When does a “prequel” become a “sequel”?
If the second book written in a series takes place before the first book, then obviously it’s a “prequel,” right?
But what if the story, though complete in itself and not dependent on the first book, tells the reader a lot more about the situations in the first book, the characters, the events? What if neither book is dependent on each other, but after reading the second story a reader gets a clearer understanding of things in the first story? So isn’t that the classic definition of a “sequel”?—that it adds to and clarifies (through an indirect way) what happened in the first book?
I’m pondering this question because, all during the writing of In a Suspect Universe, the second book after The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes (the beginning of the “Mykol Ranglen” series) I’ve been telling people that it’s a prequel. And, true, the story does take place before the events of the first novel, and the story is complete in itself, and the events of The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes are not dependent on its events.
But it does take situations and concepts from the first book and, by showing another side to them, brings new light to aspects of the first story.
Especially, the second book explains the reactions and feelings of the main character Mykol Ranglen. Knowing Ranglen’s “backstory” helps the reader to see why he’s as secretive, quiet, and paranoid as he is in the first book—suspicious, careful, and very much a loner, not wanting to show much of himself to anyone, not even to his old “friends” Hatch Banner and Anne Montgomery (who we see briefly in the second work). I intentionally did not get too deeply into his character when writing the first book (and by “first” I refer to the order of how I wrote the books and how they were published) because the backstory that makes up In a Suspect Universe I already knew and had well in mind as I was writing the first book.
The plot of the second novel is actually older (in terms of being imagined) than the plot of the first novel. It’s a story idea I’ve had for a long time, whereas the plot for the first book I put together as I was writing it. I didn’t have the details worked out for the older story, but the basic plot and its consequences I knew long before I wrote the first book.
So the “prequel,” though it didn’t exist yet, was very present in my mind, and it influenced the writing of the first book since it clarifies the reasons for how the protagonist thinks and behaves: why he keeps to himself, why he’s sensitive about relationships, why he longs to be away from people and yet at the same time wants to be with them, why he distrusts authority, why he feels guilty, why he’s so certain about some things and yet so uncertain about others, why he always feels a profound longing, and why deep down he knows he can never have what he wants.
When you learn that much from the second book, then it sounds like a “sequel.”
And the Clips, the great objects of information and power that everyone is looking for in the first book, we learn more about them too. And it’s a different kind of knowledge: it’s not just “more,” it’s also “other”—it takes a different direction from the assumptions of the first book. In the second book we’re not so sure about them, and in many ways we have more questions about them at the end of the “prequel” than we did in the first book. This second book opens up our wonder—and fear—about the Clips, the Airafane, the Moyocks, more than did the later-in-time events of the first book.
So, doesn’t that sound then a bit like a sequel?
And all this gets more complicated because what the reader learns and keeps from the earlier events are not the same things that the protagonist gets to keep. Mykol Ranglen will not be privileged with what readers of his story take away from the second book—what he gets he’ll most likely lose, keeping only hints of it while the reader keeps all the secrets he has to abandon. (Why and how these things happens are major plot points of the story.)
Several mysteries will haunt Ranglen in vaguely unconscious and sinister ways for the rest of his life. But only the reader will know why.
So the question remains: prequel or sequel?
In the end, I guess it has to be called a prequel simply because of the label’s basic definition—the second book’s story does occur before the first one.
But since these two books will be part of a “series” (two more books are certain, and one other is possible), then we can just say “Book 2” in the “Mykol Ranglen Series” and leave it at that.
But I’m still debating. And I think anyone who reads the book will see exactly what I mean.