Fitting a Prequel into Your Series

prequel chicken or the eggGeorge Lucas has done many wonderful things for the world (Star Wars, American Graffiti, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Wars), but one of the most fun is his popularization of the term “prequel.” According to Wikipedia (that hub of fan information that hasn’t necessarily been vetted), the term appeared sometime in 1956, but wasn’t popularized until Lucas announced he was doing a “prequel” to his Star Wars trilogy that would give backstory of Darth Vader.

By definition, a prequel is a sequel. It comes after the original work was written. However, it’s the backstory component that leads up to how the main characters got to be who they were.

While I love George’s popularization of the prequel, I’m not that happy with one other thing he popularized: re-numbering the series to make it seem as if the prequel should be read/watched first. There are many things I loved about Star Wars: Episode I, but I’m not sure I would have sat through that much Jar Jar had I not watched the now renamed Star Wars Episodes IV, V (OMG, Darth Vader is Luke’s father!) and VI.

I was visiting an online writers forum the other day, and someone mentioned that they had a trilogy where the first book they wrote in the series (we’ll call it book 1) was perma free. The author had written a prequel to the series and was considering making the prequel perma free, because, under the author’s logic, that prequel would now be book 1.

But that’s just the thing. The prequel is not book 1. The prequel is book 4. The prequel doesn’t have the same payoff, the same inside jokes, or even the same love and adoration if you read it first. Reading the prequel first leaves readers at a disadvantage. They don’t come at it with the same reactions, or the same sense of anticipation.

With rare exception, I think all books should be labeled in the order they were published. Even if the events of the fourth book published occurred before the events of the first book published, it’s hard to get the same payoff if the book written fourth is read first. The writer knows the characters inside and out by book four and is going to make references and inside jokes based on what’s happened in previous iterations. If the author is writing it in that order, and readers of the series have experienced it in that order, why would we label it in anything but that order?

Want an example of when re-numbering a series doesn’t work? The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. When I first read these books as a youngster, I read them in the order they were published. Back then, when you bought a set of the books, they were numbered (based on publication date). I went to get the Chronicles for my children and guess what? They are now numbered chronologically, based on the events in the book.

The book that started it all, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is now book 2 in the series. Book 1 is The Magician’s Nephew (which was published 6th). The Magician’s Nephew has wonderful inside jokes for anyone who’s read the rest of the series, but all of them will fall flat if you read this book first. I truly adored those books when I first read them, but I wonder if The Magician’s Nephew would capture enough people’s fancy that they’d want to go on to Wardrobe, if they start with it. The Magician’s Nephew is not a bad book, but I don’t know that it introduces you to the magic of Narnia with the same wonder you got when Lucy tumbled through the wardrobe and onto a snowy street beneath that lamp post. (By the way, check out these Amazon reviews of The Chronicles of Narnia series. The reviews focus mostly on the order in which the books are numbered, rather than the content.)

Remember folks, a prequel is, at its core, a sequel. Just like any other sequel, its number should correspond to the order you think it should be read in. I’ve just started a prequel to my Life First series, and I know exactly what it will be numbered: Book Four.

Author: RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist turned novelist. By day, she writes thrillers with a touch of romance. By night, she practices the art of ninja mom. To learn more about her or her books, visit her website or her Author Central page.

22 thoughts on “Fitting a Prequel into Your Series”

  1. Excellent points. The purpose of a prequel is often to provide explanations of things that readers have encountered. If read first, then, what’s the point.

  2. RJ, thank you for touching on a topic seldom discussed.The last of my trilogy is nearing release and I always kept the thought that there could be a prequel. It may, or may not happen; I think it depends on how well the trilogy is accepted. I don’t think a prequel should be written for “just the heck of it” (sorry for the cliche). I do think it can be enlightening to the series if done well, and reveal or clarify parts of the first releases. I can’t believe what they did to ‘Narnia’. Thank you for this post, as always they are informative and I do love your perspective.

    1. Thanks, Aron. I think you hit the nail on the head that writing a prequel just for the heck of it is a bad idea. There needs to be a good reason to follow up. Clearly, what caused Anakin to turn to the dark side was good stuff worth exploring. But, not every character has that kind of juice.

  3. RJ, really interesting concept, and I think you nailed it. The entire mindset of the author is different if they’re writing their first book or their fourth, and that will bleed through. I never thought of this (I seldom get caught up in series), but it makes sense. Thanks for the insight.

    1. Thanks for your comment Melissa. I think authors tend to get better as they age, so readers will often notice a difference between the first works and later works. But, author mindset particularly affects series. The writer is already incredibly immersed in the world, and knows the readers are, too. So, they’ve improved and they’re expecting the reader to bring a certain knowledge to the table.

  4. I too, toy with the idea of a prequel to my series. But I will not re-order them and make the prequel the first book. I agree completely that they should, on most cases, remain in the order they were published.

    1. Yvonne, if you find you’ve got a story to tell, I’m sure your fans would enjoy a prequel to get more insight. Glad to know you wouldn’t renumber your series.

  5. I’ve never gotten over Lucas renumbering the original Star Wars movies. Episode Four will always just be “Star Wars” to me.

    The only prequels I’ve written have been short stories, and only one of them was written after the series was finished. I guess my creative thought process is too linear. 😉 But I don’t think I’d ever be tempted to re-number the books in a series to compensate for a prequel. I’d rather make the prequel Book 0 — which I’m pretty sure that Smashwords and Amazon will let you do.

    1. Lynne, thanks for pointing out the Zero numbering. I hadn’t realized that until recently. I don’t know that I’d number a prequel zero, as it implies it comes before the other books. But, I have seen people label a sample book (the first 5 chapters of the first book of a series) as zero in the series. So, the zero labeling is still an interesting quirk I’m not sure a lot of people know about.

  6. I love this. Thank you so much. My prequel for Kingdoms Gone is book three and the order is very intentional. I considered calling it book one, but it doesn’t work the same way in that order and I thought, perhaps, it was just me.
    Glad to hear confirmation from others on this!

    1. Frances, you are definitely not alone. I think the confusion happens when someone as stellar as Lucas does it. Then people think, well, if he’s doing it, that’s probably something to emulate. But, this is one that probably works for him because of his track record. In general, calling it book 4, if it’s the fourth book written in the series, is best. Laurie Boris wrote a great post about writing a non-linear series. Certainly, if you’re going to write non-linear, it’s super important to keep the numbers in written order, so readers know what to tackle first.

  7. Excellent post, RJ, and I couldn’t agree more: a prequel is definitely a sequel and should be read as such (or, as in the movie case, viewed as such); and definitely only written if there is an underlying, integral point to it.

    1. Thanks, TD. Books or movies should be watched in their proper order. Though, I wonder about movie remakes–do you have to watch the original? I’m trying to find the original Planet of the Apes for my kids, though the reboot (or I guess it’s really a prequel) has been pretty good (even though they haven’t seen the original; however we did tell them the basic plot of the original.) The new Spiderman flicks might be a better example of a reboot.

    1. That’s so interesting that you start with A New Hope, when you watch them. My kids are easily amazed by shiny graphics, so we have all six, but tend to watch Episodes II and III the most. All that light saber play and CGI make them totally appeal to the kids. Even though people remember light saber battles from the original films, there aren’t that many in the A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back.

  8. RJ,
    I’m glad you covered this topic. I am planning on a prequel in the future, and I didn’t consider that the reader wouldn’t understand the inside jokes, the nuances and experiences that make a character what they are. Your position on the numbering of the books in the order of publication makes perfect sense to me.

    1. Lois,

      I was out and when I came back, I saw your comment and the one beneath it at the same time. I will just say that CL makes a good point about the creator’s intent. If your intent is for your prequel to be read first, then you’ll write it in a way that accomplishes that. But if you intend the prequel to be read and enjoyed mainly by people already familiar with the series, then I don’t think it should be numbered any number other than the number it’s actually published.

  9. RJ, I appreciate your comments on prequels. However, your comments about the Star Wars series made me scratch my head. You state that George Lucas renumbered the series because of the most recent films. So, I went and pulled out my old VHS of Star Wars, purchased way back when MTV showed music and big hair couldn’t be any bigger. Unearthing an old VCR revealed what I remembered, the film released in 1977 was entitled Star Wars: A New Hope Episode IV.

    At the time, this confused me. I would later find out that Lucas envisioned a triology of triologies. The first three films showing the rise of Darth Vader (and the unfortunate introduction of Jar Jar), the middle three showing the good stuff and the last three showing the effects of the death of the Empire.

    Granted they were released out of order, but doesn’t the creator’s/author’s vision for the series have a predominate place in how the series is presented? Basically, if the prequel is not really a prequel but merely the beginning of the story, should it be treated as a prequel because it is perceived as a prequel?

    1. CL, interesting points you have about Star Wars. I won’t debate semantics with you, but I will say all online sources, including the official Star Wars site note that the original 1977 film was just called Star Wars. It was retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope later (in 1981). Lucas was in serious discussions to do the prequel at that time and there are transcripts from a 1981 meeting where Lucas gives the bare bones outline of the prequel ( on a big picture level, it offers a good resemblance to what he put out almost two decades later). So, the new title came as he was firming up prequel plans, even though the prequels wouldn’t come out for another 16 years.

      As to the rest of your post, I think you make a good point about the creator’s intent. If an author wants you to read the series in an order other than the one it was published in, that’s probably a good reason to read it in that order. Lucas, in renumbering the series, told us the order he thought they should be watched in. And that’s not something to be discounted. Lucas’s view that the first films he made in the series were just the middle part of an overall story is important to note.

      My point is simply that people shouldn’t blindly think, Star Wars came out with 3 prequels, and made the movie that came out first movie number 4, so, I should do that with my book. That’s not the case. Unless you see the book as an overall series that should be read with the prequel book first, you shouldn’t order your books that way.

      1. RJ, thank you so much for replying. Given that I bought the VHS in 1988 and my information came from some time between then and the internet, my understanding may very well be incorrect. Thank you for the links. It is always good to get the details right. Even my trusty VHS can’t always be trusted. 🙂

        Thank you again for a very good and thought provoking post.

  10. Great post, RJ and yes, when I first saw Star Wars at the movies, it was just plain old Star Wars.
    I’m not that fond of prequels but agree that if you must have them then they should be read in order of publication. And that Narnia business is just plain wrong. 🙁

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