Avoiding Prologues and Exposition

Avoiding Prologues and ExpositionCan you write certain genres while avoiding prologues and exposition?

So many prologues, so little time… to get the reader to turn the page. For many, ‘prologue’ equals ‘put down.’

Fantasy and science fiction frequently rely on a trunk-load of world-building and lore. The reader has to wade through pages of exposition before they get anywhere close to an empathetic main character.

There’s a key question: how much of this stuff does the reader need to know on page one? Secondly, how much of your world and history can they retain in one hit?

Putting wheels on a sled

Personally I like multi-layered, complex stories with deep world-building. But if you need a 300-year rewind just to scene-set, you’ve lost me. We’re looking at you, Rings of Power. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t do that. We’re pretty much straight into the inciting incident with Gandalf aiming to identify the One Ring.

The prologue appeals to authors as a great vehicle to cheat your way into the story, laying out all that backstory up-front. As readers, we recognise the cheat. Why should we give you the time, when we really want to get on with the story? If the world-building and lore is that much more important, what does that say about your characters? I’d rather get to know the characters through action and find out all that other stuff as we go.

Just because there are lots of prologues in classics and best-sellers, that doesn’t make them acceptable or good.

Like prologues, I find epigraphs – quotes and poems – in chapter headings either on-the-nose or pretentious twaddle. Instead of adding depth and ‘authenticity,’ they draw attention to the artifice of the novel form. They generally take me out of the story rather than pulling me in.

It’s just another cheat.

Showing versus Telling

There’s a balance between ‘avoid exposition at all costs’ and ‘I’ve no idea who’s what, where, when or why.’ Good writers find a way to work world-building and lore into the fabric of the story, while the characters are in motion.

Unless you can ‘prologue-it’ as a self-contained short story of some kind with some characters and some drama, it’s going to read like the very info-dump you’re trying to avoid. Even then, prolog-ing with a set of disposable characters wastes more of the readers’ time and emotional investment.

So before you go full-prologue, tease out what information the reader needs and when. Is the content of the prologue vital to the understanding of world-building or plot set-up? If it is, why can’t you relay that while the characters are in motion?

I know we’re all told ‘show don’t tell’ but sometimes you can slip in a bit of ‘tell’ if the narrative point-of-view is handled right. You can always drip-feed background information through some reaction, reflection or musing by your character. Maybe not if you open in the middle of an action scene, though; you’ll have to wait for the calm after the storm when the readers go ‘phew, what was that all about?’

Is there a foil/sidekick character or a fish-out-of-water character who can prompt for a bit of expo in the course of a conversation?

Maid and Butler

By way of warning, Sanderson frequently harps on ‘maid-and-butler’ conversations from bad stage plays, the curtain-raising ‘as-you-know… yes, and’ dialogue that tries to short-cut the set-up. Don’t do that.

Characters researching the current problem often get to tell the librarian, sage, archivist or computer, to skip ahead to the highlights; because experts and computers always want to tell you waaay more detail than you need on the way to the actual answer.

Don’t overdo this device. In one of Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow Trilogy, each chapter has an extract from that fantasy world’s ‘Wikipedia,’ relating the history of various battles. The point-of-view character is an annoying historian shadowing a ‘Not-Conan-the-Barbarian’ protagonist. He’s constantly comparing the ‘history’ he knows to the person in front of him.

Alternatively, set up some ‘mystery boxes.’ Raise questions, drop hints, but withhold the answers til later plot points.

Take a look at a prologue in any example novel. Now ask; does this need a prologue? The answer’s probably no.

3 thoughts on “Avoiding Prologues and Exposition”

  1. Listening to a lot of audiobooks in the fantasy genre the last couple of weeks. Nothing chills the blood more than the narrator intoning the word ‘prologue.’ My heart literally sinks.

    Most of them are rambling and poorly-timed info-dumps. I can’t get invested in an info dump. I want to get to the characters and a hint of plot.

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