Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! My apologies for posting this late, but the holidays have made these past weeks crazy!
This is the tenth installment in a series analyzing the humor, heart, and zany plots of various Pixar films. The focus is on applying these principles to children’s stories, however, writers of all genres can benefit from Pixar’s literary genius, so I highly encourage you to have a seat and prepare to write like the wind!
Contrary to popular opinion, I actually liked Cars 2. Before you go thinking that’s a compliment, it’s not. In fact, it’s an insult. Because I usually love Pixar movies.
In these recent years, Pixar seems to be making sequels to everything. While I adored Toy Story 2 and 3, Monsters University, some of their other sequels seem to have fallen short. Why? Cars 2 was just as hilarious as the first Cars. Incredibles 2 was every bit as thrilling as the first. Toy Story 4 was filled with as much emotion as every other Toy Story that ever went on screen. And all of them were as visually stunning.
What was it that they lacked? Unlike the past articles, this time I’m unpacking some of Pixar’s greatest faults and how you can stop them from happening in your sequels.
Problem #1: Your Story is Too Much like the First
When Pixar announced they were making an Incredibles 2, everyone grabbed their money and waited at the theater. Their audience enjoyed the first one so much, Pixar must have thought that they had to make the second identical to it, because that’s essentially what they did.
Let’s examine the two movies, shall we? Firstly, both movies had the same conflict (superpowers being illegal). Bob, although not sneaking out to fight, took Helen’s place while she took his place. Violet still struggled with fitting in and being normal. In both movies the Parr’s were contacted by a rich, tech-savvy person for a secret mission. And finally, (spoilers coming), the person who contacted them was the villain (who also happened to hate superheroes like Syndrome—except for a different reason).
Your second book can and should (see below) resemble the first to some degree. But neither do you want it to be an identical twin. In real life, you’re not too likely to relive the same thing over again or relearn a principle you’ve already learned. However, you may learn it more deeply, but then usually the process you learned it in is different. So when you’re writing a sequel, try to forget about the epicness of the first one and focus on building a unique story. Ask yourself what problems will the characters face internally and externally that will be different? How can you take the plot a different direction? What motives can you give the villain that differ from before?
For example, Toy Story always followed similar plot (get back to Andy), but the moral, conflict, and motives of the villains and characters were always different. Toy Story 3 was about staying together whereas the first was about sharing love. Toy Story 2 Woody struggled with doubt, worry, and a trying to sneak by crunchy Cheetos, whereas the first one he struggled with envy, hate, and not buckling his seat belt. In Toy Story 2, the villain feared humans and didn’t want them to touch him. In Toy Story 3, the villain bore a grudge against humans and refused to let anyone have one, whereas in the original Toy Story the antagonist simply wanted to torture toys.
Problem #2: Your Story is Too Different from the First
Copying the first book’s plot is bad, but throwing your characters into an alien genre is even worse. If your first story was thriller based in New York, you can’t have the sequel be a slice-of-life story set in rural Indiana. If your first book is a sci-fi story about a robot, you can’t have the next one be a sci-fi story about a car. If your first story is about racing, you can’t have the second one be about secret agents.
One of the main issues with Cars 2 was that it didn’t fit within the previous world of Cars. The Cars world was a contemporary setting, much like our own, modified to fit living automobiles. You could call the setting rustic, homey, and even retro. However, Cars 2 thrust you into a high-tech world of espionage and spies—something never mentioned or hinted at in the previous film. The problem wasn’t the international racing; that easily fit into the realm of the Cars sphere. The trouble was in the addition of undercover agents, which was equivalent to adding it to contemporary sports film. It just doesn’t work. I don’t have anything against spy films or detectives. But if Pixar had wanted to make a secret agent movie, they should have created a whole new story with new characters and settings.
Your readers (or beta-readers) loved your first book. When they dive into the second, they want to have the same feeling as they had reading the first. They want more of the same, that’s told in a refreshing new way as mentioned above. In Cars 3, as a good friend of mine once said, they returned to home soil. Cars 3 was true to the first while still being different. They kept the retro setting, the racing plot line, and kept the focus on the original protagonist. So, as you write your sequel, ask yourself how you can keep the same vibe, aesthetic, etc.? How can you keep your tone the same? Will the new elements fit within the world of your previous novel?
Problem #3: You Put the Wrong Character in the Limelight
We’ve come to yet the second reason why Cars 2 flopped. Besides the out-of-place spy motif, Pixar wrongly substituted Mater for the protagonist instead of McQueen. Now you might be wondering whether you always have to keep the same protagonist for each book. I would tell you no, not if you have another compelling enough character. But Mater simply wasn’t.
Mater is funny, loyal, and friendly—the perfect side character. His internal struggles, if he had any, were few since he was an already well-rounded character. In the second film, Pixar gave him a feeling of being a nuisance simply to give the story a message, not because Mater necessarily would’ve felt that way. In fact, for most of the film, Mater didn’t even seem to be entirely aware that he was a bother and his internal struggle was almost nonexistent (which further proves the fact that this was out of character).
However, Pixar did show they can make a beautiful sequel with a different protagonist—take Finding Dory for instance. The movie isn’t one of my favorite sequels because of personal taste, but laying that aside, Dory worked as main character for several reasons. Her disability and the lie she believed were shown/hinted in the first film. Secondly, she already played a starring role whereas Mater was had less screen time, making her a more important character and thus a better candidate. A few ways to determine whether a different character will work for a protagonist is by reviewing their part in the first book. If they already had underlining problems, your second book might be a great chance to hash those out. Did you hint at an emotional backstory? You could uncover it in the next book. On the other hand, a character who has no back story or internal struggles won’t likely make a compelling protagonist.
Problem #4: You Don’t Want to Let the Story Go
This perhaps at the root of all Disney and Pixar sequel flops—they don’t know when to stop hanging onto a great story. Sequels are great. You might be able to craft an interesting, funny, well-written one, but what if it’s simply unnecessary?
Toy Story 4 was beautifully animated, poignantly written, and laugh-out-loud funny. I won’t go into detail about all its problems (I’m pointing at Bo Peep and the ending over here). Nevertheless, even before I watched it, I wasn’t terribly excited when Pixar announced they were making a fourth Toy Story. Why? I’d loved the others, why not another? Because another one was simply overdone. They’d closed the trilogy with Toy Story 3, and it seemed sacrilegious to add to something so beautifully ended!
Maybe this is partially my opinion, but I believe it holds true for most of us. An author needs to know when to end their story, and when to keep it going. Maybe you think it’s unimportant because you can still craft a pretty exciting sequel. But if it’s unnecessary, that’s liable to sink into the story’s core and make it less enjoyable. Why must you continue this story? Would it stand stronger on its own?
Your Only Limit is Your Sequel!
No one’s perfect. Pixar’s sequels proves that. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for our best—whether it’s our first, second, or hundredth book in the series. Your first book was great, so your sequel desires to be great too. Sometimes, you’ll find that a sequel just isn’t necessary. Sure, you love your characters, but there’s a time when you need to let them live their own lives and say, “So long, Pardner.”*
*Here’s a tissue.
I hoped you enjoyed this tenth post to our Pixar series! Each month Aberdeen and I will break down different concepts into further depth. Please join us next month as we show what Pixar teaches about writing gripping hooks.
For the rest of the posts in this series: