Writers are often encouraged to tell their stories in a way that keeps the reader guessing and wondering what's going to happen next. Laying out all those little breadcrumbs foreshadowing as you guide them through the world you've created.
Sometimes, however, your readers might be left wondering not about what is to come but about what has already been. Their curiosity is piqued not by the future, but by the past and what events led the characters to where they are in the present.
Plenty of methods exist to explore the past in fiction. Some writers make use of exposition to convey a character's backstory. They might structure the story with dual timelines or periodic flashbacks to transport readers through their story's timeline. And others might venture off and write an entirely new piece in the form of a prequel.
Unlike a single-chapter prologue, prequels are stories that are released after a story is published but are set prior to those events. They're a way for readers to return to the worlds they love while getting some newfound context and backstory. They might feature the characters they already know and love or be about a brand-new cast whose story takes place years prior to the first book.
I'm admittedly not a big reader of prequels. They can be fun and interesting glimpses into a character's past or noteworthy events in the setting's history that impact the main story, but they're not without pitfalls to be mindful of—some of which have admittedly been a deterrent for me on some occasions.
This post is not intended to be a spiteful list of reasons why an author should never even entertain the very notion of writing a prequel to their work. It's just a few things to keep in mind.
When A Prequel Makes Sense
One of the reasons a prequel can feel lackluster is when it feels unnecessary.
What does this mean, exactly?
As with sequels, prequels work best when they are written to expand on the existing content and deepen one's understanding of it
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a prequel is Star Wars. The original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI) follows Luke Skywalker as he faces his foe and father Darth Vader and becomes a Jedi. The three films that came out after (Episodes I, II, and III) are known collectively as the Prequel Trilogy and focus on how child prodigy Anakin Skywalker eventually turned to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader. It puts an interesting twist on the hero's journey as we see Anakin's rise as a Jedi and eventual fall from grace, especially compared to the arc of his son in the original trilogy. It embraces that feeling of there needing to be balance within the Force. Anakin was dark, Luke brought light.
Wicked is another popular prequel, following the origins of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (whose name is revealed to be Elphaba), and her friendship with Glinda. There are plenty of references to the original work while exploring another side of the story in a way that humanizes one of the most iconic antagonists in cinematic history.
However, this isn't the case for all prequels.
The best prequels are stories of their own that enhance the content that is already there. They fit within the narrative but also stand apart and do more than fill in the gaps.
Let's talk about a different media that's no stranger to prequels: video games.
Prequels may come in the form of DLC providing additional insight, as is the case with the Left Behind DLC for The Last of Us showing how Ellie got bit and the first death contributing to the survivor's guilt she struggles with through the main game, but they can also be an entirely separate, full-length game, as is the case with Uncharted: Golden Abyss taking place prior to the events of Uncharted: Drake's Deception or The Inpatient exploring what went down at the Blackwood Sanitorium and how the wendigos came to be in Until Dawn.
As with literature, some video game prequels are a treat for fans. Red Dead Redemption II, despite its name, is a prequel to the original Red Dead Redemption and follows the splintering Van der Linde gang, who ex-member John Marston is tasked with hunting down in the original. It was a hit within the gaming community and one of my favorite experiences as a player.
But not all video game prequels are created equal.
When it feels written just for the aim of sales or fan service, as we'll cover later in this post, it may not resonate as well. There needs to be a reason for telling this story.
So, then? Are prequels bad or not worth writing?
Not at all! Prequels can absolutely work—but not always.
And one prime example of a failed prequel video game is that of Life Is Strange titled Before The Storm. Let's explore some of its pitfalls.
Pitfall 1: Weakened Stakes
Life Is Strange has a flawed but compelling storyline. I love choice-based games, and a huge reason for that is that I enjoy feeling like I have control of the events. It feels as though I am actively participating rather than just tagging along for the rise. Even in scenarios where things are running on a track or when all that changes between picking one option over another is one or two bits of dialogue, it's still fun to test out the different paths and see the outcomes (I promise this is a relevant tangent).
With the prequel for Life Is Strange, titled Before The Storm, that wasn't the case. Even though it had the same choose-your-own-adventure structure, knowing what happens in the first game essentially rendered the majority of choices "hella" irrelevant as the game's protagonist might put it.
And just a head's up, we're getting into spoilers here. Be warned!
Much of Life Is Strange revolves around the disappearance of Rachel Amber, a popular student at Max's school and Chloe's girlfriend. Chloe and Max work to solve the mystery do eventually find Rachel—dead.
When the prequel was announced, I was a little surprised by its premise. It didn't seem like it would work for a few reasons. Among them is one that was unfortunately proven right.
Before The Storm is about Chloe and Rachel's relationship. The thing is, we already know what happens to Rachel. It's bittersweet watching this romance develop while knowing that Rachel will be murdered within a few months. We also know that Chloe and Rachel were romantically involved, so even if you were doing an "Asshole Playthrough" and purposefully making antagonistic and bad choices, they still end up together. As a player, my choices didn't matter. But above all else, there weren't any stakes for me to invest in because I knew what tragedies the future held for these characters. Rachel (and Chloe depending on your chosen LiS ending) will end up dead.
With RDR2, players of the first Red Dead Redemption know John, Dutch, and Abigail will survive the prequel, but the fates of newly introduced characters like Arthur, Lenny, Charles, and others are not as certain.
Letting your audiences see the events leading up to the main story can be insightful, but when they already know too much, it makes the tension fall flat.
Pitfall #2: Retcons And Inconsistencies
Before The Storm suffers from another prequel pitfall: the retcon.
This is a term used in reference to canon storylines or plot points being completely ignored or revamped in subsequent installments of a series. It's like a mulligan, if you will. A do-over.
A major subplot of Life Is Strange is Chloe's grief after losing her father and struggling to get along with her stepfather. David has baggage of his own but cares about Chloe even if she refuses to see that. Part of her character arc is at least acknowledging that she's been a little snit towards David and others who didn't deserve it.
Good development, yes?
However, Before the Storm poses a complication in this Come-To-Jesus turning point. David's relationship with Chloe's mother is still fairly new during the prequel and Chloe is not having any of it. David attempts to make peace with her and seems to reach an understanding: she will at the very least tolerate him, even if it's only for her mother's benefit.
However, this is all undone chronologically, as the conflict is very much unresolved and even more intense during Life Is Strange. Chloe and David are still at each other's throats, their arguing even more bitter than in Before The Storm.
Additionally, Chloe in Before The Storm gradually reaches a level of acceptance regarding her father's death, but Life Is Strange Chloe is still steeped in grief-driven angst. This is something I can believe to an extent because, as someone who also lost her father unexpectedly when she was a teenager, those feelings are nonlinear and can resurface ferociously, seemingly out of the blue. However, many players were quick to point out how this aspect of Chloe's personal conflicts felt inconsistent across the games.
Prequels, like any story, need to have conflict. However, it's important to write that conflict in a way that is not made irrelevant by the original piece.
I can forgive little oversights like the option of Rachel giving Chloe the bracelet Frank had gotten from her by the time of Life Is Strange, but that feeling of characters "forgetting" major events and information by the time the original story begins is not as easy to look past.
Pitfall #3: Fan Service And Cash Grabs
Lastly, one of the main reasons prequels do not always work for me is something of a personal metric that will not be the same for everyone but something I still wanted to include on this list of pitfalls: intention.
As discussed at the top of this post, prequels aren't inherently bad. When their intention is to go deeper into the story we already know, and uncover new details and meanings, they can work really well.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to revisit a world you've created as a writer or the characters you've grown close to over the many years you spent working on their story.
But there needs to be a reason for it. One that contributes to the overall narrative.
When you're writing based on nostalgia alone or feeling obligated by readers to give them more content within that universe, readers will pick up on that.
There are plenty of examples where what was intended to be the conclusion of a story ends up being not that. Later on, the author returns with more sequels or prequels based on this original work, but they feel off somehow. And that's usually because the author's heart wasn't in it. It feels like they wrote this story because it was what the readership wanted, that they were pressured into it by external forces for the sake of popularity or profit.
This is not the case for every single prequel out there. Many are written with the genuine aim of building upon the existing foundation.
But when they're not, readers will be able to tell.
Prequels can be full of exciting new tidbits and nostalgia for long-time fans of a story and enhance the things they love most about it.
That said, there are some instances where a prequel may not enhance what already exists. If the past can be delved into in a way that drives the story forth, it can be worth exploring. But if the motives behind writing it feel more like a labor than a love for the story or writing something new conflicts with the canon, it may be better to set off on a fresh adventure rather than revisiting one.