There’s a belief that sequels to popular movies are never quite as good as the originals, though this has been proven false on numerous occasions. One could argue that everything that followed Star Wars (now known as Episode Four: A New Beginning) have been sequels to the original film directed by George Lucas in the mid-70s. Many have surpassed the original especially in terms of technology. Film franchises, in fact, are created by making sequels to sequels and Hollywood is very good at creating franchises that turn into brands.
In writing, every trilogy or series is an original with at least two sequels and many build on the original work, adding layers and nuances beyond the initial vision. Oftentimes, the way to promote the success of a work is write a sequel that transforms the story into a series. Along the way, new characters are introduced, new relationships formed, and new adventures begin and end. In my work, a sequel exceeded the original, as my play, Another Mother, was produced by The Essential Theatre in Atlanta, while the original in which the characters were introduced, Rebecca Too, has yet to be performed outside of a couple of readings.
In my recent prose work, I’ve been dealing with an ever-expanding set of characters who populate what I call The Expanded Universe of Fictional Atlanta, a setting curiously similar to my hometown. While there are differences — notably, I don’t exist in this fictional realm, except for brief cameos as The Storyteller — readers familiar with Atlanta, especially those who were there in the eighties, nineties, and early-aughts, will recognize a number of people and places. I use it to comment on how my hometown has changed over the years as each successive wave of newcomers arrive and start rediscovering and redefining the city’s character.
Following up a story presents the author with the challenge of enhancing the original narrative rather than simply copying what was done in the first place. So far, I have developed two separate threads for dealing with the Expanded Universe, one through the story collections and the other via the novels. The stories introduce a broad cross section of characters, who are interconnected to one another. These include Brian and Charlotte Sanger and Charlotte’s son Ishmael, Annabelle, Alfred, Avery, and Avis Collins and their friends and family, Rebecca and Steven Asher and their aunt, Rachel Lawson, Roscoe and Aileen Dellahunt, and, most notably, Claire Belmonte and David Cairo. In fact, Cairo has been better represented in the stories I’ve written since 2017 than by the failed novel I attempted to write about him in 1999. Claire, initially a minor supporting character in Rebecca Too, emerged as a major figure in the Expanded Universe through her stories in Fables of the New South and Reconstruction.
The novels, Rebecca Too and the upcoming Worthy, have largely focused on the Walker family, Leah, Alyssa, their father Paxton, mother Sarah Melinda (Rosales), and their extended family, including aunt Margaret, and Alyssa’s husband, Tim. Elements of their story also found their way into Reconstruction, which ties them to others in the Expanded Universe. So, the novels form a separate but interconnected thread to the stories. Characters who headline in the stories become supporting players in the novels and vice versa. In general, if I go to the trouble of naming someone in a novel or story collection, the reader can expect to see more of that character in an future storyline. Rachel Lawson, initially only mentioned in the play Rebecca Too, had her story told in Fables of the New South, and became an important character in the novel Rebecca Too.
From my genealogical research, I came to appreciate the value of timelines in sorting out who belonged in my family versus who was part of a different branch. In trying to tell so many stories over such a vast amount of time, I found it necessary to create a timeline for the Expanded Universe. It currently begins around 1921 and continues into the present day and gets updated every time I introduce a new detail. Since I’m likely to be dealing with the Civil War in upcoming narratives, the timeline will need to expand as well. For Cairo’s story, which I’m revisiting in a planned third novel, I not only will be diving into his past, but I’ve also made a connection between him and a character who wasn’t originally part of the Expanded Universe whose story I’ve been trying to tell for several years.
A well-written sequel can indeed be better than the original, introducing new characters and situations and enhancing the readers’ perception of the characters and storylines. I didn’t originally plan to write a series when I first drafted Rebecca Too in 2010, but found I had too much to say about the characters to be contained in a single work. Consequently, I’ve had to go back and retcon some of the elements as the Expanded Universe has developed, especially since Fables of the New South, was largely written on the fly in 2017. Still, with a bit more planning and careful editing, it is hoped the overall arc will be appealing to readers who discover the works.