Okay, if you have not yet seen “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” now would be a good time. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Unless you don’t mind about spoilers, in which case come on in!
“Rogue One” is an interesting solution to the problems of prequels. I’ve written a couple of prequel stories myself, most notably “The Burning,” which takes place when Elisha is a boy, just after the witch’s burning that changes the course of his life; and The Grail Maiden, a novella about the early relationships of Duke Randall, his wife Allyson, and their good friend, Lord Robert.
In order to develop a prequel, the author must first find a hook for a new story. The hooks tend to be most successful when they explore an area that fans will be curious about. That could be the origin of a key character or plot point in the original work, or something related to the original, but not necessarily germane to its essence. So, “Rogue One” takes up the question of how the rebels got the Death Star plans (germane), while The Grail Maiden looks into the history of some secondary characters (not germane). Hopefully, this material will enhance readers’ interest in the series, but it won’t necessarily inform their understanding of the plot.
Two, the prequel has to be in keeping with the audience’s knowledge of the world from their exposure to the principal work. The ideal sequel will give them new things to think about, a new insight into characters or background.
A key aspect of this fidelity to the source material is how the prequel ends. In my story, readers familiar with Elisha Barber would know how the protagonists of the prequel fit in. Their enjoyment of the story comes from discovering things they didn’t know about those protagonists, and the tension arises from the secrets revealed there. How did these people, with this set of relationships, become the characters we’ve already met?
“Rogue One” had a different challenge, because none of the protagonists for this film appears in any other place. Thus the audience is set up to expect a tragedy. Either all of these characters dies, or some other huge event causes them to be thrust outside the rebellion they are risking their lives for. That can make it hard to maintain suspense because the ending is pretty clear from what we already know of the original work. In this case, they had fun with introducing a number of minor characters from the original, expanding the roles for some of them, or simply offering cameos to some fringe personalities. They also had the challenge of pulling off the necessary Hollywood upbeat ending, given the fate of the protagonists, after doing the work of making us root for them.
It occurs to me that the film “Memento” is a series of prequel scenes, each one shedding light on the scene you’ve just viewed, creating a story that is told backwards. It builds tension in a similar way to other prequels–by setting up a dis-junction between the present of the narrative world, and its past. The audience wants to see that tension resolved, and, as “Memento” shows, that tension can be very powerful indeed.
In the more usual meaning, a prequel is a complete stand-alone work created after the primary work, but place before it in the narrative timeline. A prequel is more or less a gift for the fans. Sometimes, people ask if they should read the books in order of publication, or in the chronological order of the series events. The prequels are generally much more rewarding for people who already know the milieu and will have an investment in the sort of details that a prequel illuminates in a world they already love. They can be used as an introduction to a series, but will lack some of the resonance endowed by the things the dedicated reader already knows.