Ask an Editor: Backstory vs. Prologue
A few weeks ago, Kat and I had a fantastic time participating in a NaNoWriMo webcast. We talked about many different subjects, but due to time were only able to touch on them briefly. But since the webcast, one thing that we’ve been seeing more questions and concerns about was our advice to avoid backstory in Chapter 1. We had a lot of viewers asking things like, “But what about my prologue?” or “But what about building my world? Won’t readers need to know this to understand the story?” So, today I thought I’d take a little time to dive deeper into this issue.
First, I still stand by Kat’s and my assertion that backstory does not belong in Chapter 1. You only have a very, very brief window to grab a reader, and as fascinating and detailed as your world might be, you really need action and movement to pull a reader into your story. Chapter 1 needs to introduce your character, show them wanting something and taking action to achieve some goal. More on this here and here.
Let’s talk about what exactly backstory is. Backstory is all the stuff that happened before your story starts. If your character is 16, then this includes the first 15 years of their life, the things their parents did, the things their grandparents did, and the history of their entire world. As you can imagine, that’s a LOT of information. And, if you’re the kind of author who knows all this, it can be very, very tempting to tell it all to the reader in giant chunks. This is called info-dumping, and is always a bad idea.
I’m not saying that this information isn’t important or valuable. It might be vital to your understanding of the character and how the world works. But you need to be selective with how much of that information the reader really needs to know to understand what’s going on. Then, you need to be careful with how you relay that information to the reader.
Ideally, any information the reader needs should be threaded throughout the story and integrated as seamlessly as possible. You don’t want to stop the forward momentum of your story to tell us about something that happened in the past. But if you do come to a point where it’s vitally important to the story to know that the main character’s grandfather went on this exact same quest and died terribly (or something), then what you need to do is find a way to tie that information into what the character is doing right now. Did something they see remind them of their grandfather? That might be a place where you can put a sentence or a paragraph of backstory. Are they in a place where it would strengthen their relationships to confide in someone? If so, then having them share that backstory through dialogue could serve a dual purpose and wouldn’t feel so out of place.
But all of these tactics work a bit better if you are already familiar with the character and invested in their story. So that’s why we recommend saving backstory for Chapter 2, or better yet, scattering it throughout the book.
And I can hear you right now going, “But what about my prologue?!” I’m getting to that. :)
The first question is, what kind of prologue is it? There are some schools of thought that say you should never have a prologue. (And I agree they can be tricky.) That said, I can think of three different kinds of prologues that can work very well if done right.
First, for action-oriented books, there’s a scene from a different character, possibly the villain or a victim of some kind. A good example of this is in the first A Song of Ice and Fire novel. The prologue for Game of Thrones starts with someone beyond the Wall running into a White Walker and dying terribly. This does a really good job of letting us know that this is a world filled with danger and magic. It tells us there’s a threat coming that our main characters might not know about yet. And, even if the characters dismiss this threat, the readers know that it’s real. This also works very well in mysteries, thrillers and cop procedurals.
Second, for more character-driven stories, there’s the flashback scene to an important and defining moment from earlier in their life. This has to be a single event and, once again, it has to be a character in action, moving forward, so that it draws the reader in. For example, in Sandy Hall’s Been Here All Along, we see Gideon and Kyle’s first meeting through the eyes of an exasperated older brother. But it’s so adorable that it’s obvious the two are meant to be together. That one scene does a lot to set up who the characters are, the length of their relationship, the depth of their relationship, and how important it is to both of them.
And third, for certain kinds of fantasy novels, there’s the legend-as-prologue. This is when you really, really need readers to understand some specific piece of mythology or history, something that would be very difficult to portray through your main character’s eyes, but which would add a lot of depth to your world. Think about the first Lord of the Rings movie. Remember that prologue where Galadriel is telling you the story of the One Ring? This is information you need to know, but Bilbo and Frodo can’t tell it to you because they don’t know it. (Oddly enough, this is one place where I feel the movies handled it so much better than the book, precisely because they pulled it out and treated it as a prologue instead of stopping the action to info-dump.)
So, you can start out your book with some backstory if you’re using a prologue. But, you must—absolutely MUST—make it interesting and active. Active scenes are better than info-dumps every time. Remember, character trumps backstory, and always keep the plot moving. When it comes to backstory, less is more.
For more thoughts on backstory, check out this blog post.
Have a question for one of our editors? Let us know in the comments!