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Context: I’m currently writing a novel that has a built in prologue. I’m unsure if I should use the prologue as the first chapter. It involves the main character being sent away by his parents for his own protection. The rest of the book doesn’t occur until about 10 years later and takes place in a much different location. For myself at least, it could work as either. The scene is important to the story, and is commonly referenced throughout the novel, so it can’t be told through flashbacks without dragging down pacing and narrative progression. The readers gets the best experience by having this knowledge readily available to them.

So should it be the prologue, or just put it as chapter 1?

I’m currently leaning towards a prologue in this case, although I wouldn’t say this isn’t the case in every novel there ever was or will be.

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    Hi user629. Interesting question. I edited the title to try to better summarize the question you're asking. If you feel that my edit changed your intent, then by all means feel free to Edit further. Enjoy your stay! – a CVn Feb 10 '18 at 13:50
  • Appreciated, I was having trouble wording it. – user629 Feb 11 '18 at 3:20
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    No worries. A suggestion for next time: Write up a tentative title (to keep the system happy and to focus your own thoughts), compose the question, then revisit the title and revise it. As long as the question itself is sufficiently narrow, I find it tends to be far easier to come up with a good title after you've written the question rather than before. – a CVn Feb 11 '18 at 11:20
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If there is such a huge time difference and there are no big temporal skips in the rest of the book this would likely be a good prologue. Because of the difference this would feel to the reader like something that is not directly related to the current story, but is important to understand for example the character's motivation. If it was a Chapter 1 the reader would expect that such a skip would happen somewhere in the book again. If that is the case using a Chapter 1 would be better, as the time skipping is part of the style that you as the author prefer to narrate the story.

In the end it's up to you as the author what you prefer and what you think makes sense. Maybe the editor or publisher will want to have a say in this matter, but in general it's up to you.

  • There are no other big temporal time skips. I’m tempted to stick with the prologue because it feels right. It’s gonna be a LONG time before an editor or publisher will see this, but even so, there Opinion will definitely be accounted for. – user629 Feb 11 '18 at 3:11
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You are not writing a history, you are writing a novel. In a history, the temporal sequences of events is generally the mainspring of the narrative. In a novel, the story arc of the protagonist is the mainspring of the narrative. Events should therefore be narrated in the order that they impact the story arc. This is by no means always the temporal order in which they occurred.

In Lord of the Rings, for example, much of the history is not given until the Council of Elrond. Before then, the Hobbit's journey is largely one of stumbling in the dark. The meet Strider and have an encounter with the Nazgul, all without understanding who they are or what is going on. It is in the Council that Frodo comes to understand what is really at stake, and that is where it impinges on his arc, leading to his great decision to accept the role as ring bearer. Events are told in the order they impinge the story arc.

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark constantly jumps back and forth in time, not only into the past but also into the future of the girls of the Brodie Set in order to plot the influence of Jean Brodie's personality and methods. Events are related not in their temporal order but in the order they illuminate the story arc, including events from the future which show us what was really happening at certain points in the arc: what grew of the seed being planted.

  • I completely agree that the main point of a novel is driving the main narrative forward. The reason this is put at the beginning of the story is due to it being both, a powerful hook, as well as it’s importance towards the main character’s perosnality. There’s no point during the story where I can conceivably have him randomly flashback that doesn’t drag the main narrative down. – user629 Feb 11 '18 at 3:12
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Author's choice.

+1 Secespitus for voicing my own thoughts. However, I will note that in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; the first book in the series, Chapter 1 is set ten years before Chapter 2. Chapter 2 begins "Nearly ten years after [the events in Chapter 1] ...", and this is the only ten year skip in the story.

To me yours sounds exactly the same. Thus, Author's choice. It may depend on how it is written, a Prologue can be written in a different voice and third-person omniscient (the narrator knows everything about everybody), while the rest of the book is third person limited (focusing on a single character's point of view, thoughts, and feelings).

  • I never thought of that. It is true that the events are very similar. And obviously as you mentioned, in a third person limited story, there’s no reason I couldn’t switch the POV. Ultimately Harry Potter could’ve had its first chapter been its prologue, although I appreciate the perspective. – user629 Feb 11 '18 at 3:17
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Opening with a no-win action sequence works for action movies. Consider the audience that likes testosterone-fueled adrenalin sequences and their expectation to get to what they paid for quickly. It must involve melodrama shorthand because it is a mini-story with characters who are instantiated and dispatched within a single scene: villains in black hats doing villain things, and parents being killed protecting children who watch from the closet with louvered doors or from under the bed. I'm not suggesting you would go with the worst cliches, but these opening scenes play out so often I don't believe they have any narrative impact whatsoever. They just show us how the villain kills to establish a pattern. If your project is not an action movie, I think I have a better suggestion.

The events may be a case of common knowledge among the characters and so they don't discuss it, or discuss around it because it is too sensitive. Knowing something profound happened that has left a wound might have more impact for the reader to see the wound first. The details of the incident can be trickled over time and from different viewpoints (including unreliable narrators), and provides opportunity for real character building when events in the current action start to open that wound and they must discuss events that have been emotionally buried.

If we have already seen the full narrative arc of those dead parents, created and killed in a single scene, those characters are done for us and there is no mystery. They were just the soup before the meal, and we have emotionally moved on even if the main character insists he can't.

I suggest instead to withhold the parents from the reader so we have no preconceived idea about them. They are as absent from our lives as they are to the characters, and we discover them through this wound. We are aware of them, but we don't get to know who they were. Instead we feel their loss through the other characters, and the lingering dysfunction reveals the hole where something use to be. We don't get to make up our own minds and close their story. In narrative sense they are still characters that influence the thoughts and actions of others, and "alive" because they can still grow through the opinions and maturity of the survivors.

Also consider if there is something unresolved about the event, potentially with the help of unreliable narrators, the reader can experience their own version of not being able to get over it. If re-examining the question results in different answers, even hostility, we have some empathy for the character who can't let it go. We also have a multi-faceted event seen through the lens of different characters each of whom has different emotional coping skills.

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    It is not an action film. I feel the prologue would work for such a case as you point out. I like the idea of having people just avoid it. This event is not an uncommon occurance. To give some extra context, people view their place as unsafe, and they all do everything in their power to send their family away to safety. However, since everybody does this, their “safe haven” is overpopulated and in complete anarchy. The idea of having people having this similarity and avoiding the conversation; rather than just being bitter about it as initially viewed, might be something I do. – user629 Feb 11 '18 at 22:05
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    I also see how common this is in media, however I would like to give context as the character has accepted this event. Which does remove the need for myself to try and make people care about the parents, because I don’t. They aren’t important enough that they need to be cared for, just understood on a fundamental level. Also on the topic of unreliable narrators, which fuel different versions of the scene, Is it a effective technique in many works. Or rather just different narrators, which is something so want to explore at some point. I don’t see it working in this particular story however. – user629 Feb 11 '18 at 22:10
  • If the parents are just sketches, I definitely suggest skipping it. Consider every Superman film opens with the same scene of Kal-El's parents and there is nothing we learn about them or the crisis. They are paragons at best, at worst they are characters in a Greek Tragedy explaining what has already happened and bemoaning the superpowers their son will have. Any actual story or nuance behind that moment is told later. Also it has the effect of a false start that is way more compelling than the actual start when the baby crashes on Earth and suppresses his potential for the next 18yrs. – wetcircuit Feb 11 '18 at 22:42
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While it would totally make sense to put these events in a prologue, no writer is obliged to write a chronological narrative. You always can flashbash to these events in the middle of chapter 38, because it's better this way for the narrative.

  • There no need for an author to write in a chronological manner. The reason I’m doing flashbacks is because there is no reason for the character tobflashback or withhold the information from the audience. This also provides both an introduction to the main character to see what shaped them; as well as necessary exposition as to why their situation creates conflict within the story. – user629 Feb 11 '18 at 3:19
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This sounds like the kind of thing you don't need to keep in your book. I say that having written something similar. People do do it though. So no reason you can't; but it's likely not as important as you think it is.

  • I could mention in it in passing. It is however a defining moment in the characters past, so I do feel like showing or makes sense and is more narratively engaging. I do see where you’re coming from, with plenty of novels havif unnecessary prologues, hence why I’m asking for perspective of where to put it. – user629 Feb 11 '18 at 3:27
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    If it's not relevant, even necessary, to your character's development, then it is not chapter one. If this isn't the issue your protagonist is dealing with, then it's not the one you want to open your book with. Especially if it's promising a different story. If it is on target, keep it as a prologue. -- think about how you will pitch this, too. Agents & pubs take 1st 3 chapters. Is this what you think will sell the story? Sometimes backstory is just for the author; some bones stay in the Earth and make your story feel deeper. You can have secrets. – Kirk Feb 11 '18 at 14:20
  • I definitely have a bit of secrets that are trickled throughout the book. Taking that route might actually be the better route. I appreciate you bringing up the point about pitching the novel, with agents asking for, Of at all, three chapters. I wouldn’t likely use the prologue to sell to an agent. I will ask for their opinion on the issue when that time comes, but this is definitely fruit for thought. – user629 Feb 11 '18 at 22:01
  • Sure thing. I don't believe there's a right answer for every book, and it will depend on your goals. Just give yourself permission to kill your darlings if it is what your book needs. If it is good, and adds value see other answers. I don't know enough, about your story to say: this is what you do; but you also seemed a bit unsure which is an indicator that this might be the answer. Good luck! – Kirk Feb 12 '18 at 21:52

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