Backstory & prologues

I had a long, unfruitful discussion with a potential client about a touchy subject—backstory. This person likes to write books in the old style where the author writes chapter after chapter setting the story up, building your characters and their world and then beginning the story. I tried to explain that is not really what readers want now, but they could not be dissuaded. While people like Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey got away with it, they did so because that was what the style was when they were writing. It does not work now. If you are going to write, you have to decide whether you prefer writing books to selling them.

Why do I say that? Let me explain. When you open a book, you are interested in what the story is about, who the characters are and the setting. But, you don’t necessarily want to meander through three chapters of taking a tour, hearing the local history and having coffee with the characters before the story begins. You want to get into the story straightaway. You want to meet, briefly, the chief characters and get introduced to their world and their struggle right away. If not, I can imagine you sitting, fidgeting and tapping your toe saying “get on with it!” When I writer takes that long setting the story up, I think they started their book at the wrong point. All the peaceful stuff that went on before the start of the story is fine as background. But, it is only that, background. I don’t really need to know all that stuff to begin with the story. Leave it for later. Tell me only when and if I need to know it to understand the story or the stakes for the characters.

Prologues are much the same thing. They, usually, take the reader back to a time before the story begins for some cogent piece of information. If the story does not rely on the reader knowing this information to get the plot or understand the world of the story, then the prologue is only delaying the start of the story. Leave it out.

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