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So Prologues Are Bad

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Xitra_Blud, Jan 17, 2016.

  1. Xitra_Blud

    Xitra_Blud Sage

    I've heard multiple times that prologues are bad and that you should avoid using them at all cost. All the information needed in the story should be conveyed through the story itself, but what if the world is so complex that there's really no way to convey how everything works without some sort of monologue or direct telling?

    I have a story that takes place in the far future with different sorts of powers, social rules, conducts, and everything. It's sort of a sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian/futuristic type world. There really is no way to explain how this world works without confusing the reader unless I have a prologue or info dump.
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2016
  2. ScipioSmith

    ScipioSmith Sage

    In your case, very few of those things seem like the sort of issues that could be resolved by a prologue, or indeed need an infodump.

    The codes of manners and conduct that prevail in your setting can be shown quite easily by people following those codes, the reader will soon catch on that this is how people behave in this setting. Powers are trickier, in that you want to establish the rules early so that it never feels cheap, but if you are determined to avoid an info-dump you could try a training session, like Brandon Sanderson often uses.
  3. Xitra_Blud

    Xitra_Blud Sage

    I think the issue appears in the different rankings and levels of their powers. Each character is born with different sorts of powers and each power with different rankings and different levels. It's very complicated, and I don't think it's something I could really "show".
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Prologues can be done well, but to me the back story/infodump prologue is the most problematic. Hard to pull off well. If there is any way to incorporate the info into the story proper I'd go with that.
  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I'm generally against the use of prologues. It's just that I find myself merely trying to get through them and rarely remember them later. I'm in the camp that says, "No prologues!" (if there is a camp). But if the book is good, I won't hold the fact that it uses a prologue against it.

    If you absolutely need a prologue to establish clarity for your setting, I'd suggest trying to imagine a scene or scenario for it that hits all the potentially confusing parts and that you can write in such a way as to tie it into your plot.

    For example, without knowing anything about your book, imagine a set of complex powers and social rules (kind of like you've stated), and then consider making the prologue a scene set at some sort of coliseum or sporting match, with two or three spectators watching a match and discussing upcoming matches while negotiating some sort of trade deal or conspiring to commit a crime in-between comments about the match. It could be a naturalistic sort of "infodump" if handled right.* It'd have to relate directly to your plot in addition to ... setting the setting.

    Now, that sort of scene might be totally wrong for your particular book, but I think you get the general idea?

    *Edit: I mean, imagine a scenario in which the characters would have a reason to be discussing various powers, trading stats etc. It's like fantasy football or else like a comic book convention in which the convention goers get into a debate over match-ups between various superheroes—who would win? That sort of thing.
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2016
    Penpilot likes this.
  6. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

    I didn't realize people didn't enjoy prologues. I love them when they fit, and in fantasy it usually fits. If done right, it adds a dimension of time to a story, or a sense of grandeur. Sometimes they're written a bit more poetically than the rest of the book, and to me I like starting a story off with a quick little poem of sorts, or a pre-story story. As long as it's short, I generally like them. Sometimes they're not good, and that's usually when it feels like it's just there for exposition. But I don't dislike them because they're prologues.
    Guy likes this.
  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Prologues are just fine under the right circumstances... info dumps are bad no matter what, they do happen, but to say I need a prologue to info dump is a seriously iffy situation. They tend to be lazy writing on the part of even good writers. I picked up a book the other day and the prologue tried to give history and blah blah, I just skipped it, guarantee I don't need a lick of that blah blah.

    The best use of a prologue is to show the inciting event, that thing that changes everything, gets the ball rolling, when the main character is not present for the event. Then we get Chapter 1 with the MC and we're off to the races. So, if the prologue is a starting gun, I'm down with that.

    In your situation, write the story first, see if you weave in the info dump throughout and then decide if you still need a prologue that will make people like me groan.
  8. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    I agree. I write prologues as first chapters, or first parts of chapters. Consider whether you could use a c couple lines before each chapter to relay the important information you can't show in the story. Here are a few of my chapter headers:

    That one sets up a card game and "tells" who one of the people are, with a bit of insight about how he views people, because he's not a POV character, but he's a contact for the POV character. It's not necessary, but a fun bit of information that speaks to the theme of the first chapter.

    That one replaced a whole stupid useless scene where a character received or wrote a letter setting up a meeting. It was a pointless scene to write, but with just this one line, I could convey that the letter was sent and the meeting arranged, so when the character appeared in the scene, the reader understands he was expected.

    I think this technique was masterfully done in Prince of Thorns, because so much of the information given before a chapter was stuff that couldn't be organically shown in the action, but I always enjoyed those little insights we were given. They put into context characters and situations so we could understand them, but they weren't info dumps. More of secrets we were being let in on. That's how I try to work my own in. As curious, almost random feeling bits of information that not only set up the tone of the chapter or the immediate situation, but tell us about the characters.

    If you have, say, a mage council that executes anyone who breaks its laws, and you want the reader to understand that the character is in immediate peril right from the beginning, because he's broken the laws, and you don't have an organic way to show that before opening, consider one or two lines that can tell us the gravity of the situation without info-dumping. That is, if you don't think you can properly work it right into the first lines, like in The Lies of Locke Lamora:

  9. Zadocfish

    Zadocfish Troubadour

    Hm... what if the prologue is done in the style of a separate, seemingly-unrelated short story, to introduce or set up aspects of the setting?
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    > There really is no way to explain how this world works without confusing the reader unless I have a prologue or info dump.

    There is really no way there is really no way. Think of major science fiction novels, in which incredibly complex systems and incredibly complicated ideas are communicated without resort to expository narration. It can be done.

    It's hard to do. It's really hard to do well. But don't for a moment think it can't be done.

    That said, there's nothing wrong with setting out your world-building in a prologue or in big info chapters. Just don't expect they will survive your editor. But it can be useful and helpful as a writer to get all of it down on paper, as part of the story. My bet is you will see the clumsy parts yourself, and revise on your own. But you can't really see it (or, at least I cannot) until it's there on paper or screen. You're not likely to solve the issue in the abstract.
    Russ, Xitra_Blud and Steerpike like this.
  11. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I agree with Skip. And you also have to consider what the reader needs to know. Chances are you'll have a lot more world building than needs to go in the story.
  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I'm not against prologues. I actually enjoy them when they're done right.

    Fifth View said a lot of what I wanted to say, but I'll add this. From your post, I don't think the complexity of what you want to show needs to be in a prologue. It can be shown. It may be challenging, but definitely not impossible. It just takes a lot more thought in designing your scenes and the details within.

    Take a look at Game of Thrones. Yes, it had a prologue, but that prologue didn't contain any info dumps on the politics of the kingdoms or on how the society worked in all it's intricate details. Though, it did show us bits. Everything major about that world was revealed through the telling of the story.
  13. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Have you considered not explaining it? Readers might just pick it up on their own as you go.

    Usually you would use a prologue to establish a threat that takes a while to emerge, or to show the readers something from a different POV character. World building is usually not the best reason to use one, although I'm sure there are good examples.

    Think about the prologue in the LOTR movies. It was an info-dump, it was awesome . . . . but it was also visual, and the voice over with the music were a huge part of why it worked. I don't think it would have worked in the original book.
  14. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

    But... the original book did have an info-dump prologue regarding the hobbits.
  15. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    I fully agree that showing how these things work is preferable than a prologue. If need be, though, you might preface each chapter with short 'quotes' - no more than two or three sentences - that describe this system. Said quotes could come from famous speeches, textbooks, street slang, or personal recollections. I have seen this method used to great effect in multiple fantasy/SF novels.
  16. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Bad prologues are bad. Good prologues are good.

    Prologues are a tool. Learn to use the tool effectively and it will serve you well.
  17. DeathtoTrite

    DeathtoTrite Troubadour

    It's about what a prologue is, I think. Its NOT an info dump. Its not some vague, confusing thing that requires the waterboarding the author to understand. Its a way to focus the plot (especially if the first bit of your book might only gradually introduce the conflict) and give readers a taste.
    Mythopoet likes this.
  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I have also read to skip the prologue from quite a few writing resources. This blog had some of the most compelling reasons why:

    Skip the Prologue! - Helping Writers Become Authors

    Like all things, obviously the real reason is "it depends",


    but I know I'm in the reader camp that finds them annoying and unnecessary.

    However, my current WIP has one, but it is framed as a barely one paragraph news article, and acts as a short hook.
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2016
  19. It's pretty funny that I should find this thread mere minutes after having just penned my own prologue.

    I do find prologues to be important, if done right. They need to actually contribute something to the story, and not just be some sort of one shot that does very little for the plot of the book. A Song of Ice and Fire does this beautifully. Each novel in the series opens with a prologue, and while it may seem at first that the prologue doesn't fit into the story, it's later revealed to be one of the most important parts to the tale.

    My book is written in the form of a journal, more specifically, a memoir. The prologue is the main character kind of introducing himself and telling the reader basically what they should expect from the narrative. It isn't even very long. Just about half of the front side of some notebook paper. But it does what it needs to do, which is get the reader familiar with the character before embarking on the long journey ahead.
  20. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    I have a very similar setup with 'Labyrinth: Journal.' The prologue shows the journal coming into the possession of a character (with problems of his own.) The rest of the book, barring the epilogue, is the journal.

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