The Art of the Sequel: The Godfather Part II and The Two Jakes
There is a writing principle which says the story you are telling should be the most important story in your protagonist’s life. It is a principle I agree with. If there is a more important story in their life, why are you not telling that story?
But what about a sequel? When I wrote my first novel I followed the principle and told the most important story in my protagonist’s life. So when I felt the need to tell a new story, what story was I telling? A less important one?
the story should be the most important story in your protagonist’s life
Without wishing to insult any fellow writers, this is something I feel crime authors have a habit of bungling. The first novel is a case close to the detective, the stakes are personal, everything is exciting. In the sequel, the detective tackles just another case. No doubt an extraordinary case, but the stakes are someone else’s, it is someone else who has everything to lose.
There is an alternative route, the one taken by such masters as Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler; which is that no case is ever significant to the protagonist, so it’s fine for every sequel to be just another case. And when the real attraction is the plot, that is fine (even more than that, it is an art). But that’s not the route I took, my novel was about character, and so should the sequel be. So how do I create a new story that feels as significant as the first?
Now, I may be a novelist but I trained as a film scholar, so I apologise if this article is film-heavy, but… the high-water mark of sequels is of course The Godfather: Part II (1974, written by Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), so let's have a think about what makes it so successful.
The Godfather: Part II
The Godfather (1972) follows Vito (Marlon Brando) and Michael (Al Pacino) Corleone, as one slips from the throne of the criminal family and the other ascends to take his place.
The sequel is split over two time periods, chronicling not only Michael’s continued rise through the underworld and continued descent into evil; but also Vito’s (Robert De Niro) early life, as he built the Corleone family empire.
A lot of people talk about the split narrative, and I will too, but the “Part II” suffix is the most important thing. The film is instantly positioned as a continuation of one saga. This is what resolves the principle I described at the beginning. This is not a second, less important story, but the second part of that same, single, most important story.
However, The Godfather: Part II does not only continue the story (through Michael), but by showing us events prior to the first film, also enhances the original, giving us greater context and understanding of Vito’s experience, which we can apply when rewatching Part I.
it doesn’t just continue the story, it enhances the original
I followed this model exactly when writing my sequel, following two narratives: one in the present day, and one in the past. The reader should feel the impact of the first case playing out over the second, and they should feel its impact in the first novel were they to revisit it.
So there you go, the best sequel of all time, and why it succeeds (ignoring, of course, it’s transcendent writing, direction, acting, etc.) However, it’s only fair to discuss a success if we’re going to discuss a failure.
The Two Jakes
The biggest inspiration for my novel was Chinatown (1974, written by Robert Towne, Dir. Roman Polanski), a classic film, possibly the best private detective story ever told. It may be news to some of you that Chinatown had a sequel: The Two Jakes (1990, Dir. Jack Nicholson). Chinatown is considered by many the best screenplay ever. No one ever says that about The Two Jakes, and for good reason.
The film provides some continuation of Chinatown’s story, but focusses mainly on a separate and less personal case. The Two Jakes isn’t a terrible film, but it is an unnecessary one, caught somewhere between a new story and the old one. I won’t provide spoilers because some of you might seek it out after reading this and I don’t want to ruin it’s modest pleasures.
This sequel is haunted by the original, just as Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is haunted by what happened in it. But this inability to escape the past, and the doom that comes with repeating it, is the central theme of the original: the title “Chinatown” comes from a previous case in Jake’s career that hangs over, and gives meaning to, the story. Chinatown is the “Chinatown” of The Two Jakes, if that makes sense. But the sequel doesn’t need to explore this idea any further, it was all said in the original, and The Two Jakes adds nothing to it.
You can’t avoid the feeling that nothing in the The Two Jakes is as important as the tiniest moment in Chinatown. Its an appendix.
So, if you feel the need to write a sequel to the most important story in your character’s life, do two things. First, make it the next chapter in a larger story. You should be able to describe the journey the character is taking over both novels/films as one story. Second, if you can, enhance the original by providing greater context, both factual and emotional.