Myself, I’m thinking Todorov’s notion of narrative equilibrium might shed some light on why prologues seem superfluous or otherwise. The conventional narrative in Todorov’s model — with its five “stages” of equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction, restitution — is not too different from a practical model of situation, problem, engagement, try/fail cycle, resolution. The actual dynamics is more gnarly, to my mind, with nested and threaded sub-narratives of disruption, recognition and reaction (ump-thousand word blog post on this here). But in your classic simplest-of-the-simple narrative structure all the complex plottiness of the mid-section is still bookended by an obvious beginning (initial situation) and an obvious ending (final resolution). You don’t need a prologue and an epilogue. You just have a Chapter One and a Chapter Umpteen (or Umpty-Ump or whatever).
Here’s a way to look at it though, I reckon: If you have a Chapter One that simply describes equilibrium and a Chapter Umpteen that deals solely with restitution, this might come across as a bit dull, as both of these states are lacking in tension. The whole point is that they’re lacking in tension; the disruption that the plot manifests has not happened yet in one case, while in the other it has been resolved. So maybe there’s a tendency for beginnings and endings to show transitions rather than states, no? In other words Chapter One gives us the start-action (initial situation > initial disruption) and Chapter Umpteen gives us the end-action (final reaction > final resolution).
So I’m wondering if the problem Neil and Jetse are thrashing about comes from a use of prologues to “set the scene”, and if this is fundamentally about establishing equilibrium. Cause I can see how this wold go wrong, reading as pointless infodump to a modern audience.
With the omniscient PoV of Victorian Realism, I mean, you can take the time to establish the worldscape and even tell what’s gone wrong with it, and only then slowly focus in on the protagonist or protagonists who’re going to be engaging with that. The equilibrium is described. A gradual destabilisation is described. Ramifications are described. The point at which characters properly become active agents in plot terms can be hard to identify in that type of fiction because structurally it’s all very organic, all very emergent. The omniscient PoV only gradually winds its way in from the frame to settle on the key players. Thomas Hardy seems like a fair example here. That start-action (initial situation > initial disruption) might well take place over the first two, three or even more chapters. To the omniscient PoV, potentailly scrutinizing social interactions without an immediate involvement, the key disruption is just one of many perturbations in a disrupted-equilibrium of a homeostatic social system. Which is to say, it’s only as the detail is built up that we come to see that there’s a plot in action. There’s a long period at the start which could pretty much be described as “setting the scene”.
Contrast that with the equally omniscient PoV of traditional Epic, which tends to cut to the chase quicker, I’d say, but in doing so makes its scene-setting more blatant, more artificed. In many such narratives you actually get a short spiel, a ritualistic introduction — gather round, boys and girls; once upon a time; long ago, in a distant land; let us speak of a great hero, blah blah blah. In Gilgamesh, it’s the description of the hero and the walls of Uruk that he’s built, an expository laying down of context that’s all just scene-setting — from one persepective at least. Then, of course, it’s on with the Ripping Yarn, equilibrium out of the way as quickly as possible — sorta “stasis is boring; let’s get this narrative rolling already.” Enkidu is found at the watering-hole. The disruption has arrived toot-sweet. In the Epic, there’s more focus on action, on physical agency, so that start-action comes in like the kicking down of a door. Still, the omniscient narrator of Epic does get to lay out the Big Picture in what’s basically just description. There’s a distinct sense of the equilibrium being established upfront rather than revealed as we go along.
With modern fiction — especially pulp fiction — I’m not sure we all have the patience for that anymore. With the shift to the first person or limited third person PoVs of 20th century pulp, as the omniscient narrator falls out of fashion, it seems to me like any attempt to set up the equilibrium may well read as flat exposition. Without the omnisicent PoV, stories sort of become bound to characters who are either involved in the disruption from the get-go, or have no awareness of it until its ramifications force their engagement. The story doesn’t start — from their PoV — until they (perhaps accidentally) pull the narrative trigger and blow equilibrium to shit, or until some ramification of a disruption that’s already taken place comes up and kicks their feet out from under them. You can get away with maybe a chapter (maybe even less) of backgrounding if it’s integrated into a “character getting on with their daily life” scene or two, preferably primed with sufficient foreshadowing, (and the more character-driven or theme-driven a work is, the more you can get away with… perhaps,) but I don’t think the modern pulp reader is very patient. We’re looking for the narrative trigger to be pulled ASAP, for the plot to kick in pretty sharpish.
In story terms, I reckon this creates a stronger tendency to open in media res, to dump the reader in with the protagonist right at the “disruption” stage, if not even later. How many fictions these days actually start at the point where the disruption is just about to impact the protagonist’s life and drag them into the plot — i.e. in the “recognition” stage? In the narrative grammar of Mystery / Crime / Noir which underlies a fair amount of contemporary strange fiction, this may be a fundamental technique. You can make the protagonist’s subsequent discovery of the nature/source of the disruption a key driving force of the narrative. You can kick off in media res with the protagonist’s sudden embroilment due to a ramification of the initial disruption (secondary disruption > initial engagement) and only later reveal the backstory of exactly how this all came about (initial equilibrium > initial disruption = Big Revelation).
Where you’ve got a narrative grammar falling more towards the Epic / Heroic / Adventure end of the spectrum, however, making a mystery of the original start-action might mean telling a completely different story from the one you’re trying to tell. Maybe it’s not a story of discovery you’re aiming for. Maybe it’s just a simple story of dealing with the fucking disruption. There’s a problem to be sorted and the story is of it being sorted, not of faffing about in the mire of complexities, trying to figure out how this all came to be and finding resolution in the realisation of such. Now you can probably get away with a more classic narrative structure if the protagonist is personally involved in the disruption. The first chapter or two can present the disruption from their PoV with a little bit of subtly integrated backgrounding revealing the equilibrium in its negation, via that disruption. But if your protagonist is not personally involved in that disruption, because it’s a large scale disruption and they’re just the ickle bitty farmboy, born in obscurity but destined for greatness… well maybe you do want to lay down the context of the Enchanted Land into which — oh dear — the Dark Lord has broken loose. Or to talk in slightly less conventional terms — maybe you need to get your heroes into Hell in the first place, but you know that the real story only begins with them deciding to engage with it and try to bust their way out, guns blazing.
But this is shifting towards a distinct type of prologue that’s not entirely what Neil and Jetse are (largely) talking about. This is a sort of prologue that presents action in the form of disruption. What about that very expository type of backgrounding prologue which is really just about establishing equilibrium?
What we’re talking about there is framing, I think, and that change in PoV style means it’s harder to get away with that pure framing these days, or even with heavily descriptive introductions from which the plot only gradually emerges. That sort of malarky reads as editorialising blather, authorial infodump, telling rather than showing. (Does Contemporary Realism get way with more? Seems to me the first person CR work might be allowed more leeway with the chatty protagonist doing an explicit introduction with brief personal bio? But I’m not sure.) You do still see it though; classic Epic Fantasy (or Epic SF, for that matter), with its wandering PoV — pseudo-omniscient, multiple third person, or some hamfisted hybrid of the two — seems to have inherited that preambulatory approach, and where it lays out the equilibrium of the worldscape it seems to do so even more distinctly. Why? Epic strives for the sense of scale that comes with the frame, I think. It seeks the grandeur of a bona fide “Hear ye!” announcement that Story is about to commence. So in place of the “gentle reader” malarky of the obsolete omniscient narrator we have the literary equivalent of the scrolling text, the throaty voice-over, the burning map. It’s the modern equivalent of an invocation of the muses, or a description of Gilgamesh the King on the walls of Uruk.
This can fail because we just don’t buy into the artifice or because… well… it’s badly written. One common failure — when the prologue reads as pure infodump, usually because it’s too damn long, and too damn dry — is generally because it’s been written as backgrounding rather than framing, I reckon. The purpose of the “stage-setting” prologue of traditional Epic is not actually to impart information; it’s to impart significance. It’s a conjuration, an invocation, a sales pitch rather than a history lesson. If it paints a picture of the world and the players in it at all, (“Behold the mighty Gilgamesh! Behold the walls he built for Ururk!”) this function is subordinate to the seductive purpose (“Listen up, motherfucker, cause I’ve got a fucking Story!”) The prologue shouldn’t be a big block of blather the reader has to trawl through to get to the hook. It should be a hook in its own right, a sideshow barker saying, “Step right up,” and teasing with a taste of what’s inside.
Now maybe some just react against the blatant sales pitch, but a lot of the time I suspect it’s just that the deliberately leaden (i.e. transparent) prose of commerical fantasy and science fiction doesn’t match this purpose: transparent prose rules out any possibility of enchantment. There’s none of the distinctive lyricism of a narrative voice calculated to draw the reader in. And, man, if you’re simply setting the stage… a map takes up one page; scrolling text should be a few paragraphs max; the voice-over should not drone on for twenty fucking minutes. What we’re looking for is short and snappy. Think Chorus from King Henry the Fifth or the “two star-crossed lovers” intro to Romeo and Juliet. Think of how these are made to work in the Branagh and Luhrman movie versions respectively. Contrast this with the interminable opening of Lynch’s Dune. A prologue should not be worldbuilding, and thinking that’s what theyre is for is just a misunderstanding of the convention. IMHO. The exposition might — just might — work for some viewers on a gosh-wow sense-of-wonder basis, but to be brutally honest I think it’s… tickling the toes of what M. John Harrison so famously referred to as “the clomping foot of nerdism” (or was it “stomping”?). To each his own and all, but… no thanks, mate.
Thing is, even with Epic SF/Fantasy’s roving PoV, the abandonment of true omniscient makes the straight description of equilibrium problematic. You lose the omniscient PoV that sees the frame, the only PoV that can really describe equilibrium with a sufficiently wide-scale overview. Add to this the fact that Romantic plot structures preference active agents over passive observers anyway, and the problem deepens: that equilibrium is disrupted by definition if you have agents active in it. So, the idiom is pushed towards the type of prologue I’m skirting around above, I reckon, one that disguises the framing in the form of a sub-narrative. A little story is crafted that gives all five Todorovian stages from one character’s PoV, but which uses a slingshot ending to set its own resolution as the disrupted-equilibrium of the larger story to come. Non-central character X has been hunting for McGuffin Y for many years, finds it, and all hell breaks loose. End of story? No. End of prologue. Bang! Novel begins with central character Z thrown deep into the shit because of that, action in full swing. This is the sort of prologue that takes place a year, a hundred years, a thousand years or whatever before the plot of the novel. It might even take place directly beforehand but be sort of… aesthetically disconnected.
I’m not entirely averse to this, I have to admit. I like the “pre-credit sequence” aspect of a prologue that functions as a little narrative in its own right, draws the reader in and then fires them out into sudden action, Chapter One beginning in media res. The prologue of Vellum fits this pattern fairly well, I guess. I think it’s an overdone convention that’s often present in Epic SF/Fantasy less because the narrative is naturally structured with such a pre-credit sequence and more as an excuse for the writer to pump up the import with a framing device. But I do think there are stories with more complex beginnings and endings that sort of… separate themselves out from the core story structurally, work best as prologues and epilogues. Like, after the Big Climax, maybe there’s still some disrupting ripples left to create reactions that you then have to work through into a final resolution that gives a full sense of closure — but maybe that can only take place “many years later”. Or maybe the disruption of the equilibrium has been set up “many years before” in a sequence of events that fits the schema (equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction, restitution), a sub-narrative that has basically left the worldscape primed for a problem to erupt somewhere down the line, when the narrative trigger is pulled. If there’s a sufficient disjunct, I reckon, you can end up with a naturally prologued and/or epilogued structure to your story. You could take that sub-narrative and label it Chapter One, but structurally speaking it just… isn’t. It’s Chapter Zero. It’s a prologue.
But I think this is kind of coming at it from a different angle from Neil and Jetse. I think what I’m suggesting is that prologues shouldn’t just be establishing equilibrium — whether its in the form of infodump or scene-setting. Or at least that it’s a whole fuckload harder to get away with that these days, that it generally doesn’t work in the modern idiom(s) of commercial strange fiction.