Prequel stories have a reputation for being terrible, and it’s well deserved. The Star Wars prequels, which are awful in almost every way, come to mind of course. Not to be left out, the Harry Potter franchise now has Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel film that’s getting at best mixed reviews.*
Prequels are really difficult to make because they’re under so many restrictions. They have to line up with established material, and they have to feel enough like the original to satisfy fans. At the same time, prequels are enormously profitable, so it’s unlikely we’ll see an end to them any time soon. Fortunately, there are ways to make prequels not terrible and even good if you work hard. If you have a prequel story burning in your heart, or you’d like to cash in on your previous story’s popularity, be sure to consider these tips so you don’t go the way of so many prequels before you.
Spoilers: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
1. Preserve the Original Material
Audiences pick up prequel stories largely because they’re fans of the original. With that in mind, it seems like a no-brainer to respect the existing material, but over and over again, prequel stories mess it up. The main plot of Fantastic Beasts* hinges on the idea that back in the old days, muggles used to hunt down and kill witches and wizards. This is supposedly the justification for why the magical world is hidden away, and the characters repeat over and over that wizards being revealed will mean terrible war.
Never mind that this directly contradicts the original story. Muggles were never considered a threat to magical people. In fact, the books specifically called this out when the students learned about witch hunts, explicitly stating that witch hunts were something muggles did to each other, and if they ever caught a real witch, it would be no big deal because the witch would just use magic to get away. This was really important to the conflict of the original books, because Voldemort’s goal was to rule over all muggles by force with the implication that muggles would be helpless against him. That falls apart if muggles are capable of waging war on wizards.
Prequel stories should fit as smoothly as possible onto the existing material. That means you’ll want to study said material as much as possible before releasing your prequel story. If something does need to be changed, make sure it’s for a really good reason. Perhaps there’s some prejudiced element of the original story that you wish to remove or an obvious setting mistake that the editors missed. But outside of extreme cases, you’ll want to give precedence to the original material whenever possible. After all, it’s fans of that material you’re appealing to.
2. Keep the Drama Personal
Another issue with prequel stories is that most of your audience will already know what happens – at least in broad strokes. That makes it really difficult to build drama around big set pieces, because the suspense and tension is absent.
Anyone who’s read Harry Potter or watched the movies knows that the magic world is secret from the muggle world. Therefore, they also know that the magic world was not fully exposed to muggles in 1926. And yet, that’s exactly what Fantastic Beasts focuses its story around: the question of whether or not witches and wizards will be exposed to their non-magical cousins. Because we know that doesn’t happen, it’s hard to get excited about the possibility that it might.
On the other hand, personal drama is both less set in stone and easier to get invested in even if the audience knows the outcome. It’s much easier to care about the fate of people than it is to care about the abstract fate of magical secrecy.
In the Tales of Dunk and Egg novellas, prequels to a Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin does just that. The novellas aren’t about epic invasions or the discovery of unknown dragons in Westeros, because the audience already knows nothing like that happens. Instead, they focus on the titular characters’ development. Both characters start the series naive and unprepared, and then they grow into their respective roles. Knowledge of what happens later in Westeros in no way detracts from the enjoyment of watching Dunk and Egg progress.
3. Subvert Audience Expectations
Ideally, your prequel story will focus on something unknown to the audience, but what if you don’t have that option? If your prequel has to turn on events that have already been established, you’re in trouble. How do you keep things from being boring while preserving the original material? Fortunately, there is a way out: look for opportunities to subvert the audience’s expectations.
You’ll have to be very careful here, because you’re not trying to change anything that’s already established. Instead, look at what’s only been implied, and see if you can twist it just a little. If you can do this properly, then the audience will get a surge of enjoyment when the story doesn’t go exactly how they expected.
For example, let’s say you’re J.K. Rowling, and you want to tell the story of Dumbledore’s famous duel against the dark wizard Grindelwald.* Many characters have spoken at length about the titanic duel between these two, to the point that it’s a well-known facet of Potter lore. If the prequel only shows Dumbledore and Grindelwald getting together to hurl spells at each other, that’ll be rather dull.
But it’s also revealed in Deathly Hallows that the actual circumstances of the duel are very mysterious. Only the outcome is set in stone, that Dumbledore captured Grindelwald and sent him to magic prison. If Rowling were looking to subvert our expectations, she could have the two wizards meet, ready to slug it out, but instead Dumbledore appeals to Grindelwald’s better nature. Grindelwald is shown all the terrible damage wrought by his actions, and in a moment of true regret, he gives himself up peacefully. Thus Dumbledore’s greatest achievement becomes bringing down a powerful dark wizard without throwing a single curse. Naturally, the wizarding press refuses to believe such a story and tales of the climactic duel are born.
In general, when subverting audience expectations, you can’t change the what, but you can change the why or the how. An event is already set, but if you can figure out the unspoken assumptions fans make, you can subvert them and create a better experience for all.
4. Resolve Unanswered Questions
When storytellers, especially filmmakers, look at prequel stories, they invariably come up with the idea of showing us a main character’s younger days. This is almost always a bad idea, because there are no interesting questions to be answered in most main characters’ backstories. The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones stand as a testament to that, and I suspect any story about a young Han Solo will flop the same way.
Indiana Jones and Han Solo are both characters with complete arcs in their respective stories. As protagonists, their backstories don’t need a lot of explaining. If they did, they wouldn’t be very satisfying protagonists. Even in The Last Crusade, when Indiana’s father shows up, their relationship is very simple. Neither character makes us wonder, “How did they get where they are?” The answer is obvious.
On the other hand, a character like Obi-Wan Kenobi raises plenty of questions. How did this military general who is also a Jedi Knight end up on the wastes of Tatooine? How did he come to train Anakin Skywalker? Where did that training fail? These are all questions an audience would love to have answered. Of course, as we saw with the Star Wars prequels, it’s possible to answer those questions very badly, but the basic premise is solid.
Character backstory isn’t the only way to resolve unanswered questions in a prequel. You can also go into the the history of an important, but vaguely defined, setting element. For example, in Star Trek, the Federation is an omnipresent political organization of many different sentient species, but how it formed is never revealed on screen. It would make perfect sense to do a prequel show about the founding of the Federation, seeing all the trials and tribulations* that went with it. The political drama alone could carry a series, to say nothing of all the worldbuilding that could be done to expand on the many aliens we only ever see in background shots of the bridge.
Instead, Star Trek Enterprise was about a ship full of idiots running into a bunch of enemies that exist nowhere else in the Star Trek franchise, but I suppose we can’t have everything.
5. Set Your Story in the Distant Past
This is the final secret to prequels when you don’t want to deal with all the problems and restrictions: just set your story so far back that it’s a prequel in name only. If you put enough distance between your prequel and the original material, then suddenly it doesn’t matter what kind of events take place because it can all even out over time.
A great example is the video game Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR). This game takes place a whopping 4,000 years before the Star Wars films, which makes it a really long time ago in a galaxy far far away. This long gap gave the game’s creators almost complete freedom. So long as they didn’t blow up the universe, just about anything was fair game. The evil Sith attacking the Galactic Republic might actually win, because it wouldn’t contradict anything the audience had previously learned about Star Wars. And all the characters were fair game, because none of them are part of the films anyway.
This method also removes the temptation to throw in characters from the original story in inappropriate cameos. You know what I mean. There was no reason for Chewbacca to know Yoda, but someone thought the audience would like it and so it happened. That never occurs in KotOR, because none of the Star Wars characters are 4,000 years old.
Of course, this method only works in settings with long, static histories. It would be useless in say, Harry Potter, because going back more than a hundred years or so would change the story so drastically that it would no longer be recognizable as part of the same franchise. The aesthetic of Harry Potter is really important, and it simply would not exist in the 1700s.
But if you have a setting like Star Wars or Middle-earth, where history stretches on for eons without anything really changing, then this is by far the easiest option, and I advise you to makes use of it.
Make no mistake, telling a good prequel story is very difficult. In most cases, you’re better off writing something entirely new instead. But if you decide to take on the challenge, these tips will help you avoid falling face-first into the many traps laid out for storytellers who dare to craft a prequel.
Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.