Prequels: The Before Story...But After
Oh prequels, you’re quickly becoming my bad habit when it comes to my writing. You’re becoming that heart-skipping surprise when my favorite authors come out with the next book that takes place before book one. It’s that "Ah-hah!" moment when you pick up a prequel and realize; there’s more to the story than what you already know. There’s a secret in the past that will help our heroes save the present. What could it be?
Prequels are also another topic of debate amongst myself and my fellow writers of whether or not they are worth writing. It’s right up there with the discussion of writing a prologue (blog post here). The timeless answer of "it depends on the story" applies here, but it’s also a "one size does not fit all" concept among writers. Whichever you are is not wrong by any means, but the best way to know is to have a better understanding of what a prequel is.
By definition, a prequel is a story containing events that precede those of an existing work. Prequels essentially are sequels that expand on preceding work (Hence the Latin prae meaning, “before”).
It should also be taken into account that the words "preceding those of an existing work" are key here so as not to confuse a prequel with a prologue or first story. You don't consider writing a prequel unless you are intentionally intending to have backstory appear after book #1, or have already published book #1.
Write a prequel or add flashbacks?
Many writers will inevitably ask the question: "Can’t flashbacks just replace the need for a prequel all together?" Which is a fair question that earns a "yes and no" answer. Famously, this will depend on the story and the circumstances the writer has written. Flashbacks are only experienced by your main character, or any character, privy to the flashback information for the audience to experience. This would be an instance where the use of prequels could be bi-passed entirely because flashbacks would compensate for glimpsing into the events before the start of the story.
Communicating a series' past is also not limited to the use of flashbacks as dialogue can also cover the events before book one. George R. Martin is exemplary in this throughout his series A Song of Ice and Fire in the way characters would effortlessly discuss events of the past when comparing their circumstances without preaching exposition.
With all of this in mind, many writers will make the use of a prequel because none of the characters in their series are privy to the information they need to share with the audience. No conversations can be organically written between characters simply because none of the characters in the book know what happened X-amount of years ago. That’s where a prequel comes in.
I’ll use a personal example:
Some stories I’m writing on the side (when writer’s block comes knocking) started with one big story. It was supposed to be stand-alone, then when the climax came around, all these characters from the past began surfacing along with the discovery that the consequences of the actions performed by these characters of the past had caused story #1. Well, story #1 is almost over and…oh my protagonist is only now discovering the existence of these people who caused him his grief.
Huh….he knows nothing about these people and now will have to further his journey to find out who they were and what his survival means. Well, guess there’s going to be a sequel…but first a prequel.
This example is meant to illustrate how, in my situation, dialogue and flashbacks aren’t going to be an option. In this case, the first piece was already written, but characters in mention are going to appear in the prequel because I don’t have anyone who can tell this story. Also, as this prequel is already half written, it is working as story #2 in the series. It is referencing characters from story #1 and foreshadowing their entanglement with my protagonist and explaining everything book one could not from my protagonist’s point of view. Interestingly, because of the way I framed both stories, my readers can read whichever of the stories first. You don't need to read the first story to understand the prequel; however, you do need to read both to get the entire story. The prequel explains "why it all happened," and the first story shows "the consequences of the prequel."
“Prequel” but…should it come first?
Tricky answer to this one. Let’s tackle this one carefully to avoid confusion. A prequel is a sequel. It is intended to be any book/story# after book #1. The sequel will answer questions book #1 (and all other predecessors) could not and reference characters that have already appeared in the series. The critical aspect here is that, as a writer, you won't be making any decisions on whether or not you are writing a prequel if your first book/story is not published. This is an aspect of prequels many writers will confuse with a prologue or actual book one. Prequels are not usually pre-meditated stories and are in fact backstory to a series' plot following ta completed first volume.
The next question that is probably coming to mind is, “Ok but if chronologically it takes place before book #1, and the protagonist doesn’t make an appearance, shouldn’t this be book #1?” I get further into this question in the next point, but to reiterate the answer to this question: consideration for writing a prequel before the completion of book #1 is a strategic move to tell the back story after the first volume. In other words the events prior to the first book hadn’t occurred to the writer yet, so the only choice left is to write a prequel.
Ok but…what if my readers read the prequel first?
This is the question that deters writers from prequels all together, which is understandable. When browsing the series, despite seeing the numbering on the spines, many readers will read the prequel first. It happens, and there’s nothing you can do about your reader’s choices. There is however something you can do to ensure the magic is not lost if your readers make this decision: write the prequel as a stand-alone story so it can be read as a complete and independent volume.
Your prequel should not depend on the magic of your first book to stand on its own. It has as much purpose as your first book, more so because it is an extension with your intention to add depth to the circumstances of your series. With the prequels I've encountered from authors I love, each story intentionally stood alone to expand on the circumstances of the series without help from the other books. The world was easy to understand and even told through a much smaller lens that prepared the audience for the bigger picture. Main characters were the children of the narrators or side characters from the series failed to prevent book #1 from happening.
We'll touch on this in the next point, but your prequel doesn't have to be some colossal story that explains the entire history of the world, just expand on what is already there. Remember, prequel's aren't usually pre-meditated stories and even when they are, their purpose is to fill in the blanks you know you will need to fill.
How far back should this prequel go?
If a prequel is being written organically (as in the first book has been written already), then you'll already have a pretty good idea of how far back you'll need to go. In the first book, through your expert world-building and referencing to the past, you've narrowed down some kind of event that marks the start of the protagonist's problems. Whatever that major event is, your readers are going to want to see that event first-hand in order to better understand what they're up against and how it sets up the first book. Here's an example:
Usually I like to save the best examples for last, but when it comes to The Godfather (Part II in this case) I couldn't bother waiting. The Godfather Part II is a prequel in the cloak of a sequel. If you haven't seen the movies then here's your spoiler warning, and your polite request to watch them (available to stream) because these are incredible films.
Anyway, Don Michael Corleone (protagonist of the first film) has become the mob's new Don and is working to cement his current power. The film constantly flips back and forth between our main story and flashbacks of Corleone's father rising to his own power while paralleling the two sequence of events. This film is both a sequel and a prequel as one half of the story takes place following the events of the first film. The second half communicates the events prior to the first book which also serve the purpose of explaining a handful of long-standing consequences left in Corleone's father's wake.
Prequels with a purpose
I've already mentioned several times now that prequels will answer the questions book #1 couldn't because of the right circumstances. Now would be a good time to dive further into what prequels should be communicating and what to avoid. Let's start with the should (and you are not limited to this list of examples):
--Preserve your original story especially if your readers decide to read your prequel first.
--Set it to the "event" that started it all if you have an event that your characters are constantly asking questions about, here's you're chance to show them what it's all about.
--Focus on the unknown. Whether this be an element of setting, a character in particular, etc. have your prequel touch on the unknown.
--Play with the audience's expectations. Have a legend in your story? Let's see how that legend holds up a decade prior.
Now for the shouldn't, which is a more cautionary warning if you're going to go through with any of these on the list anyway because they can be tricky to do right:
--Main character's backstory (I'll let the example below speak for itself).
Only partly kidding. Going into a well established main character's backstory can be a very bad idea with few exceptions. The audience is already invested in the present actions of the protagonist and really don't need to know more, so avoid a prequel that only focuses on this element.
--Don't write a prequel just to write a prequel. Write a prequel because you have no characters living currently who can tell the story, so equip yourself with a cast that can. Write a prequel to tell the story your audience needs to know.
This all being said, I should state once more that considering a prequel usually won't come until after writing book #1. Yes I've said it over and over but the reason for that is because prequels can be difficult to write. True I'm making use of one in my own writing but only because there was no other way to organically expand my story. Most writers won't bother with a prequel unless they're taking the challenge or have coincidentally fallen into the use of needing one. If you're up for the challenge and want to dabble in a prequel of your own, here's some advice to take to heart as you go. If you think prequels are not for you then sail on and keep on writing.