Prologue and backstory

I have a bit of a dilemma, and having spent half the day reading all manner of articles by ‘published authors’ of varying types I’m none the wiser.

In my novel I have two main protagonists. The plot starts with them as adults, but one important subplot involves back-references to one of them as a young child (and also the intervening years). Her psychological history is critical to her character development arc. Thinking it might help me cogitate, I wrote a backstory scene which introduces her as a young child.

This scene also includes another character (male) from the novel at roughly the same age, but this other character, although significant, is not a protagonist.

There is conflicting advice out there as to the wisdom of starting a novel with a prologue, and further conflicting advice as to whether a backstory is appropriate as a prologue.

I know there is no ‘proper’ answer. I was just wondering if anyone had any thoughts on the matter? I think the choices I have are:

  1. No prologue, dump the backstory scene in its current form and borrow from/allude to it in brief flashbacks.
  2. Have the backstory scene as a prologue, thus reinforcinging subsequent backreferences to the characters.

If there is a third option, I’d be very interested to hear it. Also any thoughts on the subject of prologues and/or backstory scenes in general.

Sadly, I’m rather attached to the scene I wrote. I know that’s a cardinal sin :slight_smile:

If it helps, I’d be quite happy to post the backstory text in question.


Begin with a scene which immediately grabs the reader’s attention/interest.

If that’s a childhood scene, you don’t have to label it “Prologue;” it can be simply the first chapter in the narrative, and need not involve both major characters.

(Notice that “have to” and “can be” and “need not” all are tentative. Possibilities, not rules.)


Other choices:

  1. Expand the backstory portion until it can stand alone as a novel- or story-length prequel.
  2. Finish the novel first, then decide. This is not the kind of decision you should make in the first draft.

As PJS said, the absolute first requirement is that the first scene grab the reader’s attention. If it doesn’t, dump it. If it does, the reader doesn’t care what it’s called.

I don’t object to prologues in general, except that (a) most prologues are boring, and (b) most prologues are evidence that the author was too lazy or didn’t know how to incorporate back story into the main thread.


As usual, I agree with your two previous advisers, even though they are saying different things. There are no hard and fast rules about stories, except that they must keep the reader turning pages, eager to know what happens next.

The only problem I see in your present course is that you have two protagonists, and you’re setting one aside to deal with the other’s past. Maybe you really only have one protagonist, and the other is a close companion or sidekick? Otherwise, the second one is also going to need some back story farther along.

Me, I like stories that slip back and forth in time, since that’s how I experience life. But I recently found out how little some readers like or tolerate such “fancy” writing. I mean, some readers get confused if you call a character Sam on one page and Samuel on another. Or introduce a fact beyond their limited knowledge. You will drive yourself nuts trying to please dumb readers. Go ahead and write the story that’s in you. And don’t read too many of those “advice” books on writing fiction.

My advice: think of your readers first.

Are your readers going to be happy with an initial chunk of backstory? Would it suit the genre? Would it suit the story you’re writing? Do you see successful books in this genre with prologues? Some genres might be very slightly more amenable to prologue-isation than others - say romances compared with thrillers.

But only very slightly. Most require starting in media res. Have a read, if you haven’t already, of Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winner The Blind Assassin, a marvellous novel that is 90 per cent backstory. But it begins with a wonderful Atwood-esque first paragraph that sets up the plot, before plunging back. What would Heart of Darkness have been like with its backstory rendered as a prologue?

As the success of those books illustrates, readers often love backstory, loads of it – in the right places. That means when it’s properly set up, and the reader has reached the point in the narrative where she wants to know what backstory can reveal. That doesn’t necessarily mean in brief flashbacks. You can bring it in all sorts of ways: dreams, memories, letters, dialogue, reports, stories within stories. TV, radio and the Internet have introduced new ways.

So - prologues, perhaps not, but “Don’t be bashful with backstory” is my message.

Sorry to be dogmatic - I’m very keen on backstory in fiction, handled properly. After all, in real life, isn’t backstory way more than 90 per cent of what we all are?

Edit: If you’re in the UK, current episodes in the current series of Spooks are an interesting case study in the deployment of (very, very) delayed backstory…

And all the better for it. Very exciting, and technically interesting: a mixture of expository near-monologue, filmed flashback and odd snatches of relevant dialogue. The writers have also explored hybrids of showing and telling, which is very effective, and which makes us rack our brains to compare the backstory with what we have seen before. I’m desperate to say more but I won’t, in case people haven’t seen the latest episode; I would hate to inadvertently spoil such an enthralling story line. :slight_smile:

This is a useful discussion for me. Recently, I have been revisiting some of my previous writing, and four of the pieces have a prologue of some description (or, at least, a separate section that precedes the main body of the text). I hadn’t actually thought of these sections as prologues, and they certainly aren’t labelled as such, but I think that is essentially what they are. Three of the prologues are (at heart) little more than thickly veiled variations of each other, despite belonging to very different works in very different genres! I can only conclude that I had something on my mind at the time I wrote them.

I have decided to drop two of them entirely, and to work the relevant material of the third into later sections. The fourth is more complicated, because it is integral to the story. My current plan is to expand it slightly and treat it merely as the first part of the story (with a time-lapse and change in point of view between that and the next bit), then to introduce sections from a similar point of view later on (not just to unify this initial chunk, but as part of an overhaul of the overall structure). I don’t know if it will work, but we’ll see.

As a reader, if I need certain information to make sense of Chapter 1, then I don’t object to having it presented in prologue form (as long as there is a plausible reason why it is a prologue rather than just the start of the novel). On the other hand, if I don’t need that information until half-way through the book, then the story feels clumsy and disjointed and the prologue irritates me.

Worst of all is the sort of prologue that is matched by an epilogue, like a pair of smug wooden bookends encasing the (barely related) real story. A very long time ago, as a student, I read a load of fantasy books belonging to a friend, and a surprising number of them had this basic structure, as though the authors were trying to superimpose some sort of higher meaning onto what would otherwise have been a good read. Maybe they were just hammering the point home, unsure of their success in doing so through the main story? Or it might have been a genre convention (I haven’t read enough fantasy to comment)? Whatever the reason, it felt like weak writing. I have since read prologue/epilogue novels which worked better (some of them highly literary), so I suppose it depends on the writer.

Thanks for reminding me. Yes, it is important that the first scene grabs the attention - on this there is no conflicting advice! Unfortunately, the backstory scene is more evocative than dramatic so I doubt I can use it in its current form unless I include it after the first few ‘proper’ scenes (probably ending up in Chapter 2 or 3).

Both very good suggestions. I think I will go for the latter for now. It’s not as if I’m going to have the manuscript ready for submission within several months at least.

And you know, I kinda agree with this. My ‘problem’ is that presently the backstory scene is several pages in length and doesn’t fit into a conventional flashback slot, at least ‘as is’, yet I feel it is a perfect scene-without-a-context when it comes to the important backstory so I’m loathe to chop it into little pieces. I will ruminate on it while progressing the main body of writing. I suspect something will occur to me during that process, so maybe I’m giving this too much premature thought.

Now this is a very interesting point you raise, and I thank you for it. In my original plan for the book I had one protagonist, a male. The woman has kind of ‘snuck up’ on me and may well end up being the main protagonist with the original guy taking less of the limelight. Dramatic change though this may seem it doesn’t really affect the plot, only the main viewpoint from which events are written. The male in question is certainly going to remain a hugely significant character either way.

There is a love story between the two woven into the main plot (which is a political thriller), but even if I isolate the love story angle I think the story is more about her than it is him. Hmmm, I do need to really think about this for a while.

I love this advice :slight_smile:

I do have something very much in my mind. It could be that I like the vision too much and it won’t translate well to paper, or more likely I just need to give it time and come back to how best to incorporate it.

I have been wrestling with the possibility of doing this for some time. I wish you luck! I had to give up in the end as it doesn’t really suit the pace of the main body of work, but I think it’s a neat idea in principle.

Absolutely. I have no plans whatsoever to include an epilogue :slight_smile:

Thank you all for the considered responses, salient reminders and general advice. Having an idea bounced around a little from time to time is so much more stimulating to the brain than reading a static article, no matter who wrote it :slight_smile:


I’m in this position at the moment. The solution I chose is perhaps more dramatic than novelistic because you can’t do flashbacks easily on stage. It’s to make the revealing of the backstory a crucial part of the telling of the, if you like, front-story. In other words, the backstory becomes about action not motivation. We don’t have to find ways to TELL because we can now SHOW. Seems to work okay.

(Shakespeare of course does it brilliantly in the Burnham Wood prophesy in the Scottish play. But then he’s got witches. Witches always help.)

The problem with backstories is that they all too often just delay the action, and aren’t as necessary as assumed.

If the action is “Dave loses an arm as a result of a kettle exploding while making a cup of tea”…

…the following is not good backstory:

  • Dave being introduced to tea at a young age
  • A history of tea
  • A history of all the times Dave has used his arm

…the following is good:

  • Dave likes to do electronics experiments on his kitchen appliances
  • Dave’s wife, Mary, is having an affair with a jealous kettle repair man

Even then, do these things really need to be learnt prior to the main action?

Some good advice I read once: “know what the chase is, and cut to it”.

Although it might explain why Dave was using a pressure cooker to make tea though.

Kettles can be dangerous things. I once tried to clean the limescale from my kettle by putting citric acid in the kettle and then boiling it. It worked. The kettle was spotless.

Of course, the kettle spewed hot acid across the entire kitchen, and filled the room with acid fumes, but you can’t have everything.

I would prefer a good written prologue over any - however superbly told - flashback within the story. Flashbacks are almost always the easier solution - for the author - and I never encountered a satisfying one. But this may be due to me reviewing a colleagues screenplay; he was constantly inserting flashbacks while I was constantly deleting them. This ended in a funny and very entertaining yelling contest, followed by a drinking contest which I don’t remember too well. So, my opinion about flashbacks is not based upon scientific facts.

I have just become hooked on a series of novels by Arnaldur Indriðason, which use flashback extensively and to great effect, and which simply wouldn’t hang together or be so compelling if the information was presented as a prologue or as narrative exposition. In theory, based on my previous prejudices, I should find the technique irritating, but he manages to spin flashback and current storylines in parallel in such a way that once I get into one of the books, I can’t put it down.

In the space of five days, I have read Jar City, Silence of the Grave and Voices. As soon as I finish one, I feel compelled to download the next one to my Kindle, so The Draining Lake is waiting for me to log off the computer and curl up in bed to start another instalment. And I don’t even like thrillers! Especially those that that deal with the seedier sort of crime or with violence. (I suspect that part of the attraction of these books is that they are so very reminiscent of Iceland that I can imagine myself there, but I also find the characterisation quite compellingly ordinary, so the books feel very realistic to me despite the alienation of the crimes themselves. But that is an aside.)

Anyhow, Arnaldur’s series provides interesting examples of how interspersed flashbacks can be an effective tool if used well.

I’m a bit late to this barbecue, but you might consider keeping the backstory/prologue as it is and dropping it in chunks into the main novel when it would be appropriate for said protagonist to think on his or her past. I’ve seen this in film more than books, but I really like the effect.

There is mystery to it overlaying the main suspense of the novel and if the climax of the backstory chapter hits the right spot in the novel (probably just before the main climax) it can really put the story’s tension on sterioids.

I did this with one of my novels…or something similar. The protagonist had a recurring dream that occured four or five times through the book. Each time the dream was presented it went further and revealed a little bit more about a past tragedy he was holding at bay. The final dream was not only a reveal to the reader, but also a catharsis of sorts for the protagonist that allowed him to move forward and complete his journey.

Just a thought.