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The Problem With Prequels

Prequels have a fundamental problem.

Much like sequels, they have a dependence on the world and character that already exist.  But, because the existing story is in the future, you’ve got bigger constraints.  Main characters who show up later can’t be killed off, reducing some of the tension in the story.  The same is true for major landmarks or planets or whatever being threatened by doom — we already know how it’s going to end.  If you want to play with that ending, you’re at risk of serious continuity errors and perhaps retconning, with the associated angry fans.

So, how to do a prequel well, and maintain the illusion that the heroes could fail?  There are some options…

These are both prequels that were pretty good movies, although they used different approaches to getting there.  Above: Star Trek (2009). Below: Rogue One.

Use The Warp Drive

Want a prequel that can go anywhere?  Move to another location in your setting, and use different characters than those who show up in the existing prequel.  Main characters from the later story may show up, but they’ll have more minor roles.

Since you’re using many new characters in a different location, everything’s on the table.  People can die and stuff can blow up without too many limits imposed by the existing story.  Rogue One is a decently example of this choice, where the focus is squarely on characters we haven’t seen before and whom the story can kill off as needed.

This is related to another option…

Use The Noodle Incident

But beware of overdone noodles.

In this case, the interest is not so much in seeing how the story ends, but in determining how it unfolds.  How did the rebels get the Death Star plans?  Why did Anakin turn to the Dark Side?  What is [insert character name here]’s origin story?  How did [protagonist team] get together?

These are generally based on hints and backstory already presented in some limited way in the extant movie or book, and then fleshed out in the prequel.  It only really works well if there are enough new, sympathetic characters for us to worry about, and not too much has been revealed about the previous story.

This category can overlap with the “tell another story elsewhere” option above (see: Rogue One), but it’s also quite likely to use some or all of the familiar main characters in familiar locations.

It’s also very easy for this approach to go badly wrong.  The close ties to the later story make continuity slips much more likely.  Worse, the past events now being revealed may not be able to live up to what people originally imagined (see: Star Wars episodes I-III).  It can be done well, but… it requires a deft touch.

Use The Wayback Machine

Similarly, you can go so far back in the history of the setting that the future knowledge we have is barely relevant.  In the Star Wars universe, this might be going far back into the early years of the Republic, or the ancient history of the Sith.

This is the Silmarillion as compared to The Lord of the Rings.  While you may have a few extremely long-lived characters who overlap in the storylines (like many elves), it’s quite easy to focus on other characters or other events.  Big arcs and long-running historical events, like the establishment of Sauron in those stories, or something like the decline and fall of Rome, will need to be present.  But, many of them can be merely alluded to or shown via foreshadowing of the events we know must happen.

In short, the separation in time gives the writer more space to work with the story.


Instead of going back, let’s just start over.  It’s time-travel and multiverse time.

Star Trek loves its time travel.  A relatively mild example might be Star Trek: Enterprise, which was a prequel that preceded the Original Series.  While much of it falls under the Wayback Machine category above, the Temporal Cold War themes were used to give us pause.  Will future interference prevent the Federation from being founded as it should?

In this case, we have both new characters and enough future interference that even the “big arcs” could come under threat.  The tension of “what will happen next?” is restored by removing the viewers’ certainty about the future.

Another example, of course, is the new Star Trek movies, which are explicitly set in a parallel universe thanks to time travel shenanigans.  Anything can happen, because we don’t know the future any more — only a future that might have been.  It’s this sort of stuff that gives the movie makers the freedom to destroy Vulcan.

That, of course, leads us to the final prequel option…

Use The Boot

Give it up — it’s reboot time.

The most obvious example of this that I can think of is the repeated rebooting of Spiderman over the last few years.  Everyone wants to tell the origin story differently, or having a different twist, or use Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane, or start with a younger character.  Or something.

Given the numerous different competing timelines in comic books, I expect that this combined with the multiverse option drives many stories in those venues.  I’m a bit short on other examples of someone trying for a prequel and ending up with a reboot.

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