The prequel serves an important purpose if a novel, or more often a trilogy, has strongly drawn characters wrestling with a dramatic situation. After the resolution, some readers may wonder how the story really began. What was it in the characters’ pasts or early personalities that might predict this drama could occur?
A prequel can provide the historic context
Alternatively, what was the historic context prior to the main story’s events? This may pique the reader’s interest. Were key events such as a financial crisis, a war, a change of regime or of borders the influence over the story to come? Either way, it’s a search for origins.
Consider TV’s TRAITORS
For those millions who, like me, were thoroughly captivated by Traitors on TV -whether the British, American or Australian episodes, many wanted to know what happened to certain participants after the show ended. Equally, there was an appetite for knowing more about each participant. Their back stories greatly enriched viewers’ involvement in whether they were faithful, traitorous, winners or losers. The traitor who won the lot seemed so straight and trustworthy. How did he develop that ruthless streak? Wouldn’t we like to go back in his life to gain insight into how that happened?
A writer’s prequel to an existing novel
A good example of a compelling literary prequel is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. A hundred years after Jane Eyre was published, Rhys imagined the reasons for the madness of Bertha, the attic-hidden wife. Keeping to the timeline of Bronte’s novel, Rhys set Bertha in Jamaica, just after Britain abolished slavery in 1834. Writing a story of Bertha’s childhood to her arranged marriage to Rochester, an English gentleman, Mr. Rochester, suggests underlying reasons for her “madness”. By this means, Rhys gives readers a social analysis of this historic period and setting. Rhys therefore enriched Brontë’s original novel both by introducing Bertha’s backstory and by providing an historical and cultural context.
A writer’s prequel to his own trilogy.
Whereas Rhys’ prequel was imagined from another author’s novel, predominantly prequels are written by the same author as for the main plot. La Belle Sauvage – although titled “Book One”, is really a prequel to main story in The Book of Dust. It is the back story of Philip Pullman’s characters in his latest trilogy. It is an in-depth extension backwards of an already developed plot and characters who figure in the world of His Dark Materials.
Similarly C. S. Lewis’s children’s book, The Magician’s Nephew, explained the creation of Narnia, the subject of his seven book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
When should an author decide to write a prequel?
One pointer is when readers ask questions about the characters. Another is when the story offers many avenues to explore for which there is no room in the main work.
This is the purpose of a prequel, to provide context and psychological understanding of the novel or trilogy’s character(s). When not to write one? When the characters have not become real enough to garner sufficient reader interest, such as when the plot dominates and the characters are less important. Another reason is when the material is already known.
To be successful, a prequel has to offer new information.
“A fascinating peek into the story to come.”
In my own case, readers asked me what happened before the two main characters in A Relative Invasion (a trilogy set in Britain’s WW2 home front) became arch rivals, or rather, what made the boy ‘invader’ set out to acquire everything his cousin owned, an invasion over more than the course of a wartime, one that culminated in a disaster for everyone.
The Prequel has the adults narrate their issues back in 1925 before they married. My intent was to expand upon their personalities and conflicts. The prequel hints at the tensions that affect the way the two boy cousins are brought up. The war itself, the additional post-war hardships, evacuation, loss all inevitably play a large part in the boys’ experiences, but it is the adults’ personalities that are the greater determinant of the dramas and disasters in the final part of the trilogy.