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Table of Contents:

  • Prologue
  • 24 Years Ago: Omissions of the Past
  • A number of chapters of backstory (life) of father of main character, but son, who is the main character for rest of book is not in it, but mentioned.
  • Present Day;
  • A number of chapters about the son, who is the novel's main character, but the father is still in the story to the end of the novel.

Does this make sense, as in, a good way to handle a backstory that is necessary but does not easily fit into the "main" story?

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    Hi Judith, this is a difficult question since the answer is nearly always 'it depends.' I imagine you are not having confidence in how you chose to structure your story. Can you express your question as a specific question(s) -- 1 per post -- about story structure to help this community come up with useful answers.
    – EDL
    Apr 13, 2023 at 17:48

4 Answers 4

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You may be able to answer your question about how well it works by asking yourself the following questions:

1. Do you like it when an acquaintance begins to tell you a story about (for example) a car accident they were in and then says,

"oh, but to understand that you need to know about the kind of car I was driving and how it was customized by a great little company out of Charlotte, North Carolina. The guy who owns that business is a very skilled craftsman, but he never attended any design college. When I had the work done, the owner had an employee who was working on the car and suddenly keeled over from a heart attack so the work was delayed. But that was fine, because I was going to travel to India an learn to meditate at an ashram. It was the same place that Beatles had traveled to back in the 60s. Of course, there was a new guru there because the old one had sadly passed on. Anyways, the employee who had the heart attack..."

Keep in mind your acquaintance was telling you a story about a car wreck that recently happened. Do you like that kind of story? If not, consider telling the actual story you are telling instead of all the backstory stuff.

Wolf-trap story: I call these kinds of stories that an acquaintance starts spewing, a wolf-trap story, because most people would gnaw their left arm off to get out of having to listen to it. 😆

2. Do you read prologues to books? Some huge number of readers (like 80-90%) do not read them. I usually skip them. They are usually nonsense that the author is stuck on and usually skipping them does not affect my understanding of the story at all.

I like stories that start, have a middle then end. Those are the most exciting. Sometimes, there are brilliant authors out there who can add some flashbacks that make sense and are enjoyable. But it is more rare than we all imagine.

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This sounds perfectly acceptable to me. It's quite common to have a prologue from a different character setting up the story ahead of the main character being introduced, even if a lot of the generic writing advice is 'start with the main character on line 1, page 1'.

The novel 'Wool' by Hugh Howey starts with:

A chapter who seems like the main character, but is actually killed off quite quickly, and then we switch to a second 'main character'. It subverts reader expectations quite effectively.

The usual guidance does apply though - your prologue has to be interesting, hook people and not outstay it's welcome.

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  • The question is not merely about a prologue, though, but about "[a] number of chapters of backstory (life) of father of main character".
    – user55858
    Apr 13, 2023 at 18:53
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I see two possibilities:

1. The book is not about the son (and the father's life is just backstory), but about a family and how certain themes can continue across generations. For example, a story might begin with how a man fought in a war and how his experiences later influence the life of his son. The topic of the book then would not be the life of the son, but intergenerational influences. Another example might be the mental disorder of the sister of the mother and how her granddaughter suffers from a similar condition and how that affects everyone in the family.

There are many books like this and many readers love this kind of family story.

2. The books narrates the life of the father, then switches protagonists and narrates the life of the son.

I have never seen a book like this, and I would avoid it. Protagonist switching is something that many readers dislike and accept only in love stories (where the same story is told from the two persons falling in love) or epic fiction (where the same epos is told from different the viewpoint of different protagonists participating in different parts of the events, e.g. The Lord of the Rings after "The breaking of the Fellowship" or The Song of Ice and Fire).

The problem, from a reader perspective, with protagonist switiching is that the reader becomes invested in one character and will feel disappointed (or even misled) when they are forced to suddenly switch to a character they don't (yet) care about and to forget about the fate of the one they have come to care about. Reducing the protagonist the reader idendifies with and wants to see reach his goals to a mere sidekick will feel unsatisfactory.

I would therefore always reduce backstory to the necessary minimum and let the reader discover it over the course of the story. Never begin a novel with an infodump in the form of a long prehistory.

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Does this make sense, as in, a good way to handle a backstory that is necessary but does not easily fit into the "main" story?

Frame Challenge

Your question is too vague to answer without making some huge assumptions, so I take you at your word that you aren't sure this works as a prologue.

Here are some alternatives:

A flashback

Keep the son as the main character. He is young and self-absorbed, so we meet the world as he becomes aware of it. We don't shift perspective to the father until the son's conflict can't be resolved.

Why it works:

The father has been ever-present (?), but the son is too young to appreciate the stoic secret he's hidden. By the time the son is ready to hear the facts, reader is on the same page ready to learn what happened. It's not an 'infodump', it's 'answers' to questions that have been building.

Hints are laid, but Protagonist son is invested in a skewed version of events. What the father tells him works like a plot twist, shaking the son's worldview – people who were allies are now seen in a different light, and the son has to shed some of his firmest beliefs to proceed with the rest of his story.

Tell it with worldbuilding

Very elaborate history, but not compelling drama – or possibly somewhere between lore and a prequel. Something 'epic' happened, but somehow that's not the focus of this story. Maybe it's all crammed up front simply because it happened 'in the past', but the Chapter One situation is a status quo which the son's story is going to disrupt.

If it's all 'settled' and 'in the past', I suggest you amplify that feeling by warping your worldbuilding around that event. A traumatic event took place, which we don't talk about, but its consequences have left a scar, something un-healed. Maybe by keeping it un-defined it has mythic and psychodramatic implications. The monster is scarier in the dark, so keep the details unspoken but leave evidence for it everywhere.

Stock Fantasy in medias res

The backstory is not the main story because it is a stock Fantasy lore compressed into a prologue. I suggest any 'stock' genre elements can be treated as tropes, relying on the reader's knowledge and imagination to fill-in. A few trope nods to other familiar stories sets the tone.

The reader doesn't need all the details to understand because it leans on clear signals, and feels like in medias res. The story opens with a lot of action and clear archetypes, but it's a no-win situation. We see glimpses of characters we'll get to know better later.

The opening scene of Star Wars is the perfect example, Darth Vader captures Leia and we don't need a lot of explanation to follow the conflict. Mary Stewert's Merlin trilogy also starts with a fast-paced escape before settling in to the main story many years later.

It's essentially the prologue, but streamlined and rolling down the hill on fire: all action, no stopping for explanations.

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