Thursday, January 14, 2021

Writing the Sequel


I owe it all to Back to the Future 2. One day in November 2020, shortly after Thanksgiving, I felt tired and lethargic, so I decided to fire up Netflix and see if there was anything good on it. I scrolled through all sorts of TV series and documentaries, Stranger Things, Cobra Kai etc., and then eventually came upon Back to the Future 2. For some reason, I felt drawn to this movie. I hadn’t seen it in a very long time and I felt it was time to give it another viewing. What I realized was that Back to the Future 2 was much more solid a film than I remembered it to be. It is not the best sequel ever made, but it is certainly one of the better ones. 

This got me thinking about sequels in general and how rare it is for them to be…well, good. I could only think of a few sequels that were better than or at least as good as their predecessor. Terminator 2 came to mind. Airplane 2 also popped into my head. But then I actually had to do some Googling to think of others. Yes, I literally Googled “best sequels of all time” and then I realized that most of the good sequels were part of a longer series, like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and that kind of thing. Do those count? I suppose they do. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t. However, my overall conclusion was that, jeez, it’s rare that a sequel is any good. Probably about one out of five sequels are decent. Four out of five are terrible.

With these statistics in mind, I began thinking, “Hmmm…I wonder how I would do writing a sequel.” And then I remembered, “Oh yeah…I already tried that!” And it didn’t go well.


Indeed, about a year ago, I had tried developing a sequel to a screenplay I wrote called Weird Monster (I also wrote a “screen novel” version of Weird Monster now available on Amazon). When I say I “developed” a sequel, I mean I wrote about a 60-page outline for that sequel. Now, you may be thinking, “Wow, a 60-page outline!” … yes, that seems like a long outline, but my outlines are extremely detailed and include all dialogue that comes to mind. I basically wrote 60 pages and then got to a point where I felt the story was no longer interesting to me, I was hitting too many roadblocks, eventually thought I was at a dead end, and I gave up. I shelved the project and concentrated on other things. As far as I was concerned, a sequel for Weird Monster seemed to be out of the question.

However, watching Back to the Future 2 rekindled my interest in writing a sequel. I basically said, “Ok, this sequel (meaning Back to the Future 2) is good, but it’s not exactly the BEST thing ever made. Maybe I can do something close to or at least as good as this. Maybe I should dare to fail, go forward with WEIRD MONSTER 2 and don’t stop this time, no matter what.”

And this is exactly what I did. I figured that even if WEIRD MONSTER 2 turned out to be a piece of garbage, it would still be an interesting writing exercise nevertheless. Thus, I took the 60-page WEIRD MONSTER 2 outline out of the drawer and read all 60 pages of what I had so far. What surprised me was that it was actually decent. Getting away from a project for a year is very helpful because you end up looking at it with a fresh eye and you can make a fair assessment of whether the material is decent or terrible. I mean, if you pick up a project after a year, give it a read and it ends up being terrible, then things are probably looking rather bleak for that project. If, however, it seems decent, well, then that means your project has potential.

I definitely saw that my project had potential.

Instead of working on the outline any further, I decided I would write, in screenplay format, what I had written out in my outline so far. Like I said, my outlines are very detailed, so I already had much of the dialogue written but getting everything into script form would help me iron out a lot of the wrinkles in the story and, more importantly, I would hopefully get to a point of no return in the project, meaning I would get to a point where the project was more complete than incomplete and I’d be a fool to give up and stop. In other words, this was a psychological tactic to motivate me; if I got a third or even a half of a screenplay onto paper, I would be much more likely to take it to the finish line.

Thus, I simply began writing the screenplay and things went well for about 50 pages or so. Page 50 is pretty much a point of no return, so I knew I wanted to finish this bad-boy no matter what. The problem was that I kept stumbling upon parts that I felt were either weak or lazy writing, made no sense, or simply wasn’t entertaining. I also found that the main characters were no longer very interesting to me, that maybe I had milked what made them interesting dry in the first story. I found myself hitting so many obstacles that I found it was paralyzing me and I had the urge to stop writing. I was berated by a voice in my head that said this sequel sucked. There was only meant to be one—not two—Weird Monster stories!

But then I took a shower.

I don’t know what it is about showers, but they often give birth to profound revelations. I once heard a theory that running water provides a conductor for energy from other dimensions to get beamed into your head, which is why people have so many good ideas and revelations while taking a shower. Maybe this is true, but that’s not really what’s of importance right now. What IS of importance is that I had a revelation. My revelation was that it’s basically better for me to write crap as opposed to writing nothing at all. I needed to free myself of the worry that I was writing garbage and I basically needed to write anything and everything that came into my head. Even if it was clich├ęd. Even if I knew it was terrible. Unfunny. Or trite. I simply had to keep going. I had to keep moving. I could not stop no matter what.

I consequently found myself making a ton of stuff up and I sort of felt guilty about this, because a lot of it felt so contrived, and I usually feel much better when the writing flows out naturally—you know, when it feels “meant to be”—but I didn’t allow myself to get too bothered by this. What was crucial was that I laid down the tracks, so to speak, got a very basic skeletal structure of my story down on paper. That’s really the toughest part. Getting the skeleton out of your system and down on paper. Then it’s much easier to go back and flesh everything out through editing, editing and more editing.

It took me about a month, but in the end, I actually managed to get a decent first draft of WEIRD MONSTER 2 (aka WEIRD MONSTERS) onto paper. And it wasn’t no flimsy 70-page screenplay either. The script is about 130 pages, give or take a couple of pages. I’m not sure it’s on the level of Back to the Future 2, at least not yet, but it’s definitely better than I ever thought it would be, especially considering how I felt when I first reached that page-50 area.

So what is the moral of the story?

Don’t ever give up. Writing garbage is better than not writing at all. And you can always go back and edit. This, of course, is true for writing anything, not just a sequel like what I was doing. Writer’s block can be paralyzing, but you’d be amazed what can happen if you simply free yourself of the paralyzing panic that sets in when you’re worried that you’re writing crap. Once you free yourself from this fear, you’ll be amazed what you can ultimately pull off.

Here is a helpful video I found on YouTube that echoes a lot of what I say above:

MATT BURNS is the author of numerous novels, including Weird Monster, Johnny Cruise and The Woman and the Dragon. He has also written a filmmaking/screenwriting memoir called Garage Movie: My Adventures Making Weird Films. Find these books (and many more) at his Amazon author page HERE.

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