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It is my understanding that novels should generally start right off with the protagonist. The story is about the protagonist, after all, not something else (This obviously changes a bit if the PoV is not the protagonist, but that is beside the point). It is also my understanding (through experience as well as being informed) that too much telling will generally bore the reader, while showing will not. This is also beside the point, however.

I recently started to re-read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone. Imagine my surprise and confusion, when I discovered that the first chapter barely contained Harry at all. He shows up in the last two pages, but was only a 1-year-old sleeping baby. My confusion deepened as I realized that the first half of the chapter was almost pure telling.

Harry Potter was clearly successful. This means that a book clearly does not need to open with the protagonist. My question is this: Was J. K. Rowling one of those authors who knew how to write an exception to 'the rules?' Or is my above assumption (that you need to start with the protagonist) wrong? And if it is, why is it, and how can you be successful when you do not start with the protagonist?

Note: I realize that no writing 'rules' are set in stone, and that there are likely exceptions to many (if not all) of them. Some authors know how to bypass the rules, but most do not. At least such is my understanding.

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    another example: david webber and others have been known to write "history books" where the scholars talk about events related to the main story with much inaccuracy, and use these excerpts as prologues. much fun. – hildred Mar 18 '15 at 19:06
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    IMO the tell-not-show rule applies more to screenplays than books. Many classic works of literature have set the initial scene with ample amounts of "telling." – Chris Sunami Mar 18 '15 at 19:27
  • Perhaps, but this question is more about opening without the protagonist than telling. – Thomas Myron Mar 18 '15 at 19:51
  • Related, almost but not quite a duplicate: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/7786/is-it-strange-if-a-novel-starts-the-first-chapter-without-one-of-main-characters/7788 – Lauren Ipsum Mar 18 '15 at 19:56
  • @TommyMyron Understood, that's why I made it a comment, rather than including it in my answer. :) – Chris Sunami Mar 18 '15 at 19:56
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If you read any Dan Brown books (Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons etc.), he generally writes a prologue where the main character (of the prologue) is actually the victim of the murder that the protagonist investigates throughout the rest of the book.

There are many more authors than just J.K. Rowling who are accomplished and have managed this feat.

That being said, some of the prologues to his books are incredibly confusing, but are mercifully short.

Prologues are generally reserved for being detached from the main narrative, so even having them from a different character's point of view who is never met again is acceptable.

They can also be used for exposition that could not be worked into chapter 1, or that are needed before the beginning of chapter 1.

If you take Harry Potter as an example, the prologue establishes that it is set in a world with wizards, flying motorcycles, and a boy who is fated to do great things.

If it didn't have the prologue, it would be around chapter 4 (Not 100% on that) that the reader is even aware that wizards exist, never mind that the protagonist is one, and would be incredibly bored before then (this of course is based on the assumption the reader has lived under a rock for the last 15 years and has never heard of Harry Potter).

So as for the writing 'rules' that you mentioned, you can probably throw most of them out of the window for the prologue in relation to the rest of the story. You can have different characters, settings, time period, POV, and other things that are entirely different from the main narrative.

As long as it does its job, which is to set up the story, it can be a good prologue.

  • That is a good point I had not considered. It seems obvious now that without the prologue, the first few chapters of the book would have been boring. Thank you. – Thomas Myron Mar 18 '15 at 19:12
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The thing to do with any writing rule is to consider its functional utility. One good reason to start with the protagonist is that otherwise the reader may become invested in the the initial characters and narrative and may resist transferring that interest to the main protagonist and storyline. For me, both Salman Rushdie's Enchantress of Florence and Samuel Delaney's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand committed this mistake by following up a captivating prologue with a much duller main narrative and protagonist.

I would advise that if you take this route, you keep it brief, and make sure that what you give the reader serves to prepare them for the introduction of your protagonist. In the Harry Potter example, the prologue offers a great deal of important context about Harry, and frames him as a significant figure. If it had just been (for example) a random day in the life of Dumbledore, the effect might have been quite different.

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    Another good point I had not thought of. While the prologue does not exactly contain Harry, it is definitely about Harry. That is a distinction I had not considered. Thank you. – Thomas Myron Mar 18 '15 at 19:54
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A prologue without a protagonist can be foreshadowing events using irrelevant characters that interact, speak, or otherwise see events happening that foretell the story ahead, and hint toward the evil of the story or share exposition.

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