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Let's say I'm creating a unique world for my book. New planet, maybe new species, complex society with complex rules, history, government, and so on. Some of these details are absolutely necessary to understand the plot of the story.

There are two ways to give this information to the reader.

  1. Prologue of some kind: Anne McCaffrey had this in the beginning of her original dragon trilogy, explaining how humans came to Pern, what dragons were in this context, what Thread was (both in scientific reality and what it meant to the Pernese), and how things had changed and developed to leave the society as it was when the story opened. David & Leigh Eddings did something similar for the Belgariad and Malloreon series, although theirs were more faux historical documents, with each book's prologue having a different tone and style and giving a different piece of history.
  2. Jump in and learn along the way: Mercedes Lackey's Arrows of the Queen trilogy just starts, and we learn about the society and Companions as the same time as the 13-year-old narrator.

My question is: Where is the tipping point between explaining the world as the narrator is introduced and the story gets underway, and setting the scene before the story starts so that you're not infodumping and having characters say ridiculously obvious things for the reader's benefit?

At what point is a world so complex that you kind of have to explain some of it before getting underway? Is it always "lazy" to have this kind of prologue?

(I'm not talking about a recap prologue, by the way — sometimes you need a refresher, and I'd honestly rather have that in the prologue than have characters waste time thinking about what happened in the previous book just to remind the reader.)

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"The Hobbit" starts with a sort of prologue that explains hobbits, but Tolkien weaves it into the narration. –  dmm Nov 22 '13 at 1:15
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3 Answers 3

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If you can do it in the story, and the story will not lose on it, do it. If this would hurt the story, do it in prologue.

There are a few reasonable tipping points:

  • BORING. If the elements of the world would not add to the story. It would be lengthy and tedious. Do a quick info dump and be done with it as painlessly as possible.
  • No room for good cabbagehead. It's a team of experts, or a pair of elder gods. There is simply no room for a rookie or apprentice to learn along the way, no good excuse to deliver the lectures. Or opposite - the characters are all cabbageheads and there's nobody competent to explain what is going on, but the reader needs to know the essence. Stories too alien to introduce a reasonable cabbagehead will fall under this too.
  • No TIME for cabbagehead. The story starts with action depending on the setting too much that the reader would be completely lost without some kind of intro.
  • Perfect room for a prologue. Opposite of the necessities above. You have a great, bite-sized piece of history that is completely disconnected from the main tale, but introduces the concepts and simultaneously captivates the reader.
  • Optional. You're writing a sequel/expansion which ties in with backstory of the original. These who read the original would find recaps in the main story tedious. These who didn't, would feel lost. So, "in last episode..."
  • Hanging some chekov guns. You have no good opportunity to do that from the main story, but there are things you simply must foreshadow early on.

This list is not complete, by any means, nor ultimate - e.g. quite often you can do an interesting and captivating recap of past events in a sequel without need for an intro.

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If your characters don't know, and won't find out but the reader needs to know, a prologue is necessary. In all other cases, It depends.

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Would you be willing to expand on this? The question is a very complex one, and could do with a longer answer. –  Neil Fein Nov 22 '13 at 4:17
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The only time you must have a prologue is when you have to convey information that the characters will never get (like the early Pern books). In all other cases there is no hard and fast rule. If the information is common knowledge, and the characters would not think about it, I would lean to prologue or narration. If the characters will discover, let them discover. Otherwise, Well . . . It depends –  hildred Nov 22 '13 at 4:26
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You need to keep three things in mind:

  1. If Page One of your story does not entertain the reader, he or she is unlikely to go on to the really good stuff on Page Two, let alone Page Seventeen. If there is one immutable rule of good writing, this is it.
  2. Exposition is usually less entertaining than action. That’s not an immutable rule—people do, after all, purchase non-fiction books and read them for pleasure—but it’s a tendency to be aware of.
  3. An extremely common flaw in novice fiction is putting stuff in the beginning of the story that is not actually necessary.

So if you really think that your readers cannot even begin to enjoy the action of your story without getting some background information first, and if you can present that background information in a prologue that is an entertaining read in its own right and not like homework the reader must slog through, then go with the prologue. Otherwise, jump in.

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