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I've once heard there are 2 types of writers, and I am definitively an architect. I can write down a few hundred pages of worldbuilding and characters, but I scrap most of my stories after the first chapter, because my writing doesn't live up to my expectations.

My Worldbuilding

My story is set in an medieval fantasy world. In the forest, covered by the shadow of the incoming clouds, hundreds of Orcs march towards the hillfort, which is held by a small garrison of humans and serves as a prison. The protagonist of this short introduction is a mighty warlord amongst the orcs. His brother has been imprisoned under false allegations and he has mobilized an army to free him. Once he enters the prison he doesn't find his brother, but a secret passage where he frees an immortal being (the true protagonist), who has been betrayed by the self-proclaimed gods of this world, who feared that he might challenge their undisputed rule, if they don't stop his sudden rise to power.

My Struggle

I've tried a few different ways to start this prologue already

  • I've tried to start with a "cinematic intro". In my imagination this idea turned into the first few minutes of a movie. In the end I spent way to much time into describing the situation (I also tend to use long sentences with lots of adjectives), and then struggled to cut to the action fluently, which would discourage any reader).

An sole eagle flies over an stone tower in the middle of the woods. Covered by the trees there is a small fortress, a strong wind sweeps in dark and mighty storm clouds, the dives in the forest, passes a column of big, grim-looking creatures and lands on the hand of the orcish warlord.

  • I've also tried to start with some kind of exposition-dump. I am big fan of Tolkien, as he creates a living world right at the start of his books, despite writing half a dozen pages just describing a hobbit hole, but I didn't like the kind of narrator he uses. I decided against it, because I couldn't find a way to build it into my prologue without replacing it completely.

  • Many books I've read start with a casual conversation (like in asoiaf or metro) as their prologue. I liked that kind of introduction, but I often end up ruining its purpose of a fluid transition right into the story by letting my characters talk in exposition-dumps. A lot of things would just be senseless for a reader, who hasn't the same understanding of my plot as I do at this early point.

I tried ignoring my crappy prologue and just going on beyond it, but ignoring the 'groundwork' feels like building a foundation on sand.

My Question

How can I turn all my world-building into a successful prologue? How can it be interesting for the reader?

  • Welcome to the site Azzarrel. I hope you won't mind, but I edited your question down quite a bit. As it was, it was very long, and included a lot of personal information, and perhaps too much information about the specifics of your story. My changes are intended to help it focus in on your answerable question. If you don't like my changes, you have the option to revert them, but I think they will make it more likely for people to engage with your question productively. – Chris Sunami Aug 28 '18 at 17:02
  • Thanks for your help and your effort. I will take your comment and your answer in consideration, but as you can see I already found a quite sufficient answer despite my long, personal Question. It is just, that as I lack knowledge to properly explain most of my problems on StackOverflow, I try to be as detailed as possible to at least show my commitment (nobody likes the pressure of formulating a question with the fear of being banned, if it isn't recieved well) – Azzarrel Aug 29 '18 at 14:21
  • Thank you for accepting the edits in the spirit they were intended :) Our approach here at SE is to try to make sure all questions and answers serve the needs of the general audience, not just those of the actual person who asks the question. – Chris Sunami Aug 29 '18 at 15:08
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I am a discovery writer. HERE is my answer to the "How to Open a Novel" Question.

However, I do have a formula. Open with a name. In your case the name of your (real) protagonist (the imprisoned one). Doing something, hearing something, sensing something about to change in his situation. This does not have to be long, it can be less than a page. But it is important to NOT "trick" the reader, as you say you intend to do. It is very difficult to pull off. By opening on your real protagonist, readers assume that person IS the one they should be paying attention to.

Something like the jailed protagonist is having premonitions, troubled dreams in which he is found and freed, hope when he has had none in centuries. Thoughts he has not had since his jailing come to mind again, he's been a waiting machine for so long they feel strange. Something is going to change, he doesn't know what it is. He hopes it is not just him finally losing his sanity.

THEN after this very short chapter, a page or two, Chapter Two opens with the name of your Orc commander. I'll call him Oscar. This is our POV for this chapter. Give Oscar a "throwaway" problem to solve, one that doesn't advance the plot really. An argument to settle, or a shortage of something to solve. A sickness in camp. That gives you a conflict to keep the reader reading, and also a chance to see Oscar walking, talking, and doing something; action for the reader to imagine. Oscar solves his throwaway problem, scouts find the castle, and Oscar makes plans for the raid in the morning.

In Chapter Three, back to the jailed protagonist. It is morning. Readers know Oscar is about to raid. The hero is ready, his premonitions are strong, he waits. Finally he hears noises. Orc language. There has been no noise in this castle in centuries, his premonitions are confirmed. He waits. An Orc enters his hall, rapping the walls with a stick. (I'm naming Oscar's brother Peter).

The stick rapped the walls. An Orc called out, shouting, "Peter!"

Finally, the mage spoke. "You will find no Peter here. I am the only prisoner of this castle."

Silence. He spoke again. "Did you hear me, Orc?"

"I heard you. Not sure what to make of it. Which cell are you in?"

"Third down, on the left. I cannot escape, you can come see me."

"I'll wait on that, until I have others here."

"Then I suggest you fetch your general, if that is what you still call him."

"A commander. Yes, I believe I will."

He heard the Orc begin to walk, then begin to run. His heart raced in elation and anticipation. The plan to silence him had failed.

As for all your world building, it is good to do, but put it aside. Don't succumb to world-builder's disease, feeling like you have to write about this great world you created. You don't, and it is boring, unless it is told in context as something important to the story. They have to travel to Mystic Cave, and that is 1000 miles away from King's Bridge, where they stand, and they need a way to get there fast.

Your world-building only matters if it matters to the actions and decisions the characters take. It is good to be consistent in your description of the world when it does matter, and that is the value of maps and notes. But don't recite a bunch of history and dead heroes that you could excise from the story without changing a thing about how the heroes behave and decide what to do.

  • thanks I previously tried to start with my actual protagonist in his cell and wasn't quite happy about the outcome, but with your inspiration I think I can give it another shot and then flesh out the siege into a 'real chapter'. There is yet another little problem, which I'd like to address here: I planned to jump forward 30 years after this siege (the prisoner hides, prepared to be attacked by the gods as soon as they realize he has been freed, but they never come. in fact everyone has forgotten about him). I feel like a timejump isn't fitting anymore if I extend the time before it. – Azzarrel Aug 26 '18 at 13:03
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    That should be easy; after he escapes, give him a "what next" chapter, that is what the reader will be waiting for anyway. He needs time to rebuild his strength, he has to hide, he gathers his resources and does that. The second chapter of the first Harry Potter book begins, "Nearly ten years had passed since ...". That's all it takes! Close one chapter with, "And now we wait, and work, and plan to murder gods." That teases the reader to find out HOW your hero will murder gods, they turn the page, and the next chapter begins "Thirty years later...". Okay. That's probably a good plan! – Amadeus Aug 26 '18 at 13:53
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A related question: How to open a novel?

It sounds like your prologue opens in medias res - in the middle of the action. You already have orcs marching, preparing to fight. Since, in terms of plot, that's the starting point you've chosen for your story, it makes sense that the atmosphere of the scene should match it: how the prologue story is told should match what is being told.

How do you place the reader directly in the combat atmosphere? Place them right there: in the orc chieftain's internal monologue, or in the dust of marching boots, or similar. From there, you can draw back a bit to explain the setting, but be careful not to draw so far back that you lose the tension of what you're telling.

When you start with a peaceful description of "eagle flying over woods, one small fortress", you are creating a peaceful image. There's a dissonance between that image, and the drama of the marching orcs. Such dissonance can be used, if its serves your purpose. However, when you have a peaceful image, and something breaking the peace, you are likely to create a sense of alienation from the peace-breaking force. This does not serve your purpose here - you want the reader to sympathise with the orc chieftain, not the fortress being attacked by him.

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Worldbuilding gives you the setting in which to tell a story. It is not the story itself. As a writer you need to wear many different hats. Architect is one hat, and editor is another, but the one you need to wear right now is storyteller.

Get a complete story down on paper, don't worry about how firm its foundation is, or how good it is, or how compelling, or if it covers all the worldbuilding details. Just write it, no judgement, no editing, no revising, no self-critiques. Then, only after you have a complete draft, go back and work it into shape.

There is no writing rule that you have to have a great prologue before you write the rest. Many books have beginnings that were written last --the reader will never know the difference.

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