Say no to prequels

A while ago, I noticed that every time I read a novel (or see a film) that is a prequel, I like it far less than the original material. So, I’m going to make a conscious effort to avoid prequels in the future. I think I’ve boiled down my aversion to two factors:

1) Lack of suspense. Is that pilot going to be shot down? Will the princess be forced to marry the evil emperor? I don’t care, because I already know the answer. When you watched the Star Wars prequels, were you concerned with Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness? I sure wasn’t.

2) Pointless Cameos. Characters show up who have nothing to do with the plot of the prequel, just so fans of the original can point at them and say “oh, I know that guy”. To me, this is the literary equivalent of some stranger who jumps into the background of your family photo.

Do you dislike prequels as much as I do? For the same reasons? Leave me a comment.

If you’re a writer, let me know why you have written/considered writing a prequel.

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41 comments

  1. I dont have a specific problem with prequels – no-one liked the star wars 1-3 but that’s because they were objectively terrible. I’m open-minded on future prequels πŸ™‚

    However I do find ‘cameos’ jarring – more about an author’s or director’s vanity than story.

    1. A question for you (or anyone else seeing this comment): Is there anything for which you’d like to see a prequel created?

      1. Tough question… I’ll have to think about it.

  2. Interesting points. I’m with wildbilbo; Star Wars 1-3 were rather poor from a storytelling point of view, but that’s not because they were prequels.

    I have written the one prequel; Pearseus: Schism. This is because it offered me an opportunity to explain the back story to the events occurring in the main body of the Pearseus series. However, as Schism takes place 300 years earlier, it is obvious that no one has survived from that era. So, I hope this does not diminish the suspense πŸ™‚

    1. Yes, I’d say a prequel that takes place that far in advance might avoid most of my concerns!

  3. I wouldn’t say I’d avoid all prequels on the basis they’re prequels, as I do think it’s possible to have good ones. If the story is good, then even though you still know what the ending will be, the journey there can be compelling. It’s just a shame that, with Star Wars, that journey was more concerned with “look, CGI!” than anything more interesting – it’s almost like he took the opinion that yes, we all know what the story will be, so let’s just make it all sparkly and stuff! But the point about cameos is definitely well-founded. Especially when the cameo is painfully contrived to happen, like a character will go to a place completely unnecessarily in order to make it work. Anyhow, I really just wanted to say that prequels aren’t necessarily bad, it’s just some of the most famous ones are!

    1. Yes, I have enjoyed a prequel before, the first thing that comes to mind is the Otori book series. But, I still liked the prequel less than the other books… Do you have any favorite prequel films?

  4. I generally don’t read prequels for the same reason. Lack of suspense. The exception is if I haven’t read the rest of the series. Then I can read the prequel first.

    1. That would certainly take care of the suspense problem. The cameos would be pretty confusing, though!

      1. I’m almost clueless about the cameos (I think) since I never notice them, or they go right through my head. But I agree with your point that prequels are really hard to pull off well.

  5. One of the only times I think a prequel was better than its predecessor was Jin Roh. Each movie in the Kerberos trilogy was a prequel to its predecessor; Red Spectacles was interesting in a bizarre way, Stray Dogs was kinda terrible, and Jin Roh was actually the best of the three.

    Also, it’s not that prequels are inherently bad; they’re just much much harder to write and make interesting. It’s not different from stories where you know the ending but don’t understand its context and the movie is about figuring out how things got to where they were, but like those stories, it takes expert writing to keep the audience interesting in the ride of finding out the “why”.

    1. I wasn’t familiar with those films, maybe I’ll try to check them out in reverse order!

  6. I agree! and no more remakes either !!

    1. I’m inclined to agree with you about the remakes, but I thought of one where I’ve liked three different versions: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe the plot line just has some appeal to me, or maybe I felt the setting shift between films (small town to big city to military base) made enough of a change.

      1. There have been a few times that remakes have been as good if not better than the originals, the first remake of Bodysnatchers with Donald Sutherland, I agree is awesome, and of course Carpenter’s the Thing is magnificent. It’s just Hollywood’s predilection for terrible remakes of classic 80’s movies that really annoy me, films such as Robocop and Poltergeist do not need to be remade. Good chatting with you my friend, have an awesome day!!

  7. I’m okay with the lack of suspense. To draw a parallel: I was able to enjoy Titanic, even though I knew the ship would sink at the end. But the pointless cameos drive me nuts, especially because those cameos sometimes cause plot holes.

    1. Would you have felt the same about the story if it had been mostly about the ship and the iceberg, vs. two lovers? Or, if the two lovers had been well-known people, and you had known their fate in advance?

      1. Fair point. A movie that was all about “will the ship sink or not” would be pretty boring.

        I’ve tried to think of other examples from historical fiction, but the best always seem to be about something else in addition to the well known historical events.

        Now I’m wondering how the Star Wars prequels would have been received if Anakin’s story wasn’t the main plot.

        1. I probably would have enjoyed the prequels if one had been Boba Fett’s story (OK, there was a little about him), one had been Chewbacca’s, and another Lando’s. I’m not sure how other fans would have felt about it, though. Surely it would have been better than what we ended up with?

          1. True. I remember reading a book about IG-88’s origins. It added a lot of perspective on the Star Wars universe without stepping on the main plot’s toes.

  8. Prequels are ok if they have something to say, if they allow the reader (or viewer, depending on the medium) to know more about characters and/or situations. But when prequels are only the means of rehashing old tropes just to make more money but without the original inspiration and depth, then no – I don’t need them. One example of a “bad” prequel? The Dune series by Herbert’s son and K.J. Anderson: they lack the “magic” of the original books in all aspects: story, characterization and even writing….

    1. Yes, I read one of those Dune prequels by Herbert and Anderson, it was one of the inspirations for this post.

  9. I agree with several points, both in the article and comments, whether prequels are a good idea or not. However, as Nicholas said, if it happens enough in the past, the cameos are not an issue.
    I have put some consideration into a prequel for my Barbarian story, in order to show the events mentioned in the current work. As the main novel is not done yet, I guess it isn’t really a prequel, as I have the option to get it out before the original.
    I think they should be considered equivalent to any other book or movie, including sequels, and seen for their own merit. Any work can be full of plot holes regardless if there are any before or after installments.
    Don’t write off a story just because you know the ending. As spalanz hinted, it’s the journey, not the destination, that will rock your world, or put you to sleep. I just cannot understand why someone would say the experience got ruined by someone telling them the ending. So, the good guy gets dead in the final scene; how did it come to pass? What happened between the loving relationship at the start and the guy getting fried by a laser she shoots from her finger at the end?
    Enjoy the journey, despite the outcome.

    Thanks for your views! We writers need to hear from people what they like or not so we can craft works that you or anyone else might enjoy.
    — John

    1. I guess I just want to know as little as possible of what’s coming next. For the same reason, I dislike it when a book opens with something chronologically near the end, and most of the story is a flashback.

      Maybe I’ll try some more posts like this in the future; I also like to hear everyone’s opinion on topics like this.

  10. For me, it depends on how fascinating I find the milieu itself as well as the original story. I agree with others here that the Star Wars prequels didn’t live up to the first movies. Sad because even knowing the outcome of the characters, there was potential for better stories.

    Two prequel series I’ve followed are the ones set in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern and in Frank Herbert’s Dune. I enjoyed reading about Pern’s first colonists who developed the native firelizards into the great dragons to fight Thread.
    As for Dune, I found the Butlerian jihad trilogy an absorbing read. The Great Houses trilogy–not so much.
    I tend to approach most prequels as though they’re stand-alone fanfiction written by someone else (whether they are or not). Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised by the quality and sometimes disgusted that I wasted reading time.

    As for writing prequels, I haven’t given it consideration for my own stories/milieus. I suppose if an idea for one really gripped me, I’d probably write it, if only to satisfy myself.

    1. I just had another thought – perhaps I’d be less averse to a prequel in short story format, but offhand I can’t recall reading any.

      1. kamikazezealot · · Reply

        My favorite short story prequel is from the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. “Young Zaphod Plays it Safe” takes a look at the character from the period before he blocked off part of his mind, and links back to the rest of the series through an escaped person who was headed for Earth.

  11. As far a literary prequels go I believe it depends deeply upon the skill of the author.
    For example, I loved “The Silmarillion” – the prequel to “The Hobbit” & LOTR and “No Room for Man” & “Tactics of Mistake” – the prequels to “Dorsai!”.

    Other prequels, not so much.

    1. Gosh, I read those so long ago, I can’t even remember if I read the prequels!

  12. kamikazezealot · · Reply

    I also agree that it really depends on the author’s skill. I also take the time period and purpose into account before watching or reading a prequel. With the literary side, I don’t know until I read it whether or not I’ll enjoy it as much as the original material. As far as film and television go, for me personally it strongly depends on the purpose and period it’s set in. Ideally I like when things are set around 50 years prior or earlier, as it puts the events of the main body of work into a historical context. Such as the “These two countries are at war for X years, and nobody remembers why” trope. A prequel telling the story of how the war started is rather nice to see, as it’s likely a lot of the characters haven’t been seen/heard from before. And it gives a perspective on the main work that you didn’t quite have before. (This is one reason why I do like Doctor Who as much as I do, as the Doctor and his companion[s] are basically us when they travel to another world or time period. While much of the plot is usually farfetched, when it takes place in a time period prior to a main plot earlier in the show’s history or season, it kinda gives the “This is why X happened in the first place” sort of explanation.)
    But I do have certain exceptions. I’ll agree with those before me who said Star Wars 1-3 were awful, for many reasons, I actually enjoyed most of them. I watched Phantom Menace mainly to see how Vader/Anakin got his start. After that it was strictly for the few scenes with Darth Maul, because he’s the only part of the movie I actually liked. The second and third, again to see Vader’s backstory unfold. His story could have been handled MUCH better. Pretty much Revenge of the Sith is my guilty pleasure, as I do quite like finally having that closure after an entire childhood wondering “Why were Luke and Leia separated in the first place? And how the heck did Yoda end up in that swamp in the first place?”
    While it’s a cop-out, I did like how The Hobbit was handled compared to Star Wars 1-3. SW was basically a “here, have this. No, we have no idea how to tie it in just yet but wait for the last one, and we’ll have a very short montage to show you how it works.” Whereas with The Hobbit, it can easily be seen as both a prequel AND a partially concurrent with the main body of work (LOTR) simply due to placing the entire book in a flashback between the point when Frodo leaves to go read and wait for Gandalf, and when Gandalf arrives at Bilbo’s door. This leaves us, the viewers, able to watch it either before or after Lord of the Rings.

    1. Perhaps I should reconsider my complete aversion, then, and instead look at how distant the time period is, and how much character overlap there’s likely to be….

      1. kamikazezealot · · Reply

        Sorry about the ramlble. I was half asleep when I wrote it, so being concise wasn’t quite on my mind at the time. Anyway, I think on the most basic level time period, character overlap, and purpose are some major things that must be met to make a prequel do justice to the original work, but also to stand alone as piece unto itself. Translation into film or other medium is also a big chunk to look at, as it’s sometimes difficult to really do justice to the source material. Star Wars is a perfect example of bad translation, as a bulk of the prequel trilogy was pulled from the expanded universe canon, which has many writers and many contradictory stories in and of itself. Whereas with the Hobbit, there was a single source, single original writer, so it’s more a matter of what to drop from and what to add to the story.
        Another issue I take on the literary end is when someone other than the original author creates the prequel or sequel. Try as they might to match the tone or style, it doesn’t quite work most of the time. So it often feels like someone threw it in as an afterthought.

  13. I’m one of nearly two people who liked Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation prequels to his Foundation novels. I grant there’s sound reasons to ignore them altogether. But there’s a bit in Forward the Foundation that struck me, then and now, as just about exactly what a prequel ought to be doing.

    In the original Trilogy it was mentioned that the Emperor who lived during Hari Seldon’s time, Cleon II, was assassinated. That was just one of those things Galactic Emperors had to endure. It was easy to suppose that he’d been killed in a palace coup since, well, of course those things happen.

    In one of the novellas of Forward the Foundation, though, the murder of Cleon is nearly the climax. And he’s not killed by any of the obvious or plausible routes. He’s killed, ultimately, by a nobody, over a trivial problem, something so far beneath the dignity of the major characters that it’s almost insulting. And yet the motivation and the setup is right there, nice and plausibly laid out, and it’s easy to imagine that sort of thing happening. It’s only a little far off how (United States) President Garfield was murdered.

    The point of the whole story isn’t the murder of Cleon. The point of the story is how Seldon was working out the earliest bits of his psychohistory, and trying to understand what to make of it, and trying to foil the obvious threats to the Emperor and galactic peace that were so big he never imagined the actual one coming. But the incident took something that was already in the canon, certainly, and saw a way to present it that was surprising yet credible. It didn’t radically change my views of the Foundation universe, but it did put new light, new human interest, new texture to what had gone before. It made the fictional universe more surprising and more human, and thus richer. And that’s just great.

    1. It’s been a very long time since I read any Foundation stuff, maybe I’ll have to go back to it. I suppose I might enjoy a prequel if it had more of a “sub-plot” feel like these, where there was some suspense to the resolution of the subplot, even though the big-picture ending was known. The marketing blurb would have to communicate this sub-plot idea to me, though.

  14. I can’t think offhand of any examples where I’ve loved the prequels. Usually they are vastly inferior in experience, for pretty much the reasons you’ve stated. However, in most cases I’ve read the prequels afterwards. Not sure what I would think if I read them first!

  15. I heartily agree with this sentiment- never again for prequels! What suspense is worthing cooking up for those who already know the outcome, and what’s the point of altering a well-loved character’s past from that already imagined by the fans?

  16. I’ve only just found your blog, so I know this is a bit late, but… I’ve never been a big fan of prequels – and never bothered with the Dune or Foundation series prequels as they just felt superfluous – but I read the recent Garth Nix prequel to his Old Kingdom fantasy series, called Clariel. It made me review my attitude, because it’s better than the original trilogy (and I enjoyed the originals).
    Like a few people have suggested about the traits of a good prequel, it’s set a long (indeterminate) time before the trilogy, and what’s clever is that you don’t find out the eventual identity of the title character, Clariel, until the end of the book. She’s also a much more complex character than those in the originals, and faces moral dilemmas that the trilogy characters don’t have to contend with.
    So, while sometimes I read prequels (and lets face it, most of the time we’ll watch movie prequels of franchises we love, even if we think they’ll suck), Clariel made me think I should give book prequels a fair go more often. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  17. What are some examples of prequels that you’ve had these problems with?

    1. Hard to remember back to which ones I was thinking of at that time. The Dune prequels were almost certainly one example. Possibly Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven… The Otori prequel was one I actually enjoyed, but for some of these reasons, didn’t like as much as the original books.

  18. In writing my far-future trilogy (still a WIP) I found there were so many things to explain about how the “current” situation was arrived at – but I HATE infodumps. My solution was to write a prequel SHOWING how it came about, with different players in earlier times, and to publish that first.

    New readers begin with book 1 πŸ˜‰

    Or does that count as a prequel?

  19. […] on the record as disliking prequels, but for today’s intro story, I decided to write a Four Apes prequel […]

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