Prologues and how to avoid them – 9 ways to start at the beginning

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Don't lose your reader's attention with a dreary prologue - use these cheats to weave in your backstory.
Don’t lose your reader’s attention with a dreary prologue – use these cheats to weave in your backstory.

What is it about fantasy fiction that tempts authors into creating prologues? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because fantasy storylines so often depend on events long previous to the main action of the story. But readers (according to popular belief) skip prologues. They want to get to the action.  Therefore most writing advice says to avoid prologues. But how do you do this exactly?

In the nineteenth century it was acceptable to begin the story with the birth of the hero (think David Copperfield, Jane Eyre) and spend a good few chapters detailing his/her early life and adventures, before reaching the main thrust of the book. Jane doesn’t meet Rochester for absolutely ages, during which you mainly learn that school is horrid and boring. Given I was sitting in school being obliged to read this yawnfest, I tended to agree, and couldn’t wait to not read Jane Eyre ever again.

(Film-makers could learn a bit from this as well. OMG the tedious opening of Fellowship of the Ring. Or Minions.  Or that sci-fi thing I never finished watching even though it had Matt Damon in.)

Today’s reader wants to start with the story, not the backstory. I imagine Bronte would nowdays begin the book as Jane arrives at Rochester’s gloomy house, and weave the school/orphan/misery parts in over the following pages.

So can a fantasy story avoid Jane-Eyre-esque torture for the reader whilst still bringing them up to speed with how the ring/grail/chosen one was forged, lost and found again?

Of course the reason I’m wondering this now, is because it would make my life much simpler if I could just bung in a prologue explaining why dragons/Vikings/Arthurian mythology. But I personally never read prologues and I don’t want to write one. So here are some thoughts on how you can have a prologue, without having a prologue:

  1. Cheat.  Write your prologue, but cunningly give it the title ‘Chapter One.’ Ha!
  2. Cheat. Start with some story action in the first chapter, then have a flashback chapter soon after, e.g. chapter four. Gotcha.
  3. Cheat. Write your prologue, but make it a single paragraph and call it ‘Chapter One’ as above. By the time the reader realises what is happening, they’ll already have read it. Points to you.
  4. Break it up into tiny pieces. Put the backstory in proverbs at start of each chapter. Making up proverbs from your fantasy world is great fun anyway.
  5. Sing it. Have a character break into the song of the prologue story. A bit artificial, this, like having someone in a  sci-fi novel describe out loud how faster-than-light works. Yeah dad we know. But perhaps you can weave in an origin-story song session while your characters are resting around a camp fire.
  6. See it. Your backstory is displayed on a prominent tapestry/painting/holy relic which the narrator can then describe in great detail.
  7. Say it in battle. Have your characters do a Q&A whilst swordfighting/zapping each other with magical blasts, etc. “But why must you hate me?” “Because your mother destroyed the McGuffin and ruined my chances of becoming supreme ruler!” “Thanks that explains it!” “You’re welcome!”
  8. Break it into tiny pieces #2. Have your characters encounter pub signs which tell the backstory. The World’s Creation – picture of a mighty god forging a planet from the blood of stars. The All Is Lost – evil ruler crushing innocent peasants. The New Hope – glowing lightsaber on a background of droids and ewoks. This would also work for ship names, a la the late great Iain Banks.
  9. Skip it. There is no travel guide to life. When you’re thrust into a new situation, nobody hands you a pamphlet showing who’s on each side. You have to work it out as you go along. So immerse the reader in your world and allow the grail/whatever to become a fact of that world and the character’s journey.

I’ll let you know which of these I choose. And in about six months’ time you can expect another post… on epilogues.

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