Some Dos and Don’ts for Writing a Prequel

It seems prequels, prequel-sequels and sequels to prequels that remain prequels are all the rage at the moment. This year, I’ve read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (the first volume in His Dark Materials follow-up, but a prequel) and last weekend watched Alien Covenant. These two works have got me thinking a lot about what makes a good prequel.

Do: Make it a Story in its Own Right
Don’t: Simply Fill in the Gaps

What I loved most about La Belle Sauvage is that it took the emphasis off Lyra and placed it elsewhere while still making her the point of the story. She’s a baby so can’t do much. The events that take place in the book are not alluded to (to my memory) in any of the original His Dark Materials books, but the world building and the slow creeping towards the events in HDM are hinted. Yet it felt as though it fit in the same world. Pullman created a narrative within the area of Oxford, using the existing characters sparingly (but with plenty of foreshadowing) without making it one giant nod to the original books. I know this displeased some people, but as a writer I understand the desire to really expand a universe. I would feel I was cheating my readers by simply filling in the gaps and creating events they are already familiar with when writing a prequel.

The Prometheus and Alien Covenant films did just that too. No traditional xenomorph appeared in Prometheus, but they did appear in the second film with a startling revelation about their origin that I did not see coming. This was shrewd writing and the small plot device when we have that first big reveal was excellent writing from Scott’s team.

Do: Ensure the Story is Consistent
Don’t: Create Major Events Characters will Later “Forget”

I’m sure we can all think of prequels that introduce characters who are so important, too important to forget, for the events of the prequel. This creates a major problem – why are they not in (or at least referenced in) any of the original content? I cautiously point to Assassin’s Creed: Origins here. There is no reference to Bayek in the earlier games, but his wife Aya will later become Amunet – one of the founding members of the Assassin’s Brotherhood. I realise I am sticking my neck out here because there may be further games with these two that will clarify why the narrative remembers Amunet but not Bayek but at the moment, I am scratching my head.

Do: Enhance the Narrative
Don’t: Be an Exercise in Vague References

This especially applies to the (so far) two Alien prequels: Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but also to La Belle Sauvage. In each case, the writers made a clear decision to strike out boldly. I particularly liked how Alien Covenant linked both Prometheus (that had only passing reference to Alien) to Alien by emphasising both elements of the story. It’ll be interesting to see how loose threads from all three films come together in the conclusive part of the trilogy prequel.

La Belle Sauvage succeeded in doing the same. While making it clear this was the same universe, the characters from the original HDM, when they appeared, were fleeting and used to ground the narrative. This worked as a story in its own right. The result is a strong story on its own. The flip side of this is Revenge of the Sith which rushed the important events and felt like a damp squib.

Do: Have a Point to the Story
Don’t: End up an Exercise in Navel-Gazing

Not referencing any particular work here, but I’m sure we can all think of a prequel that we finished watching/reading and asked “what was the point?” Prequel stories that do not move the narrative forward feel like a major cheat. They feel like a cash cow designed only to screw money out of the fan. What story are you trying to tell? Are you actually trying to tell a story? Fans do cry out for prequels and sequels although writers realise they are not always a good idea.

If you’re thinking of going down that route, you need to have a good reason for doing it. Don’t waste a whole book or series of books that will leave you with loose threads that you are unable to do anything with. I kind of feel the Star Wars eps I-III fell into this trap. Too much time was wasted in the first two that the defining moments of Anakin becoming Darth Vader and the birth of Luke & Leia felt a rushed anti-climax.


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