I am soon to begin some revisions on a novel at the behest of my agent. While I've been whining to a few friends that these revisions will either "dumb down" or otherwise harm my beautiful, sensitive story, it occured to me this morning that what my agent suggests is nothing more than removing a lot of backstory from the beginning of the tale and fitting it in later on.
Neither he nor I have put it quite like this before, because a) my agent isn't a writer and he just gives me his instinctive "gut feeling" comments, and b) I hadn't realized until very recently that my protagonist's youth wasn't the story, but was in fact backstory. It was quite an epiphany when I realized this. The actual story doesn't begin until the very last scene of the first chapter (and I write fairly long chapters, so my readers have to get through 60 pages before the tale begins to kick into gear).
While my protagonist's backstory is eventful and colorful and gorgeously-written (I tell myself), it does delay not only the beginning of the book's central action (which, frankly, I don't mind because I have read a lot of that sort of book), but also the protagonist's central desires and the motivation for his actions throughout the rest of the book. So I'll do some restructuring in July and August.
This might sound like another exhortation to grab your reader in the first sentence and not let go, but it's not. Nor is my agent asking me to do that. One of his comments, about 40 pages into the ms, was "I'm willing to read more about your MC's youth, but not much." It's fine to give background, set the scene (especially in alternate-world type novels; mine takes place in the 16th century, so some setting is necessary for the action to make sense), introduce characters. But, at some point you have to be telling a story and letting the reader know why they're reading your book.
So the point (finally) is that you need to think about where the actual story begins, and not lard on too much setting before that. Begin at the beginning. There is always a sort of "Chapter 0" before your book starts, and you should move as much of that as you can into chapters after the beginning. I'm going to work my MC's youth into later chapters (like Chapter 2 and 3, I think) so that readers will have met the main players first, found out the driving forces behind the action, and then get the history. I hope.
How do you know where your actual story begins? I think there is a sort of "story present," the "now" of the story when it seems to be happening, for the reader, in real time. Does everything that happens outside of that "story present" need to be cut, or shoved into the story and revealed along the way of the "now?" Not necessarily. Some writers, like Jhumpa Lahiri in "The Namesake," tell stories in chronological order, more-or-less, though "The Namesake" begins with a birth and then, while the mother is at the hospital delivering the protagonist, the story loops backward in time to give us the backstories of the protagonist's parents. Geraldine Brooks does something similar in "March," and this is the sort of thing I'll be doing with my own book.
In other words, be prepared for an editor or agent to tell you that your wonderful prologue needs to be moved into the body of the story, and be prepared to do that work.