Ah, the prequel. One of the strangest concepts in storytelling, one that backtracks on the timeline and yet is created after the original work comes out. If done right, it can make for more interesting insight into the world you create as an author. If done wrong, it can do nothing but undo all the work you put into the original work. But isn’t it just an excuse for an author to milk the success of a first novel or series in a story line? Well, perhaps, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if there’s good entertainment value to be gained out of it.
So what makes a good prequel? Well, it has to be good, for one thing. But more importantly, it has to contain its own worthy resonance as a story, something that establishes itself as a tale that has value in its telling. If it can overcome this (as well as manage to avoid creating plot holes in the narrative of events that this story is meant to predate), then there can be meaning found in creating a prequel. In particular since you’re already fighting a battle against a degree of lost tension, being that if the reader or viewer has already experienced the original story this one it’s preceding, they already know what’s going to happen, thus removing the element of mystery. So the prequel, simply said, has to be compelling enough in some other way in its own right, since it can’t be compelling in terms of where the plot and characters (if they’re featured in the original narrative) end up. After all, that’s one of the number one arguments against prequels: “We already know what’s going to happen, so what’s the point?”
In the book world, I’d say, in my experience, that prequels aren’t nearly as brought up as they are in the movie world, but prequels exist in both media. There’s the Throne of Glass series prequel, Assassin’s Blade, and there’s the young adult prequel to the more adult Alexia Tarrabotti series. The Hobbit films I tentatively put on here, because even though the books those films are based on came before the Lord of the Rings, the films were made in the reverse, thus qualifying the films as prequels. While I can’t speak for the first two franchise prequels, I think the Hobbit films did very well for themselves, and with their being split up into three films served to give characters in that universe proper care and attention, in addition to a nice expansion to the world of Middle-Earth as portrayed on film.
The safest prequel plots are ones that don’t really have anything to do with the plot of the original storyline that was written first, but might involve one or two characters from that original work to ground it in the same universe. It could be argued that this doesn’t technically make it a prequel, but it does make it easier to create a plot with tension, since the story line is in fact new, it’s just taking place on an earlier period in a story’s universe’s timeline. But what can be as much a draw as a flaw in a prequel can be a fan-of-the-original-work’s curiosity in “how did this all come to be in the first place?”
It’s always interesting to explore the prior events that take place before those of a well-enjoyed, established narrative. In the event you’re ever reveling in the success of being published, and you find your churning mind conjuring up possibilities of exploring the precursor to the world you’ve created, I’d make a recommendation to just keep these prequel restrictions in mind so you don’t fall in the trap of making the prequel an uninteresting read: your audience is already going to know that any characters involved in the original work are going to make it and not die, that you already know what Fate has in store for them; it’s important to maintain character consistency between this new, “before” version and the one you and your readers came to know in the original work; that the arc those characters have to go through has to be interesting enough to overcome the fact that no matter what, the characters are going to end up in the place everyone already knows they’re going to end up in.
Another good way to test the effectiveness of a prequel is to view it in reverse to the source material: to see how it pans out if someone were to experience the prequel before the original source material, as if the source material were the sequel. Either way, as long as you take good planning and care, you can develop a good, compelling prequel that works to expand the universe of the world created.
While prequels are far from necessary, there’s something about them that feeds the same kind of satisfaction that fanfiction writers get from expanding on existing literary and media universes in their own way. It’s just in your own universe, and, you can further your media exposure and launch a franchise. No, money shouldn’t, in theory, be your sole reason for writing (the only way money ever becomes a thing is if you get as big as J. K. Rowling and Stephen King), but it doesn’t hurt to be ambitious with your work either, and that includes being monetarily ambitious. 🙂