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My prologue is set 17 years before the main story arc. I am reflecting on the discussion here, which was asked by another SE contributor. I'm trying to decide what to do with my prologue. Building a website for my world with minor character sketches, short stories, mythologies, etc and additional supplemental is one possibility. It could go there. Or,

  1. I can delete it entirely, and put any necessary points into the rest of the book.

  2. I can leave it as the prologue, since that is my first instinct

  3. I can rename it chapter 1. In that scenario, Chapter 1 would have a different POV and be set 17 years before the rest of the story. A major plot point is set up in the prologue, and revealed about halfway through the story.

The main feedback on the other question has been to keep things as tight as possible. I am a little puzzled by this, though. We write for people who read. People who read presumably enjoy reading, especially things that are well written. I agree with making writing succinct, but the idea of cutting everything that is unnecessary does not sound right. The entire genre of poetry is arguably unnecessary.

Does renaming it chapter 1 make any sense? AS a reader I would just wonder "Why isn't this called the prologue?" But I am now skittish at the thought that an agent/publisher would throw it away once they see the word "prologue." It's a sci/fi-fantasy type story

(I finished the rough draft of the entire 110,000 word story last night, hurray, and will begin editing downwards, and revising, later today. I anticipate four rounds of edits to address all the details I want to solidify.)

  • My prologue has been edited down to 1300 words (from 2200.) So, it's fairly reasonable. I plan to see if I can get it shorter and make it the first page of chapter 1. I'm very stuck on this. I may need to introduce an element, like the pensive, to allow past events experienced by others, to be known. – DPT Sep 27 '17 at 20:51
  • Helpful comment: If those other tidbits compile to a decent size, and if your publisher thinks they would be worth publishing, then you could always consider doing so as a satellite work. I guess you could do both that and a website; some authors do so. – can-ned_food Dec 14 '17 at 15:39
  • @can-ned_food Thanks - As I have worked on the body of the novel I've been able to weave all but three key elements into that. So, I think I can pare down to 600 words or fewer, and I think I am coming around on the idea of scrapping it altogether. But yeah, I will have a website too. Thanks!! – DPT Dec 14 '17 at 17:07
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Where prologues are concerned, it all comes down to one thing:

Contents

It all depends on what the prologue contains. You mention a major plot point, but you also say:

Building a website for my world with minor character sketches, short stories, mythologies, etc and additional supplemental is one possibility.

This seems to suggest that the majority of the content is in fact worldbuilding. That could be a problem.

Prologue

A prologue is part of the story. If you told the story without the prologue, things would be missing and the story would be incomplete. A prologue differs from the rest of the story in that it is introductory. That is, it introduces the story, usually the main conflict or characters. This doesn't mean it happens years before the events of the novel.

Some prologues happen years after the novel opens, or even in the middle of the novel, to show you how things are going to turn out. The rest of the novel is about figuring out how things got to where they are in the prologue. A difference in time is a side effect, not a determining factor of, a prologue.

A common type of prologue is the backstory. Backstory gets a bad rep, but there's nothing wrong with it if handled correctly. Backstory should be necessary information that would otherwise never come to light in the novel. The key word there is 'necessary'.

Consider Harry Potter. The first chapter is essentially a prologue. (Note that, even though it is a prologue, Rowling made it chapter one anyway. It works either way.) While at first it might seem that it imparts nothing necessary, it does show the reader that magic and wizards exist in the world. Without that information, it could seem quite far fetched when magic starts appearing in the other-wise painfully normal world of the Dursleys.

Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is pure backstory. The difference here is that your story can do without it. Does this small part of your world change the story? No? Then it's pure worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding should not be put in a prologue. Remember: chances are the reader is there for a story, not your world. If you open with an enthusiastic description of a faraway place he's never heard of, he's likely to close the book. Especially in this day and age. Prologues should stick to the necessary information.

That being said, worldbuilding is not something to be avoided at all costs. It has its uses. Worldbuilding is the process by which you create the setting, and setting can have a profound effect on the story. It can set the mood. It can alter reality to move the plot forward, or even keep it from moving at all. It can have profound effects on your characters, often even causing them to perform actions they otherwise wouldn't.

Worldbuilding can definitely be a part of your story. The question is: does the reader need to know it first?

Integration

Let me go back to Harry Potter. The murder of Harry's parents by Voldemort is backstory. While not worldbuilding, it will illustrate my example. It has a profound effect on the story. So why didn't Rowling open with it?

There are two reasons. Firstly, the reader did not need to know it immediately. This is of course largely due to Harry not knowing it himself, but even if he had, I doubt Rowling would have opened with it. Why?

Because of the second reason: it's something that can be incorporated into later chapters. As major as Voldemort murdering Harry's parents was, it was easy to incorporate it later on, once it became relevant. The same can be said about virtually all relevant worldbuilding.

Do take note when I say 'relevant'. A seemingly unimportant detail of worldbuilding can still contribute to the overall feeling of the setting in a scene, and thus contribute to the actions of a character (or whatever the setting is designed to do in that instance).

Conclusion

Knowing these differences, it's easy to know what is and isn't a prologue. A prologue is something that has these characteristics:

  • Is necessary to the story
  • Must be known by the reader before anything else

You can of course simply make the prologue chapter one like Rowling did. There is literally no difference. If you know readers/publishers will cringe when they see 'prologue' in the table of contents, this might be a good option.

The only reason not to do this would be if the prologue is so separated from the story that it just doesn't fit. In that case, a prologue would be better. Don't sacrifice your story for anything. Even the publisher. Explain why you need a prologue. If they can't understand that, you might want to find a different publisher.

You can also draw some conclusions about worldbuilding:

  • Necessary worldbuilding contributes to setting and atmosphere. It is included when necessary, not before.
  • Unnecessary world-building adds nothing to either atmosphere, setting, or story. You make this easily accessible to fanatics of your work, but easily ignored by common readers just after a good story. This type of world-building is rarely found in the book, but is almost always found on your website.

Hopefully knowing these differences will help you in your writing endeavors. And congratulations on completing your first draft!

tl;dr

Determine first if the information is relevant to the story. If it is, determine if it needs to be known by the reader before anything else. If the answer to both questions is yes, you can make it a prologue. However - unless doing so would make it seem overly out of place - also consider simply naming it chapter one anyway. This could be the way to go if you fear readers/publishers will throw it out due to seeing 'prologue' in the table of contents. There is no difference between a prologue called a prologue, and one called 'chapter one'.

If the information is irrelevant to the story, do not include it. If the information is relevant to the story, but only in a setting/atmospheric context, include it only when you need to establish that setting/atmosphere. This should only be done to either give the story a particular feel, or cause the characters to do something they otherwise wouldn't.

Finally, if the information is relevant, but the reader does not need to know it first, include it later on in the story as it becomes relevant.

  • Thank you. These are very helpful points. I don't believe it has any world building elements; it is a scene of two of three characters making a very difficult choice. That choice impacts two of the principle characters in the story, later. I'll look at the power of revealing that first choice differently. – DPT Sep 26 '17 at 19:03
  • It all comes down to relevance (and that sounds pretty relevant), and whether or not the reader needs to know it before anything else. That will dictate where you should put the backstory (which is what it sounds like you have). If the reader needs to know it first, put it first. Otherwise put it once it comes into play. Best of luck to you! – Thomas Myron Sep 26 '17 at 21:42
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Some readers dislike prologues, but no-one dislikes the absence of a prologue. Ideally, a novel narrates one consecutive storyline. This is something that no reader complains about. It takes some effort and artistry to include worldbuilding, backstory, and character development into a chronological narrative, but if you manage it, this is the ideal.

Parallel storylines, multiple viewpoints, prologues and afterwords, all of these have their disadvantages. They throw the reader out of one reading experience and force them to make an effort to identify with a new viewpoint. If your prologue, for example, is written well (as it should be), then at the end of it readers will want to know how it continues. But then you break off and switch to another place, person, or time, and the reader has to first let go of their interest in the prologue at least a bit (because if they don't, they will browse the book, as I tend to do, and continue reading not in the first chapter but wherever the prologue continues), and after they have let go of the prologue (and actually no longer care about it as much) they have to care for a new character or situation.

From a reader perspective, a prologue is always disruptive. Some readers may like that experience, but many don't. For a writer, a prologue is a lazy solution. You just put your infodump or backstory there, instead of carefully weaving it into the main storyline. But reality doesn't have prologues. When a new phase in your life begins, all that you learn about that phase is disclosed as you live it. You don't know your spouse's past before you meet her, but they tell you as you get to know them. The backstory is part of the main story, and in fact learning the backstory has an influence on the main story. If you put the backstory in a prologue, your main story becomes stale and flat.

So when you write, you should write only your many story. Leave out everything that is not part of or relevant to the main story. Many writers have a hard time letting go of their beloved ideas and cram everything into their texts, but that is not writing. Writing means that you have to prune your narrative until it no longer contains all the world.

  • This emphasizes the point that it is about the investment the reader is making. Thank you. I'll mull it over. – DPT Sep 27 '17 at 20:52
  • Of course, ‘backstory’ is a broad class of both narrative and informative document. There is a more specific concept of ‘platform’. Making the prologue be two old friends and colleagues grouchily discussing the merits and disadvantages of a certain historical event or technology which is necessary to be understood for the story, but however has no place in it, is platform. Anything else which enhances the story certainly should be included therein. – can-ned_food Dec 14 '17 at 15:41
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From the information you provided, I would say making it a prologue would be fine. Of course, I don't recommend info-dumping in the prologue, saying, "The world balanced on the backs of elephants with a big-ass turtle beneath it..." yada yada yada. But this seems that it belongs as a prologue.

A lot of readers like prologues, a lot of readers don't like prologues. Go by your gut and write the prologue. You can only really know if it should stay or go is when you self-edit, send your manuscript to an editor, or get one of your friends to check it out. At least get the rest of the story out of the way before worrying too much over the prologue.

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I would put it as chapter 1, subtitle, "The beginning of the end", or "The seeds of destruction" or something that makes the reader realize it is important and necessary reading.

I prefer to move as much as possible to the present story, but not using flashback. My own preference is in dialogue; a foil character the main character has reason to explain their goals or behavior or what drives them. So the MC tells them stories, of a paragraph or two. Memories, hurts, betrayals, failures. Or, if the foil is an antagonist (like a detective or parole board officer), the foil can tell the backstory:

Cop: "So you stabbed him in the throat."

MC: "Okay, yes, but in friendship, not anger."

It is possible to reveal the "major plot point" in the same way. Although we definitely DO need to know such things early in the book (the first quarter or so) we do not need to know them immediately. You can have your MC doing things for many pages that are intriguing but unexplained, so when they do have to explain them to some foil, the back story brings things together for the reader, they now understand what the MC was doing now because of what happened then.

Another way of saying this is that your back story must have ramifications on the actions, thoughts, and attitude of the characters in the main story (or you shouldn't write it). So you can work backward: Show the ramifications without explanation, but they beg explanation, including by other characters, and that leads your characters to exposing the back story for you.

  • Yes, one of the impacted characters is definitely affected by the events of the prologue; it defines her personality to a large extent. Thank you for the food for thought. – DPT Sep 26 '17 at 19:05
  • It occurs to me the "work backward" trick I am talking about is almost always done in "sherlock-ian" stories; the super-detective takes actions or announces conclusions that seem to defy explanation, and then explains exactly why his conclusions make perfect sense. The writer could show clue 1, clue 2, clue 3, ... therefore fact X, then fact Y, therefore, she knew her killer. yawn. Instead, it is all conflict [with a foil]: SHE KNEW HER KILLER! -- "Bull, that's impossible!" -- "Are you blind? The photo is missing! The window was broken from the inside!" etc... – Amadeus Sep 26 '17 at 19:51

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