Prologues- Yes or No?

So what’s the current thinking on prologues? I’m working with an editor/writing coach on my epic SF series. She loves the multi-layered, complex story, but says she sometimes gets lost because I have avoided exposition as much as possible. I’m torn between leaving it as it is, and hoping the reader is paying attention to the conversations, scenes etc. The other option is a prologue in the style of book entries (the book is referenced in the story) or, extracts from the book at the beginning of each chapter.
The prologue would cover events three hundred years before the story opens. I love books where I have to decipher the clues. But I’m worried I’m being just a bit too obscure.
Appreciate any insights. Thanks

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I try to remember the reader is not the writer and they do not have the “internal” view the author enjoys. I remind my readers often as to who is who and what happened 50, a hundred, or even just 10 pages back. I want them to be entertained and to stay with my. I write mysteries, etc. Expose has served me well on two points. My page limit is right around 300 and I want my story to move forward so eschew flashbacks, long-lost whatever, and so on. Recently, I tried putting a letter/doc in as the opening to tell the reader what happened almost 20 years ago. Only one (out of 9) betas thought it was “cool”; the others found it a cheat especially when all I needed to do was insert at the appropriate time/place with character feedback. As it is, the info appears twice and the first example it comes off as dump-ish, in the second instance, redundant. As much as I love a good conceit, I removed it. But I did take my time . . . I think it was only after 3-4 re-reads in the final edits that I even thought about it.

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I know there’s some editors and agents that have decided all prologues are bad and that’s just a bone that they’ll gnaw on out of principle. On the other hand, prologues are a tried and true in many many successfully published thrillers, mysteries, and speculative fiction pieces. Most of my favorite books start out with excellent prologues. I find they set the tone and keep you in suspense --especially if the story starts in the very ordinary world but will eventually veer into the fantastic. Try your prologue and see how you feel. Does it set up your story with a promise that will draw the reader past the first few scenes? If so, then I’d say it’s a keeper.

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It’s all about finding the balance between ‘avoid exposition at all costs’ and ‘I’ve no idea who’s what where when or why.’

Personally I like the sound of multi-layered and complex, but if you need a 300-year rewind to scene-set you’ve lost me.

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.

So before you go full-prologue, tease out where/why your editor is getting lost, what is the missing info? Is it vital to the understanding of world-building or plot set-up?

Also get a second and third opinion. If all your beta’s have the same issue, it’s you. If not, you’ve still got work to do to bring clarity, as your editor represents a %age of your future readers.

I know we’re all told ‘show don’t tell’ but sometimes you can slip in a bit of ‘tell’ if the narravtive PoV is handled right. You can do a drip-feed of background info through a bit of reaction/reflection/musing on the causes of what’s happening now to your character. Maybe not if you open in the middle of an action scene, you’ll have to wait for the calm after the storm when the readers go ‘phew, what was that all about?’

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.

But do you have 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?

You’re doing sci-fi, your character can always tell the AI library to skip ahead while researching the current problem, because computers always want to tell you waaay more detail than you need on the way to the actual answer.

Or set up some mystery boxes, raise questions, drop hints, but withhold answers til later plot points.

I’m trying to recall the fantasy novel I started reading during lockdown where each chapter has an extract from that fantasy world’s ‘wikipedia,’ relating the history of various battles. The PoV character is an annoying historian shadowing the ‘Not-Conan-the-Barbarian’ protagonist, constantly comparing the ‘history’ he knows to the person in front of him.

Effective, but not especially subtle and I got fed up with it as a narrative device. B-minus, needs to write better. Someone’s now going to remind me who the author is and how many 000’s they sold.

@rtcatling: Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow Trilogy? Conan = Vaelin Al Sorna?

Thank you guys for your insightful advice. Yes, I thought I was being subtle, but it looks like it’s coming off as obscure. I will resist the prologue idea, and go back through the story and make the clues/ info more obvious. It will be going to betas after this edit, so I’ll get further feedback on how successful I’ve been. Fingers crossed. Thanks again.

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All the best to you, Dara. Go get 'em! :blush:

That’s the one! DNF at the time, got about 70 pages in. No idea what I’ve done with it or I’d give it another look.

Having said all that, I’m cheating in books 1 & 2 of my series by opening with a flash forward (rather than a prologue) to the finale. But my MC is a seer with second sight, so I’m hoping I can get away with it. It’s a well-worn TV trope & I’m gambling the tease will stick.