The Power of The Prequel: 3 Top Tips

Friday 26 June 2020

 Today's guest post by writer James Allen is a brilliant example talking of the Power of the Prequel, and the top 3 tips we can take from two examples of this in different mediums. 

Without further ado, let's hand over to James!

As successful movies frequently birth franchises, it becomes increasingly inevitable that writers look back in time rather than forward. There are not many continuing stories that have not had some attempt to tell the story of how the characters got to where we first saw them.


But how many good prequels are there? As good as the original, let alone better?


I often hear people deride the prequel as a concept, as if it betrays a lack of new ideas. To them, I cite two recent prequels that I consider to be every bit as good as their predecessors: Better Call Saul and Red Dead: Redemption 2.


While these may not be movies (a TV series and a video game respectively), they both hold valuable lessons in how to craft a great prequel.


Provide depth and context to what we know.

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Better Call Saul is the prequel to the hit TV series Breaking Bad, focusing on the seedy lawyer Saul Goodman. Saul was a fan favourite character in Breaking Bad for his cynicism and devil-may-care attitude who served as much as a criminal accessory to Walter White as an attorney (more a “criminal, lawyer” than a criminal lawyer!).

But the Saul we meet at the beginning of Better Call Saul isn’t really Saul at all; he’s Jimmy McGill, a struggling legal assistant at his brother’s firm. Yes, the charisma, wit and rule bending are there, but he’s a rogue with a heart of gold, who tries his hardest to do good and help people who need him. The series is very much the funniest tragedy on television, as the story relentlessly nudges Jimmy further and further away from the straight and narrow, punishing every good deed of his.

Jimmy’s story reframes Saul’s cynicism in Breaking Bad as a result of idealism eroded over time, and endless discoveries that the moral path doesn’t work for him.

There is no grand moment of “Jimmy McGill is gone… there is only Saul!!!”

Jimmy’s decision to take the name is no step chance, but a gut punch realisation that he has been on this new path for some time, and every little step cemented his future a little more.


The original Red Dead: Redemption put players in the shoes of John Marston, a former outlaw threatened into hunting down his former gang mates after the end of the Old West. The story of John’s quest to put his past actions behind him and save his family wowed players and broke their hearts.

Although styled as number 2, the next instalment takes place twelve years earlier, and puts players in the very same gang John hunted in the original. And our legendary complex, doomed antihero… is kind of a joke.

He’s only a junior figure in the gang,  irresponsible towards his wife and child, spends the first third of the story knackered after a wolf attack, and is held in low regard by new protagonist Arthur Morgan. However, John undergoes a subtle arc of his own, growing fiercely protective of his family and coming to share Arthur’s suspicions about Dutch Van Der Linde and his dream. 

Our Clint Eastwood-esque outlaw from the original soon becomes Sundance to Arthur’s Butch, and is reframed as an embodiment of the redemption Arthur must seek before meeting his maker. His arc in this story makes the family life he longs to reclaim in the original all the more precious considering how hard-won it was.


In both these examples, familiar characters are shown in a different light, that furthers our perception of them with new context without really contradicting our established knowledge of them.


Own your inevitability


One bugbear you always hear about prequels is “but I already know how it’s going to end.” As if that is a problem for literally any film based on a well-known true story.


A prequel is really no different to any other story with a locked in ending. The inevitably need not be a constraint.


Better Call Saul deals with this in a clever way. The teaser of the first episode (and the first episode of every season) flashes forward to events after the ending of Breaking Bad. This new information sets up the new story, while placing newcomers and old fans in the same boat. 

We know Jimmy is going to end up in witness protection working at Cinnabon, in a state of paranoia. But how will he get there? We must keep watching to find out.


While Red Dead Redemption 2 never completely catches up with the original’s timeline, it still crafts the same sense of inevitability, through sheer atmosphere. 

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Even in the early chapters, when Dutch’s gang seem to be coming back together, I think even people who never played the original would feel instinctively that the good times will not last. Every one of Dutch’s rousing speeches is countered by small moments suggesting how full of shit he really is; each joyful campfire song or victory celebration has the feel of winning one battle in a losing war. 

The time of the outlaw is ending, and the powers of big business, and the lawmen who serve them, are never far away. Most beats of the main story’s tragic conclusion are ominously foreshadowed from at least the second chapter.


It’s not about the uncertainty of what’s coming- it’s the impact of it.


New characters to care about

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Ask many Breaking Bad fans what keeps them most invested in Better Call Saul and I reckon they’ll answer: Kim Wexler.

Introduced as a colleague, later a love interest of Jimmy, Kim is the enigma at the heart of Better Call Saul. Why is she not in Breaking Bad???

The not knowing is a constant source of tension. Because Kim is awesome. She’s sharp, she’s principled, she has a bit of a mischievous streak. And the writers seem to be torturing us by continuing to add beats that appear to signify the end of her relationship with Jimmy, only to reverse it and bring them closer than ever. 

Going into the final season, Kim is a beloved character with absolutely no inevitability built in. We know where Jimmy’s going, but anything could happen to her.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 made the sound choice of Arthur Morgan as protagonist. In the first game, we were only introduced to John and three other gang members. But the prequel introduces many others, who we’d never heard of, and therefore weren’t sure of their fate. 

In fact, the established gang members besides Dutch play second fiddle in the crew to characters like Arthur. As a senior member of the gang, and original character to the story, Arthur is the perfect audience avatar to see all the workings of the gang and its inevitable downfall. He’s angry, he’s worn out, his witty roguish nature is giving way to existentialism. He embodies the downfall of the Old West, a lonely cowboy who knows deep down his time is over.

While Red Dead Redemption 2 naturally feeds off a previous instalment as a prequel, Arthur’s story is contained, standalone, and compelling. Seeing his story end will make you confront your own mortality in a way you may not have thought possible from video games.


While a prequel may be providing context to an existing story, there’s no reason it can’t tell a new one and be all the better for it.

Bio: James Alexander Allen is a Brighton-based screenwriter and director. He mainly focuses on comedy, but he’s also written a very dramatic and harrowing stage play about sensitive issues, so he doesn’t always do as he’s supposed to.

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