the story before the story
(Butler, PA USA)
Question: I have a first draft finished and am now trying to polish my work. I wrote an introduction - which is really fiction, but written like it's not, then I have 2 other chapters that occur really before my main character is introduced about the heroine's parents and how they ended up where they did. I've changed the sequence of these chapters several times and now I don't know how to write it. It seems awkward to have someone remembering back to these stories, so to me it makes sense to put them first, but everything I have read says I have to introduce my main character first to get the reader in the right mindset. I thought of putting them together with just a break between them as a prologue, but am not sure how long a prologue really should be or even if that's a good idea. What if I just title the chapter "The story before the story?" Any advice would be appreciated.Answer:
I understand your dilemma. There have certainly been plenty of stories throughout history that began with the overall story line (often as a prologue), even though the preference these days is to begin with the main character's throughline - or sometimes the impact character throughline, if the main character is narrating.
The fact that you have additional introductory material that delays the introduction of the main character makes it more problematic.
I'm not saying the current preference is right or wrong. I'm sure you could
tell a great story no matter which throughline you lead with. But so often agents and editors make the decision to reject a manuscript based on the first page alone, so why give them an excuse?
If the information in this backstory is really, really, really, essential to the rest of the book, perhaps one of these devices would work...
* Can you introduce the information in dribs and drabs throughout the book?
* Could the main character learn about it through something like a diary or letter from her parents?
* Could she hear it from a family friend or other relative?
* Could it be one of those stories that the main character must put together slowly from a variety of sources?
* Could you play with order of the story weaving - for instance, present the backstory as an epilogue?
* Could you simply make this material into chapter 2, perhaps putting it all in italics to signal that it is a break in the story that began in chapter 1? This would be similar to a flashback scene, except not in the main character's memory.
* Could you turn the past into a subplot, presented in brief stages, so that the novel jumps back in time for each installment and then forward again to continue the main plot?
* Last (and probably worst) what about making it a dream?
Any of these would let you lead with your main character.
Incidentally, could that Introduction be a Note at the end?