More Troubles with Prequels

More Troubles with PrequelsWith a prequel novella in the works for my fantasy series, I’m finding more troubles with prequels.

Prequels naturally take place before a story that’s already written. This could be two centuries (House of the Dragon), or a few days (Rogue One). The core problem with prequels is the ‘before-ness’ of the story.

As soon as you write a prequel, you extend a story in the ‘wrong’ direction. Unlike a sequel describing ‘this happened next,’ a prequel says ‘hold on, this happened first.’ The writer needs a pretty good idea of the origins, timeline and setting of the main story.

Unless it’s an origins story like so many superhero tales, we want to start in medias res, or as close to the start as possible. We don’t want to know what the protagonist had for breakfast, we want to dive in to the action. The ordinary world opening grows increasingly short in contemporary tales.

Winding back to a prequel is no small risk. It has to be different enough from the main story to hold the reader’s interest, without departing so far from the established source they give it up.

No Fate But What We Make

The end of a prequel is necessarily tied to the beginning of the main story. You can’t kill off key characters who appear in the ‘later’ book. Nor can you significantly change key characters without some serious spoon-bending.

Readers are picky, even obsessive about continuity and consistent character arcs. Mess with this in the prequel at your peril. When established characters change personalities and values in the service of a new story, readers object. It also makes a mockery of your main story.

This manifests in an element of predestination; certain characters have to finish in position ready to take up the main story. This lowers the stakes and consequences when we know the protagonist can’t a) die b) suffer some life-altering change of circumstances (skills, wealth, rank, status, profession, relationships).

Two answers to this are:

  • go further back in time and don’t use your principal characters for the main story (House of the Dragon).
  • put interesting side characters centre-stage or introduce new ones into your plot and setting (Mrs Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea).

Hickory, Dickory, Dock

The trickiest issue for a prequel is time. How long ago does the prequel take place?

For an established character with a flat arc such as James Bond, you can slot additional tales into their episodic timeline without too many problems. Bond exists in the action genre, where it’s easier to gloss over character details. Keep up the pace, with plenty of big bangs for your buck, readers remain happy. Try that with a sequel to Persuasion.

Winding back the characters

How do you wind back principal characters to a younger, less experienced life-stage? The obvious is the origins story, where they learn the skills or formative experiences that make them the principals of the main story. This generally pulls them down the scale of competence, though.

Is there continuity, a credible arc or a continuum for the character?

Are they believably less mature, capable or skilled than in the main story?

Annakin in The Phantom Menace is a chipper, Disney child hero. In Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith he turns into a petulant, whiny teenager. And straight into Darth Vader for A New Hope. It doesn’t work.

Nor did the prequel Solo, which gave us a clumsy, emotionally-stunted Han Solo. Less a movie than a pinata stuffed with as many Star Wars references as could fit. It included the Kessel Run and the infamous card game that won Han the Millenium Falcon. So many references, it felt like a box-ticking exercise or a game of Top Trumps.

Recall that literary agent’s feedback? ‘Unfortunately the interesting parts weren’t original and the original parts weren’t interesting.’ Solo is a prequel that falls victim to Star Wars Greatest Hits.

Expanding Back Story

Is there enough of a hinterland to explore for the prequel? Is it worth relating the first failed courtship of Fanny and Captain Wentworth? A good writer (besides Austen herself) might make a go of it. Less so Walter White: The College Campus Years.

Say there is room to build back story. Continuity rears its ugly head here, too. You can invent a whole new set of traumatic experiences that change a character. It becomes ‘canon.’ But it’s never mentioned or referenced in the main story. Because the writer didn’t know it then. But the character would. You just broke continuity, character and motivation by omission.

Winding back the World Building

The prequel necessarily exists in an earlier setting and location. No problems if it’s days, weeks or months. Years, decades or centuries? This may require a whole new level of research and reverse world-building to establish the setting in an earlier state. How long does that take?

Risk Assessment

Both House of the Dragon and Rogue One minimised the risks by centring on new protagonists. Rogue One simply takes a step sideways, using all the cool creatures and toys from the original Star Wars. The Death Star Plans become the McGuffin driving the plot. It removes all those pesky character arc and continuity issues if you don’t have Luke, Han, Leia and Obi Wan in the story at all. But arguably, it’s not Star Wars.

My Prequel Novella

How am I tackling this briar patch? My protagonist is a side character promoted from Book One of the series. There, she’s a well-defined character sketch who drops out early in the story. My series protagonist becomes a featured side character. She’s three years younger, a teenage rebel – as much as a child with advanced precognition can be.

A couple more side characters from Book Three appear in the prequel, revealing some backstory without substantial changes.

This arrangement gives me scope to cover an incident referenced in Book Three, expanding some side characters in central roles. Does it work? You’ll have to read it and let me know.

6 thoughts on “More Troubles with Prequels”

  1. Hinterland – I like this. Side characters even better. Trouble is, successful stories create iconic chracters people want more of. Interesting that Suzanne Collins prequel protagonist is Snow, not Katniss.

  2. Bernard Hill (Theodan, LotR) was on the money(!) when he said Rings of Power was a money making exercise. Same goes for Disney milking Star Wars. The studio execs don’t care about story, they’ll serve up more of the same whether its any good or not.

    1. Hill is right, it is a money-making exercise. Amazon cynicism of the highest order. And they still messed up by ignoring the writing and doing Tolkein’s Greatest Hits without understanding what those are. The whole thing went of half-footed(!).

  3. Prequels not making sense really annoy me. Just insert random life-changing back-story that’s never mentioned in the main, then how much sense does it make? Filling in ‘gaps’ for the sake of a buck.

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