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On Backstory: Cut the Prologue

On Tuesday I told a little story about showing up at work late on a Monday, then I flashed back to a fun weekend with friends, then I skipped to the middle and told a sad little story about my girl’s first day at school. I was playing with narrative chronology.

My inspiration for that little gambit came from my evening walk the day before. Specifically, it came from the audiobook(s) I tried to listen to while I was out. I had the Stieg Larsson trilogy on my phone, and as I set out, I turned on the first book in the list, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

(Those of you who have read the books know where this is going. Please don’t ruin it for the rest of us.)

A Case Study in Backstory

So off I go, tromping down the street in the hundred-degree weather, and I quickly got absorbed in the story. There’s a murder, a medical emergency, a bumbling cop, and all manner of excitement. That book drops you right into the heart of everything.

I spent about ten minutes listening, putting the pieces together and racing to catch up with the story, and the whole time I’m thinking, “Man this guy likes backstory!” He kept dropping little references into dialogue that were rich with meaning, harkening back to something you know happened and you know was significant, but ten pages into the story you don’t actually know what it was.

Somewhere around the thousandth time he did that, the reference was so specific that I stopped and frowned in thought. I pulled up Google on my phone and did a quick search. Sure enough, I had the books out of order. I was reading the third one in the trilogy.

All that backstory? That was actually the rest of the trilogy.

So I called myself dumb, hoped I hadn’t learned anything that would utterly spoil the rest of the books for me, and I started over on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Y’know what? He does love backstory. But still, that first one was ridiculous.

Figuring Everything Out

Backstory is tricky. If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to everything that has happened in a story before the point in the story when the story actually starts. In Star Wars, it’s…well, three terrible movies. In The Matrix it’s this massive war between man and machines that really looks like it didn’t happen until you’re at least halfway through the movie.

The thing about backstory is that there’s always a lot of it. Joshua and I have been talking about my fantasy series recently, and I’ve got thousands of years of backstory cooked up there. Some of it shows up in Taming Fire (every time he thinks about the FirstKing, that’s backstory).

Writers tend to spend a lot of time on the backstory. It’s always fun and often fascinating, and much of the time you have to know a world’s backstory before you can really appreciate why and what is happening in its actual story.

The thing is…that’s true for writers. It’s not really true for readers. Hell, I probably could have cruised on through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and saved myself 20 hours of “reading” time. A good story stands on its own, backstory just makes it richer.

The Prologue Problem

But it does make it richer. So the challenge is always walking that line between positioning your tale contextually, and indulging in endless infodumps to “establish setting” or “build character.”

Nowhere is this challenge clearer than in the fantasy tradition of prologues. Fantasy authors almost always use prologues to try to achieve one of those two effects, and it’s astonishing how often they crop up. Jordan did it. Pratchett did it, too, even if he doesn’t necessarily name them. So did Cantrell and Unruh and Pogue.

It’s standard, and most of the time it’s boring. Or it’s really interesting, but utterly pointless. It’s not-story. When readers sit down with a novel they (usually) want to engage with an actual narrative, not just a series of interesting things.

So those of us who’ve done critique groups or creative writing classes have gotten used to the old refrain, “Cut the prologue!” We’ll repeat it. Courtney and I have both done it. Taming Fire started with a story about a dwarven child and a baby dragon that had nothing at all to do with Daven’s story. Two or three rewrites in, I mercilessly carved it away.

And I’m still saying the same thing. “Cut the prologue.” A couple years back I read Courtney’s fantasy epic, and when I was done she showed me her carved-off prologue and asked what I thought. I said, “It’s a good story. It doesn’t belong in your novel.”

But at the same time, I’ve been known to sit in writing groups and say in utter seriousness, “You know what you need to do? Write a prologue.”

Then I’ll go through everything I’ve described here, top to bottom. The richness of backstory, the problem with infodumps, the disconnect between prologue and story. When I meet a writer who’s having trouble getting started, who’s having trouble understanding his setting or his characters or his story situation and connecting it to the plot, there’s an easy answer for that.

Write a prologue. Spend one rich, exciting scene establishing setting or building character. Get in and get out, and then dive into your Chapter One operating with all the context and depth your prologue lent you.

Then when you’re done…cut the prologue. It’s easy as that. Your fans will thank you for it.

One Response to “On Backstory: Cut the Prologue”

  1. Joshua Unruh says:

    I did this in Hell Bent for Leather whether I meant to or not. FOUR CHAPTERS of prologue. Prologue I was told was interesting and a good, worthwhile read. But it wasn’t the meat of the story and kept me from getting to the meat. Write the prologue and then mercilessly and with great zeal, cut it off. I approve this message.