Story Crafting: Prequels

A quick one this week while in the midst of traveling. First, news on book progress, and then some thoughts about prequels.

Book news: For the twitterpaited out there, you know that I’ve finished Book 3 of When Dragons Die: The Tides of Artalon. It’s just about devoured by the beta readers, and full rewrite/revision work is underway. It’s 40K words longer than Covenant, and will probably stretch a little bit more than that after rewrites. The plan is to have it ready for the editor by 1 October, with November being final post-edits. If all goes according to schedule, it will be out before Christmas.

But, I can’t stop writing new content while my beta readers churn, so I’ve started my next Ahmbren project. While I have a plethora of sequels, parallel stories, and earlier stories set, my plan was always to do the prequel to the trilogy right off the bat. I deals with the adolescence and life of the three Archdragon avatars, leading up to the time when they give their power to Aaron, turn him into the God King, and he raises Artalon from the ocean to establish his empire.  Spoiler? No. This is backstory revealed early on in Lightfall. Which leads me to…

…writing prequels! Hmm. Prequels have their own set of challenges. It’s not like the audience doesn’t know the end of the story already. When we started watching Episodes 1-3 of Star Wars, we all knew was going to end with “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

So if the audience knows where the story is going, how do we make the story interesting? The formula is three-fold:

  1. Character
  2. Surprises
  3. Narrative Irony

Character

You have to make the characters involved in the back story churn interesting. I mean, really interesting. The audience might know them from backstory, or a few scenes in the already-released follow-on books. Now, you have to bring them to life. Sure you met Valkrage in Lightfall, the mad wizard who starts [SPOILER MASK]. But what was he like growing up? How did he get there? Or Kaldor, the incarnation of the Gold Dragon… as a child he’s being told “There’s no such thing as dragons,” and we find he never really wanted to be a wizard. What becomes interesting is not where the characters end up–we already know that. The audience knows the “what”… but not the “how”. How did they get there?

And, as with all stories, interesting characters grow and change. In a normal story, we start with the character’s early point and move forward. In a prequel, the end-state has already been established. Now, the author needs to back-interpolate the character’s starting point, and then plot a growth-arc that leads to what’s already been published. It creates no freedom in allowing the end of the prequel book to deviate. The ultimate freedom, however, lies in the prequel’s beginning… and the trick is to pick something the readers won’t necessarily expect. The more different the character is in the beginning from the established end point, the greater chance the reader has to get interested in “the How”.

Surprises

This idea builds directly on the character, but expands to the world. The goal is to surprise the reader already familiar with the world. In the prequel to When Dragons Die, currently titled Myth and Incarnation, the world is set 1000 years prior. There’s a lot of room for world building and filling out detail to set a different feel from the world in the published books. The goal is to bring in differences so that it sets the reader off guard from what they expect–not in a disorienting way. If they read your works, it’s because they like the feel of your world. You want to preserve that, yet create enough difference that interests and entices. Even though the ending is known, the same sense of discovery should be preserved.

Narrative Irony

Finally, the fused narrator doesn’t know where the story is going, even if the reader does. When Kaldor is told as a young boy that there’s no such thing as dragons, that even in this fantastic world, tales of dragons are believed to be of the ancient past, or completely fabricated myth, the reader already knows that Kaldor is the incarnation of the Archdragon of Light. This creates a nuance for the reader that doesn’t exist in the first books. If pulled off right, the reader gets the experience of the character growing into the knowledge of what the reader understands. The reader has a familiar place: Kaldor as an avatar. In the prequel, readers has the opportunity to watch Kaldor grow and join them, coming to where the reader already is in understanding. In that sense, it can be like reuniting with a friend.

I’m sure as I work through the prequel I’ll have some more thoughts, and I’m looking forward to tackling the unique challenges posed by a prequel. But, that’s enough for this week.

Until next week!
Kyle

 

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