The Quels — Expanding the World

Lately, prequels seem to be everywhere on TV. There’s nothing new about prequels, but in the past few months we’ve had (with varied results) prequels for Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and The Witcher.

“Quels” (sequels, prequels and paraquels) aren’t restricted to any one genre, but they seem particularly prevalent in SF and fantasy. And there are reasons why that’s so — whether or not it’s a good thing.

The History of the Quels

The word sequel has been around for centuries, derived from the Latin for “follow”, but it originally meant simply “that which follows” (“The journey began well, but the sequel turned out to be disastrous.”). Its use in the modern sense seems to have arisen with the European novel tradition, and examples are far too numerous to need mentioning.

Prequel is a modern word, but there are a few earlier examples. For instance, Shakespeare technically created a prequel series by writing Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III some years before the historically earlier plays Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. A prequel is specifically a story created later that takes place before the original. So, for example, The Hobbit isn’t a prequel to Lord of the Rings, as it was published earlier, whereas Star Wars episodes 1-3 are certainly prequels to the cooler episodes.

Paraquel 1 refers to a connected story that takes place at the same time as the original. This can work in various ways:

  • The same story from a different POV, such as Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which tells the story of Hamlet from the POV of two minor characters in the original play.
  • A connected story that takes place at the same time as another. For example, Gunther Grass’s Danzig novels, starting with The Tin Drum, are all set over much the same time-span, and main characters from one book sometimes make cameo appearances in others.
  • A story set during a lacuna in the original work (sometimes also called an intraquel). For instance, in the Chronicles of Narnia, the whole of The Horse and His Boy technically takes place during the final chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

What’s the Attraction of Quels?

So why do writers feel compelled to write other works derived from an existing one? Either their own or someone else’s — one of the earliest deliberate prequels I’m aware of 2 was Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre.

I’m not talking about a straightforward series that was always going to be a series — even if it grows bigger in the process (coughMartincough). I mean why, having told the original tale, would an author want to write more? Well, apart from the most cynical answer.

I think the most common answer is simply the desire, both by the author and the readers/viewers, to know more. This may simply be wanting to know what happens to the main characters after “The End”, but it may also be a fascination with exploring what made the characters what they are. This seems quite common with fictional detectives, with everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Endeavour Morse being portrayed at a younger age.

In fantasy, though, it’s often that the world created seems too big to be contained by a single novel — or even a single series. The author (or other authors) want to explore what’s going on in different periods, or different parts of the world. Andre Norton, for instance, began her Witch World series in a small group of neighbouring countries, but later not only explored more of that continent, but also wrote remotely connected stories set on another continent.

Very often, though, the fascination seems to be with exploring events that were originally merely mentioned as distant history. The three prequels mentioned at the start of this blog are all of this type 3 — the stories of the Targaryen dynasty, of the forging of the Rings of Power, and of the Conjunction and the creation of the first Witcher. With varying levels of success, it has to be said.

I’ve experienced both the lure and the opportunities this process creates. Many years ago, an off-the-cuff comment in a novel I was writing resulted in my world growing suddenly by three thousand years and three continents, and led directly to my novel At An Uncertain Hour. In this case, however, the “prequel” is already published, while the original still isn’t quite ready.

So are these kind of quels a good or bad thing? When they work, they can offer an intoxicating exploration of a boundless landscape. When they don’t, they can be an embarrassment that sours the original work.

My view — by all means create your prequels, sequels and paraquels — if you have a good reason to do so and really believe you can pull it off. Because in the end, just like any book, film or TV show, quels will stand or fall on their own merits, not because of the work they’re derived from.

1 I thought I’d coined the word paraquel, but when researching this blog I found it cited on Wikipedia. Then again, I’ve used the word online in various contexts over recent years, so maybe that’s where Wikipedia picked it up from. Or maybe great minds really do think alike.

2 It’s entirely possible there were earlier examples — even much earlier. I’d be interested in knowing what they were, but please don’t shoot me down for missing them. I haven’t even come close to reading every book.

3 As opposed to the Star Wars prequels, which appear to have been part of Lucas’s plans from the start, at least in general outline.

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