Five Tips for Telling Prequel Stories

Obi-Wan, Jar Jar, and Qui-Gon from Phantom Menace.

Just, nothing that happens in this scene.

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

Newt and Tina from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Shhhh, the mean muggles might hear us!

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

The knight Dunk fighting a duel in a river. Nothing’s more personal than a knight named Dunk.

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

Dumbledore and Grindelwald. The picture that launched a thousand fanfics.

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

Obi-Wan Kenobi This could have actually been good!

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

Darth Malice and Darth Revan from Knights of the Old Republic. What’s under that mask? Could be anything.

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.    

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  1. GeniusLemur

    I’d add #6: Realize that doing prequels is almost certainly a fool’s errand.

    • Cay Reet

      It depends … KOTOR did a pretty good job at setting up basic without interfering at any point, because it was so long ago. Otherwise, prequels are a very dangerous thing to write.

      • GeniusLemur

        I’d argue that KOTOR is so distant that it doesn’t qualify as a prequel. It’s an unrelated story set in the same universe.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Rogue One shows that it can be done, but in most cases it’s best to avoid prequels.

  2. William A. Hainline

    I’ll second the vote for Rogue One doing a good job. In fact, I think Rogue One is a better prequel than all three of the other SW Prequels combined, and in fact is probably my favorite “prequel” movie ever made. It’s an awesomely good movie, for one thing, and I was thoroughly invested in the story and characters the whole time . . . I didn’t once stop to think, “Oh, but we KNOW they succeed because ‘A New Hope.'” Instead, I was on the edge of my seat through most of it, and that’s a very good thing. It showed just how damn good a prequel CAN be if approached in the right way and done correctly. It gives me hope for the Han Solo project. And as Rogue One teaches, rebellions are built on hope.

  3. Brigitta M.

    I beg to differ that you can’t go further back in the Harry Potter world because “Hogwarts: A History” would make one heck of a movie. There’s little that’s known about the founders except for obscure references and quotes. It’s known that there was a divide among the founders against Salazar but it’s also obvious he found someone to have a child with since Voldemort/Tom Riddle was his descendent.

    Was he really the villain that history made him out to be…or did the winners shut him out and write history the way they saw it?

    Then again, I also want a side story where Hagrid makes a documentary about dangerous magical critters in the style of Steve Irwin.

    And one where Arthur Weasley finally figures out the purpose of a rubber duck and how to properly pronounce “electricity.”

    • Cay Reet

      Going back as far as the founding of Hogwarts would be very much like KOTOR. You wouldn’t have to be all that careful with the story, because nobody will still be around by the time the Harry Potter novels are set.

      I agree, however, that it could be a very interesting story. At some point, the other founders must have liked Salazar Slytherin – or they wouldn’t have founded a school with him. And he must have had children, since the story suggests there were even more bloodlines than just the one ending in Tom Riddle/Voldemort.

  4. Fay Onyx

    Mercedes Lackey did a really good job of making prequels in her Valdimar universe. She seems to constantly be working backwards and forwards in her epic timeline.

    Whatever else you think about her work (she can definitely get formulaic), she is a masterful creator of prequels. She pretty much does all of these things: preserving her world, adding new characters with personal drama, resolving unanswered questions, and adding surprising twists we didn’t expect (often explaining things we didn’t know needed an explanation but which have an interesting and surprising source).

    Sometimes she slots in the origin story with lots of personal drama for a interesting but minor character who doesn’t have much of an arc in the present time works

    Some of her prequels focus around answering unanswered questions about past events that are mysterious and only partially known in the present timeline. Ex The Last Herald Mage. This largely focuses around getting to know a character that is met as a ghost in the present time and it focuses on his personal drama.

    She also does prequels that are are so far back that she calls them prehistorians. Ex The Mage Wars trilogy. They are also physically in a different location. Mostly these books add new information to the world, but they also explain things that we didn’t even know we needed an explanation for, such as the origins of griffons. In addition she tied this prequel set back into a trilogy (the Mage Winds Trilogy) that was an epic climax for her whole timeline by making this prequel the source of events that come back in an epic world threatening.

    In fact The Mage Winds trilogy is a masterful job of a fan pleasing work that ties characters and groups from her epic timeline together (some as ghosts and other entities that can exist longer than a single lifespan) together into a climax for her whole world which was very exciting to me as a fan because it deliberately tied in characters, groups, and events from many of her prequels (it was full of things coming together from all of her different series in this world).

    • Fay Onyx

      Sorry that should be prehistories not prehistorians. Opps!

  5. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I feel that at some points, making the consequence know can work. Take Rogue One. Amazing movie. You know that the rebels do get the Death Star plans at the end. But – and this is what I was wondering throughout it – will Jyn and her friends be able to survive? In the end, they don’t, but the execution is brilliant.
    I do agree, however, that Fantastic Beasts failed. The main plot was “Will everything be revealed?” with little inner action.

  6. Vazak

    Solid insights.

  7. Cip

    I’d say the TV show Black Sails works extremely well as a prequel to Treasure Island. If you know the book you know where the characters end up, but throughout the series you can’t see how it will happen. Adding in some real historical characters and events and it is a brilliant piece if work!

  8. Joe

    I still think Fantastic Beasts should have ended with magic being revealed to the world at large.

    Not only would it lets us see a different setting rather then “harry potter but with different words”, the fact that this is now clearly an alternate history would help a lot of the tension later (Will young dumbledore die? Well, I thought not but now wizards are revealed so who knows?).

    That’s what I would have changed. Well, there are a lot of things I would have changed but I just deleted a several paragraph rant on the ending so I will leave it at that and spare everyone.

  9. Naan Centz
  10. A.R.

    Gail Carson Levine’s ‘Ogre Enchanted.’ It’s a prequel to Ella Enchanted, but it’s about an entirely different cast (though Ella’s parents do appear, it’s not *about* them) and the resolution has no bearing on Ella’s story. The main question is if Evie, turned into an ogre in chapter 1 by the fairy Lucinda, will regain her human form or not (quite similar to Ella’s ‘will she get rid of her curse?’ if you think about it). Either way, Ella’s story still plays out the same.

  11. Lionheart

    What about going deep into the future? If going deep into the past works then it should also work to jump forward a couple thousand years.

    • Cay Reet

      Then it won’t be a prequel story (unless there’s time travel involved and time travel seldom makes things better). It’s a good idea for sequels, though, because you’re able to do something completely unrelated and nobody will expect for the characters from the original story to turn up (again, unless there time travel involved, see above).

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