There are a lot of great series we readers have fallen in love with over the years—Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games—but when we arrive at the final installment, do we really want to go back to before it all began and invest more time discovering the stories behind the story?
Writing a prequel can be a dangerous proposition for an author; your reader might have story fatigue or a pleasant sense of fulfilment if the series ending neatly tied up all the loose ends. Few series generate the kind of obsessive frenzy like the Harry Potter books, which seem to have an endless supply of prequels and spinoffs to satisfy the voracious appetite of its fans.
After finishing the Legends of Orkney trilogy, I really thought I was done with that fantasy world for a long while. But after several rounds of K-8 school visits, I encountered many kids too old for my picture book series and too young for the Legends of Orkney series. I realized there was a gap that needed filling if I wanted to offer a book for every kid in my audience. In addition, a lot of middlegraders I met were not strong enough readers to tackle a 300+ page book, so to hook them, I needed to create something shorter but with enough action to entice these reluctant readers into turning the pages. Hence, the Witches of Orkney series was born!
But why write a prequel and not an entirely new book? Here’s three good reasons:
World Building Takes A Lot of Time
For fantasy authors, building a world that has complex layers of magic, imaginary creatures, geography, history, politics, even religions, takes a tremendous amount of time and creative energy. So much detail goes into creating a fantasy realm that it can be hard to let go of. Imagine how long it took George R.R. Martin to come up with all of the backstory and lore for his books, some of which spanned thousands of years. Just tracing the family trees for his multitude of characters would take months. Dozens of kingdoms with layers upon layers of history, all to build a complex world that felt entirely real—it boggles the mind. This was a big reason for me to consider a prequel. I had spent so much time researching, creating, and building the Orkney realm, it was as familiar as any real place to me!
Extensive Untold Back Story
Generally, a prequel provides the reader with new or expanded information on a storyline that was important to the original series but perhaps only touched upon. The Fantastic Beasts movies are a great example of a prequel filling in backstory on significant characters and historical events that followers of Harry Potter will obsessively want to know more about. The question is: would the same story be as compelling if it wasn’t associated with the Harry Potter realm? Possibly not. What is most fascinating about it is the invitation back into a familiar world we love, and for some that might be its strongest attraction and a good reason for an author to delve into a sequel. So unless your name is JK Rowling, be sure that your prequel story has a strong enough arc on its own to merit telling.
Sometimes in a long series, there are pieces of stories or past events that never get a complete or proper explanation. These loose ends may linger on in a reader’s mind long after the series is finished. This was one of the reasons I decided on a prequel. Even after completing the trilogy, I still had a lot of unanswered questions about the setup for some of the most significant storylines. Particularly, just how was it that Sam Baron’s mom Abigail became the first witch in generations to break Odin’s curse and bear a son. What made her so special?
That led me to ask other questions, like who were her parents? Where did she grow up? And most intriguing, why was her magic blue? Early on in The Red Sun, we learn that Abigail has blue witchfire when she fights off some shreeks. We later learn that witchfire is supposed to be green. So why was hers blue? Maybe some authors would have completely had that figured out, but for me, it was just one of those half-formed traits that I instinctively gave her because deep down, I knew she was different, but I never addressed what madeher that way. Still, it was a question on Sam’s mind in the book, as it was on mine. Having unanswered questions that linger in your readers’ minds is an essential element when considering whether your readership will follow you back in time.
The Pitfalls and Perils of Prequels
Writing a prequel can be tricky because in many ways, the reader of the original series already knows the outcome of the story. There has to be a compelling draw or obsessed fandom to drag the reader back for more. Additionally, as I noted, the story arc must be strong enough to stand on its own without relying too heavily on the original story, otherwise it will feel like “more of the same.”
Another pitfall of writing a prequel is being careful not to contradict anything said in the original series. After writing thousands of pages, and spending even more thousands of hours editing, cutting, and revising, an author can lose track of their own story—but an avid reader will know! The prequel’s job is to fill in gaps and flesh out storylines, answer the unanswered questions, give some important characters background on their motives for later actions so a reader going back to the prequel can have that aha moment. At the same time, the author has to be careful to balance what essential secrets of the original series will be given away in the prequel.
Consider the Star Wars movies. One of the pivotal and perhaps most shocking reveal was that fact that Darth Vader was actually Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker’s father, something the actors themselves didn’t even discover until the day of the shooting! The prequel series goes on to explore Anakin’s journey from Jedi knight to his ultimate gravitation to the dark side. Given that the entire world (of Star Wars fans anyway) knew this critical reveal of paternity, the entire prequel series focused on this story arc, so the progression of Anakin moving to the dark side is not a shock.
Most prequel series fall into the same genre category, but a significant difference between the prequel I was contemplating and the original series I wrote was the audience I was targeting. Specifically, I wanted to reach a much younger reader, as well as the struggling older reader. To do that, I kept the novel half the length of the original series. The action and emotions are considerably less heavy, while still exciting and fast-paced. Frequent illustrations help capture interest and are in line with the age category. Also, the cover art, while thematically similar, is clearly much more whimsical and younger in its appeal.
Should I or Shouldn’t I?
If you’re wondering whether or not you should tackle a prequel, ask yourself the following:
- What are the unanswered questions you want to tackle? Are they interesting and complex enough to deserve their own storyline?
- Do you have a readership invested deeply enough in the world you’ve built that they’ll take the trip back for more?
- Is the backstory arc strong enough to carry a prequel as its own standalone story?
- Will a reader new to the series be interested/able to follow the storyline?
If you do decide to write a prequel, be sure to skim over your original series before starting. It’s a great way to refresh your creative brain on the world and the characters within.