Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The necessary prequel

Intriguingly titled post at tor.com: Is There Such a Thing as a Necessary Prequel?

Hmm! A necessary prequel. One without which the novel itself cannot stand? One that the readers demand? What makes a prequel necessary? Why that prequel, and not some other prequel?

I have some important prequels around here and there. The most obvious is The Year’s Midnight, which is the prelude for the real story of the Death’s Lady trilogy. But is it a necessary prequel? I chose to write it. But I might equally have written an entire trilogy that handles the huge backstory, then used the story in The Year’s Midnight to link the huge prequel trilogy to the second almost equally huge story that happens sixteen years later. Who can say which part of the backstory is necessary? Other than me, deciding to write it or not write it.

Actually, I’m now more than a bit curious about the reading experience if someone skips The Year’s Midnight and reads the other two books in this set. Would the lack of that prelude interfere with the reading experience? If so, then the prelude is necessary.

In Winter of Ice and Iron, I started with a tiny prequel story about Innith’s mother — remember that?

In Law of the Broken Earth, I did the same thing, though the little prequel story was just a bit longer.

Of course some of the Black Dog novellas are prequel stories.

Well, enough thinking about my own prequels. What about this post? Let’s see —

The Magician’s Nephew was the hardest book to write in the Narnia series. It took C.S. Lewis five years, one significant redraft, and completing every other book in the Narnia series before he’d finally beaten The Magician’s Nephew into an acceptable shape.

Ah, okay. The post is about writing prequels after the series is complete, and is arguing that most authors can’t or don’t write prequels that stand up to the original series in quality. Why do so many screenwriters and novelists think they can toss off a prequel that’s genuinely satisfying? The pop culture landscape is rife with prequels that either bombed entirely or quietly faded from fandom memoryWhy are prequels so hard to pull off?

I don’t know, are prequels hard to pull off, really? Of course a lot of the linked post is about movies. I don’t watch that many movies, so I’m not particularly familiar with those. But while on the subject, here is a fun post: 10 Science Fiction Prequels that Aren’t as Bad as Phantom Menace

Yes, I heard quite a bit about Phantom Menace at the time.

Let me think. Steven Brust has moved back and forth a lot along Vlad’s personal timeline while writing the Taltos series. I don’t think moving back in time is a problem in this series, although some books in the series are not necessarily ones to re-read. (Thinking of Tekla, of course.) If he did that now, it might seem a little odd, after moving so far forward along in Vlad’s life. But this is still one of the best examples I can think of.

Lois McMaster Bujold wrote Barrayar after writing several books about Miles. That was definitely a successful prequel novel. Looks like Shards of Honor and The Warrior’s Apprentice came out the same year? I don’t remember that. I wonder which she actually wrote first. Either way, she backtracked to write Barrayar.

In fact, if she wanted to go on with the Vorkosigan series, one way to do that would be to go way back in time and write prequels. I grant, she doesn’t seem to have much interest in doing that. Which is too bad; wouldn’t you like to see a couple books set during the Cetagandan invasion? That may be one of the prequels I would most enjoy reading.

Okay, on that note — what’s a prequel you would particularly enjoy, to a series or a standalone that doesn’t have one now?

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8 Comments The necessary prequel

  1. David H.

    If I remember the Vorkosigan background originally, Bujold wrote Shards of Honor first, but Jim Baen bought it on the basis of The Warrior’s Apprentice and they came out in the order that they did. Plus, Barrayar really feels like the second half of Shards of Honor.

    For whatever reason–maybe because Bujold has always been skipping around in the Vorkosigan timeline, I don’t consider her books (and my friends and I don’t talk about them) as “prequels,” more like chapters that happened earlier (more like with her general philosophy of writing series it feels like).

    One of the first things I thought of with that Tor.com article was Garth Nix’s Clariel, a prequel about a villain from the original Old Kingdom trilogy. I think I’m just not as interested in origin stories where I know how it will all end (same as my problem with the Star Wars prequels–we know how Anakin Skywalker is going to turn out). It just didn’t feel as satisfying as a normal Old Kingdom story (Clariel *did* have some interesting bits that the next book Goldenhand referenced–but maybe that could’ve been folded in with some flashback chapters if anything).

    Oddly enough I’m still excited for another Old Kingdom prequel coming out in November (Terciel and Elinor) about Sabriel’s parents. Maybe because we know so little about Terciel and nothing at all about Elinor that I’m still intrigued by this.

  2. Rachel

    Thanks, David, I had a vague memory that Shards of Honor had been written first, but couldn’t remember if that was actually what happened. I agree that Barrayar feels like a continuation of the story begun in Shards of Honor.

    I think your comment about the Old Kingdom prequel is right in line with the article, isn’t it — because so little is known about Terciel and Elinor, the author can do almost anything without being constrained by events that took place later in the timeline.

  3. Pete Mack

    I don’t think “Magician’s Nephew ” is either necessary or really a prequel. It is similar to Jaran, which Kate Elliott wrote well after the first trilogy. It happens to be in the same universe, but otherwise is fully a standalone story.
    That said, I do know of one entirely necessary sequel (postquel?), and it too is for the Foundation trilogy*: Psychohistorical Crisis, by Donald Kingsbury. It is sort of libertarian, sort of syndjcalist, sort of communitarian, and describes the final fall of the future-predjcting monopoly. Definitely lives up to Courtship Rite

    * there are also a number of sequels that are entirely unnecessary, at best.

  4. Elaine T

    IF a prequel is really necessary it should have gone with the book – or movie/whatever it’s being a prequel to. If that work survives well without it, how necessary can it be?

    I saw that article at Tor.com yesterday and thought the most interesting bit was how CSL couldn’t move forward till he stopped trying to answer the question his friend had asked, and just wrote a story that [i]incidentally[/i] answered it.

    I seem to recall – perhaps from the afterward of the omnibus? don’t own it, but flipped through it – that Shard/Barrayar were drafted as one long story, but split and Baen bought Warrior’s Apprentice first..

  5. Rachel

    I do think Shards of Honor works perfectly as a standalone. I can see LMB writing that plus Barrayar as one story, but I think there was no problem at all bringing them out separately.

    I can very well see Baen jumping on The Warrior’s Apprentice with great enthusiasm. Now that I think about it, Shards of Honor is a bit more unusual in a lot of ways.

  6. Mary Catelli

    Prequels are hard to do well because they are trapped in the backstory of the next books.

    If the hero is an orphan, his parents don’t have to die in the prequel, but you know it will happen. If a knave reforms, he has to stay a knave in the prequel — or worse, become one. (If we rejoiced in his reform, he’s going to be an unpleasant knave.) If the heroes fight heroically against the Evil Overlord, those who fought him before are going to lose.

    The further the prequel is from the original book, the more freedom you have. The Magician’s Nephew introduces the White Witch in Narnia, but it’s not about her conquest of it, and certainly not about how Faun Tumnus ended up working for her.

  7. SarahZ

    Totally agree with Mary. When I find out that a new book in a series or from an author I like is going to be a prequel, my immediate reaction is almost always disappointment. For some reason, *a lot* of prequels are villain origin stories, and I just don’t get why people want to read those. Tortall, The Lunar Chronicles, Star Wars, Graceling, etc – they all get villain origin story prequels. I guess because there’s a bad guy people love to hate, and the only way to get more of them after they’re defeated is to look backwards? I don’t get the appeal.

    I liked Rogue One, which I guess is technically a Star Wars prequel, but its characters and action are all pretty self-contained. I don’t think it’d have worked if it wasn’t a prequel, though, because without the background knowledge that all that sacrifice paid off, I think it would have been too dark.

  8. Rachel

    Sarah, good point! I’m fine with prequels — I like prequels, in theory — but I am almost always bored to tears by the whole concept of an origin story, PLUS I am nearly always completely uninterested in the villain’s point of view and specifically do NOT want to see a basically decent person turn evil because of a tragic backstory. I don’t think I have ever read a prequel which is a villain origin story, and I wouldn’t pick up a prequel up if I knew that was what the story was going to be.

    Oh, just thought of a prequel I liked just fine, even though I knew a character death was in the future — Martha Wells may not have written Death of the Necromancer as a prequel, but that’s how I read it because I read the Fall of Ile-Rien series first. I knew Madeline was going to die young, but that was all right with me because the character arc presented in the novel is not tragic.

    Stepping back a generation and showing us Tremaine’s father worked perfectly for me.

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