc ahead, or at least nothing visible at this point.  And there are pages and pages and half-chapters of detail on family ties and lineages that don’t matter to anyone but the author.  Then it hit me: the author is lost, totally lost in the world he created.  He has lost his grip on the story and is just wondering around grabbing characters and inventing backstories for them and indulging himself.   I didn’t think too much more could shock me.

Then came an epliogue written in the author’s own voice, chiding the reader for being impatient and explaining that he’d written so much about so many characters that he simply had to break the book in two and that there would be another book soon to bring back the REAL characters and continue the story.

So. . . what?  I just slogged through 800 pages of info-dump and filler?

You know what the corker is?  That book was published almost SIX years ago, and the sequel, the fifth book, still isn’t out!!!!  Fans all over the internet have complained and vowed to abandon the series after many release dates were promised and those promises were broken.  The author shrugs if off and continues to make public appearances and to court readers. . . still talks of his characters as if they’re real people. . . still lives as much in the world he has created as he does in the world of publishing and readers. . . perhaps moreso.

As a reader, I understand: all the author is obligated to do is give me a compelling story. . . which he has done, except in the last book.   As a writer, I understand the pressures of success and the solitary act of creation that make it difficult to stay on track with an extended and complex work.  But after several successful books, you’d think someone at the publishing house would have stepped in to help pull the author back to reality.  

Or not.  Some authors acquire such an aura at their publishing house that no one will speak a word of concern to them.

Yes, I’ve seen this happen to writers in the romance field, too.  Somewhere around book four the grand story arc starts to wobble and characters start to behave erratically, and there is a stall of meaningful action.  That’s often where the writer starts talking about the characters as if they’re real people and spends inordinate amounts of time “meeting readers” and talking about the story as if it is fact, coming up with rationales and backstories– lost in the world with the characters, no longer directing the action at all.  Readers sometimes react badly to a that strange fourth or fifth book and the author wakes up and gets back on track.  That, or the series ends.

The much vaunted exercise of “world building” is delirioiusly fun and creative and stimulating.  But when a writer goes beyond what it takes to make a story seem credible and real– to give the plot body and the characters substance– he or she may be just building for him or herself.  And when you spend too much time in imaginary worlds, you can begin to lose track of things in the real world. . . things like deadlines and story arcs and character development and actually publishing books. 

That is what I mean by sequelitis.  The world becomes more important than the story and the action gets bogged down in minutae.   I salute writers like Charlaine Harris and JRWard who have battled through their mid-series difficulties to produce more fabulous books and stay on track. 

What about you?  As readers have you found yourself invested in a series only to be disappointed or feel abandoned by the author halfway through?  Do you agree about my theory about writers getting “lost” in the world they’ve created or am I just blowing hot air?   Fellow writers and Riders, have you ever found yourself too invested in a world to make headway with a story?   I’ll have a few confession of my own. . .

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21 Responses to Sequel-itis.

  1. cindygerard says:

    Wow, Betina, you have articulated so well the dilemma I have found in some of the series I’ve personally invested my money and time in. I write series myself and knew from the get go (after becoming disenfranchised with some of my favorite series) that I would NEVER have the skill or the stamina to be able to sustain a complex world and a linking plotline over the length of several books. For that reason, I purposefully make all of my stories ‘stand alones’ and call in the protagonists from prior books as secondary characters to help support the current H/H. I totally admire authors who can pull it off – and am in awe of their skill.
    Case in point (yes, I’m going to name names) I devoured the first 9 Laurel K Hamilton books. OMG. She took me for a ride with Anita Blake, and John Paul and Richard! I loved them. But somewhere around book 9 or 10, in my humble opinion, things started getting muddy and misdirected and just lost the original message. PLEASE don’t get me wrong. I admire her talent, her mind and her ability to sustain this series to enormous success. I can’t say enough good things about her brilliance. But I suspect, as you mentioned above, that she got a little lost somewhere in the characters and the turn she took simply wasn’t the right one for ME. For MANY, she was spot on and more power to her – to anyone who can sustain in this business.

    As for Game of Throne – I’m right there with you. Have not read the books, nor will I after watching this series. It’s kind of like watching a train wreck – in a mystifying way, I just can’t look away. Bloody, brutal and violent. The pageantry is amazing. The costumes, the setting – all stunning. But the story lacks continuity or teeth. There appears to be a requisite doggie style sex scene, incest, prostitute scene AND bloody dismemberment per episode – oh and let’s not forget the pregnant princess bride of the barbarian eating the raw horse heart to insure her ‘son’ (ultra sound anyone?) would be a strong brave warrior. Not a prude here, but really? All that said, I’ll continue to watch it through to the end now because I’m wondering if any of these characters can possibly redeem themselves and actually make me want to root for them :o(

    • Betina says:

      Cindy, I confess, the Anita Blake books were in my mind as I wrote this. Along with several other series. A number of my acquaintences have read and then stopped reading them. And yes, there are often fabulous, wonderful, stirring and captivating stories along the way. . . some have readers hanging on for a year at a time, hungering for the next story. But then comes the “shark jumping” book and some readers never go back.

      Yeah, I don’t consider myself a prude either, but yikes. Enough with the doggie-style deflowerings! And the beheadings and maimings. Give us a character we can support and cheer for. Let me know if you stick with the mini-series.

  2. cindygerard says:

    Oh – and I WILL see the latest Pirates movie because of all the things you said. They are just plain fun! What is wrong with that?

    • Betina says:

      Nada! I really liked the movie and I’m hoping that The Hangover II will give me even half as many laughs as the first one.

      • cindygerard says:

        Same goes, Betina. I think I’ve seen Hangover 3 times and giggled each time.
        You MUST see BRIDESMAIDS if you haven’t yet. BEST chick flick EVER!!!!!!! Smart, funny, … amazing good fun

  3. Kathleen says:

    I live Jack Sparrow.. so I will see any movie he is in..The character is very entertaining and he makes me laugh… Besides Johnny Depp is in the movie.. that’s enough for me..
    I like sequels.. Like last night I was watching the “Jessie Stone” made for TV movies that Tom Selleck makes.. Well, last night movie left you hanging… so you just know there is going to be another movie… Of course like Johnny… Tom is worth watching.. Need I say more.

    • Betina says:

      Kathy, I’ve seen a number of the Jesse Stone movies and generally liked them. A brooding Tom Seleck and a big golden retriever. . . what’s not to like?
      And I think the reason that series works is because every story does truly stand alone. You don’t have to have seen all that have gone before in order to enjoy them. And even if the character has grown and changed, he’s still a work in progress and keeps us interested. More lessons for us writers!

      I think Cindy’s and Michele’s kind of series, where the books stand alone, is more satisfying to me than the cliffhanger, same character series. I love your books, riders. . . you deliver and you make me want more of the world without getting me lost in the minutae of it all.

  4. Michele says:

    So glad you liked the Pirates movie. I can’t wait to see it, and even if it’s not ‘spectacular’, I will gladly fork over my $10 just to stare at Johnny for over two hours.

    I tend to avoid ‘sequels’ and prefer writers who write in worlds, like I do. So all the stories are set in the same world, but don’t run on a particular time line, so you don’t have to read #1 to get #3, or whatever. Just different stories about different characters that show up in that particular world. I don’t think I have the patience to read a true series. 🙂

    • Betina says:

      Michele, you do it soooo well. We should all take lessons from you! If I ever write a series I’ll be studying your books and calling you. I really get a sense of the world your angels and demons exist in, without having to know every little rule and element. You introduce info painlessly and your characters have real personalities and real problems. . . well, as real as angels can have in this world!

  5. catslady says:

    Remindd me of the Left Behind series. My friend lent me the first book and I loved it. Then she lent me two more and they were pretty good. I bought the 4th book and started getting bored. I swear each book got smaller, totally repetitive and preachy. My friend kept lending me the rest of the series until I felt like I was literally be tortured to death. I think it went to 11 books and just out of pure resentment, I refused to read the last one lol.

    • Betina says:

      Catslady– I’m with you! That’s what the fourth George RR Martin book felt like to me. Torture. And I kept hoping that I’d find some bright nugget to redeem it. At the very end of the book a vile and nasty queen starts to get her comeuppance and even as I was thinking “Yeah, you mean, immoral witch,” I was a little horrified by my bloodthirstiness and eagerness to see her suffer.

      So. . . it must be good writing in a way, to make me feel so strongly about it, right? Or am I just sick and tired of suffering through the book and want to take it out on the bad characters. . . since the author isn’t close at hand?

  6. Betina says:

    Okay, I do have a confession: I have occasionally gotten so wrapped up in the world I’ve built for one book that it’s hard for me to start another book. I didn’t want to leave the time and place and the characters I created. The first time this happened, I had another big historical due in 6 months and I was terrified I couldn’t get into the next story! I made myself sit at the computer and write, gradually I got into the setting and characters of the next story and it turned out to be pretty good.

    I did learn a lesson. . . which was to take a bit more time between books and to let myself de-compress and clear away one setting before plunging into another. Either that or find another story in the same setting and make use of the background. . . for different characters and a different plot.

  7. lois greiman says:

    Can’t wait to see Jack Sparrow again, though I was disappointed with the last one. I think it’s always hard to keep the energy and integrity strong when we do series. So I suppose it’s even harder with cinema when there are so many fingers in the pie.

    • Betina says:

      I’m with you, Lois! Whenever anybody asks me which of my books I’d like to see turned into a movie, I answer “none of them.” I’d like the money, but I’d know the story would be vastly different than what I’d intended. I can’t help wondering what Charlaine Harris really thinks of TrueBlood. She’s always been openly supportive of the license they’ve taken with her stories, but I’d still like to be a fly on the wall.

  8. Helen Brenna says:

    I love to be entertained, so a good story and/or characters is all I need, sequel or not, money-maker or not. But I clearly have less patience than you, Betina dear. I constantly stop reading books, series or not, if I lose interest, and have no problem with dropping a TV series. Didn’t used to be the case, but MAN is that a liberating feeling!

  9. Great topic, Betina! I will definitely see the new Pirates, but I notice several commenters offering the same draw it has for me–Johnny Depp. Not only Johnny–whom I love–but the charater he (not the script) has created. Without Johnny and his Jack Sparrow, i might not be that interested because the adventures wouldn’t be as much fun without him. Remember the long battle between Jack and the bad guy in the last installment? The critics panned that, too. Ordinarily that wouldn’t thrill me, but the character made it work for me. I think the creative process for a movie is a parnership between the writer and the actos/director/etc. The audience simply watches. With books, the creative process is a partnership between writer and reader.
    I’ve gotten bored with some of the continuing book sequels when the characters stay the same and the stories become repetitive. Three or four with the same featured character is about my attention span. But remember “Godfather” I didn’t read the book, but I thought the movie worked beautifully in sequels.

    BTW, Betina, have you read James Joyce’s PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN? I loved it. (It’s short.)

    • bkrahn007 says:

      Helen, I probably spend too much time trying to make a story work. I’ll hang in there with an author and book waaaaay after I should. Which is probably what makes me so futious when it turns out to be crap all the way through.
      Sigh.
      I have to get more assertive in my reading. I need to get me some liberation!

    • bkrahn007 says:

      No,Kathy, I haven’t read “Portrait.” But I’m game if you recommend it! I tried several times to get through other Joyce tomes and that was one of the few times I just flat quit reading.

      Enlightenment. . . I do love the writers on this blog– you guys never cease to educate me!

  10. Kylie Brant says:

    Great post, Betina! First of all, I’m with you. If I want the comfort entertainment of looking at Johnny D in all his pirate-y glory and have a good story to boot, I’ll be a happy girl. But sequel-itis…let’s talk long running series. How long is too long? When does a series get to the point where the author is pandering to every element that is popular in the books and pretty soon all you get is strung-together scenes of those elements? I like the idea of revealing something new about the character in each book. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I develop my new proposal.

  11. Betina says:

    I get you, Kylie. But you know, I’ve heard some authors say that they never PLANNED for their books to be a series, it just happened that way. Maybe that’s part of it. When there’s planning ahead, it’s easier to stick with the timeline.

    Ha! Who am I kidding? I PLAN every book I write and halfway through the writing, everything has changed! Don’t ask me why I do that to myself, it just happens. Which tells me that I’m not as “in control” of the process as I’d like to think. And that’s for a single, self-contained book. So who am I to throw stones? sigh.

    Somebody kick me.

  12. Leanne Banks says:

    Sorry, Betina, but I can’t add anything intelligent to this discussion. I’m still drooling over the pic of Johnny Depp ala Jack Sparrow. Thanks for visual!;) xo, Leanne

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