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I'm currently working on an epic fantasy book, and I've run into a bit of a dilemma regarding the prologue and the introduction of my main character's backstory.

In my prologue, I've introduced a character who won't reappear in the story. By the end of the prologue, I want the fate of this character to remain ambiguous. I don't want to kill them off, but I also don't want readers to expect them to be a major player in the overall plot. Any suggestions on how to achieve this balance?

Another challenge I'm facing is how to reveal my main character's backstory effectively. I'm torn between showcasing it in a dream sequence in Chapter One or through the character's point of view years before the main story takes place. The chapter starts with "XXX awoke with a start..." and I want to write the backstory seamlessly into her narrative without it feeling forced or out of place.

Any tips or advice on how to navigate these storytelling hurdles would be greatly appreciated. I'm eager to hear your thoughts and insights!

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    What purpose does the prologue serve if it doesn't narrate the backstory of the protagonist?
    – Ben
    Feb 16 at 16:48
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    WARNING: I've heard more than one literary agent say "Never open with a dream or with a character waking up." It's so common as to be a tiring cliché.
    – DWKraus
    Feb 16 at 21:53
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    @DWKraus If the story that you narrate begins when the character wakes up, and if you craft that scene well, then there is absolutely no reason to avoid having the protagonist wake up in the first sentence of a novel. Suzanne Collins does it perfectly in The Hunger Games. That book has one of the best opening scenes I have ever read.
    – Ben
    Feb 18 at 12:20
  • @Ben Waking up is the end of a dream sequence, not its beginning. The problem with dream sequences—my problem, at least—is that they feel confusing, feverish, and delirious. If the author can avoid that, well, I don't know if it'll be good, but I probably wouldn't hate it. Feb 22 at 4:34
  • @verified_tinker My comment was to another comment that said that that a book should never open with a dream sequence or to a character waking up. I replied to the waking up part of that comment. I didn't say anything about a dream sequence. I would never open with a dream sequence.
    – Ben
    Feb 22 at 5:53

2 Answers 2

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Make it clear at the end of the prologue that the protagonist of the prologue doesn't appear in the story again. Depending on your narrator, you can state this explicitly ("And so Breagar faded away into history and no more is known of him."), or you can imply this by shifting away from the protagonist at the end of the prologue ("And thus Breagar sailed on. The winds passed over him uncaring and after many days reached a small island. There, a young man tossed and turned in restless sleep. Chapter 1: Jon woke with a start." or without the sentence from There to sleep, if you don't want to introduce the protagonist of the first chapter just yet).

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Tie The Pieces Together:

Using a prologue is somewhat controversial, but it certainly can be made to work. Your MC should be the first character mentioned in a story, but it doesn't HAVE to be - if you make it clear the first character CAN'T be the MC (such as by dying). You should never start a story with a character dreaming or waking up - unless somehow you can make it work.

That all being said, each one of these things CAN be ignored. But if you start missing multiple "rules of writing" at the same time, it's not good.

Relationship: So what relationship does the first character(FC) have to the MC? Parent? Mentor? Is the MC taking up the quest the first character fails at in the prologue? I would try to tie the MC to the beginning of the story SOMEHOW. Even if the MC is only alluded to. The FC thinks on his young son (the MC) and how FC hopes to spare them the same life as the FC. Or the FC wonders at the end of the prologue how their mission will be fulfilled (then intro MC). This is also a good way to drop pieces of the MC's backstory seamlessly into the story.

Tie-ins: Barring that, the MC should be somehow tied to the prologue quickly after being introduced. The FC had an object that the MC now possesses. The FC falls asleep at the end of the prologue and the MC then awakens. If magic and premonitions are in the story, you can have some creative options available. The prologue is prophetic, and the MC "sees" the scene. The location of the MC is where the FC as trying to get to - and never reaches. The link can be literal, metaphorical, or symbolic, but there should be one there.

Mysterious fate: As for the actual mystery of what happens, take inspiration from comic books. A common trope is the "mysterious death." So much so that a Marvel superhero RPG I have had "mysterious death" as a potential ability. The FC disappears into a blizzard. They slip over the edge of a cliff, grab a branch, and feel their fingers slipping off the icy wood just as the scene ends. The FC appears to die, yet some critical piece of evidence that proves what happens (usually the body) is left conspicuously absent.

Adding backstory: Finally, the backstory should be dripped into the story like a drizzle of syrup on a pancake - add thin lines at a time, and always in reference to something happening in the story. No one wants a big old spoonful of pure literary sugar (ie telling, not showing). Breakfast is the same thing she ate when XYZ happened. Another character is telling rumors about the MC where the MC overhears - and then either mentally confirms or denies them. The MC flies into a rage at a suggestion about the terrible thing that happened to her mother. But thoughts and conversation go a long way.

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  • Thanks, I really appreciate your help.
    – King
    Feb 19 at 8:52
  • @King Every rule has an exception, and in creativity sometimes breaking rules is the point. But generally only break one rule at a time and see how it goes.
    – DWKraus
    Feb 19 at 16:49

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