the story before the story

by Janet
(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?

Comments for the story before the story

Click here to add your own comments

Nov 12, 2012
same here
by: Clara27

I´m having the exact same problem. You had already given me all sorts of good options/ideas in a question of my own, but these options are pretty cool too. I like the one about making it into a sub plot!! I´m taking that one! I also liek what you say about the trend--but that if it´s compelling enough, we could get away with anything( can´t we?)Anyway, there´s always the Harry Potter way, by naming and talking about the MC in the first chapter even though he isn´t present, as a way to link the prologue with what will come next.

Nov 12, 2012
Story before the story
by: Janet

So now I am rethinking my introduction. I am writing this with a friend and we thought up this little story about how we came across new information about something that happened 400 years ago, which is when the story happens. When I showed her the newly discovered information, we decided to write the story. That's what I put in the introduction. I'm not sure something like that would be a good first chapter because it really has nothing to do with the actual story. Should it be an epilogue?

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Questions About Novel Writing.