I'm thinking of the crawl sequences at the beginning of Star Wars, that just give you the background information straight up, and then start the excitement. I've just been wondering if putting a prelude like that at the beginning of a novel would be too 'lazy'?

Lazy in the way that I'm providing context directly instead of having it explained by characters throughout the story. The book I'm writing is a Sci-Fi set a certain amount of time after society has been rebuilt/is being rebuilt after Nuclear War, so the prelude would somewhat detail this.

Too lazy?

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    The Star Wars title crawl is considered by some to be boring and tedious. Some people don't even bother to read it - they can still make sense of the film, but they end up missing out on some of the lore. – Pharap Jul 25 at 18:55
  • Have you ever read The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson? It starts with a long explanation of the background and history of the setting, but it's framed like a folk/fairy tale. – Lauraducky Jul 25 at 22:17
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    Well, the Bible kinda pulled it off. Albeit, when the editing author is supposed to be the almighty, you have some leeway. – Stian Yttervik Jul 25 at 22:31
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    @StianYttervik - True. Who's going to break it to Him that those huge lists of begats at the beginning are causing readers to get bored and wander off? I mean Tolkien tried subtlety by imitating it in the Fellowship of the Ring, but He hasn't seem to have taken the hint. – T.E.D. Jul 25 at 23:35
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    In my opinion, initial info dumps are frowned upon by critics, but rather welcomed by readers. I prefer them very much to the usual game of having to piece together a background scenario over the first 100 page. – Kilian Foth Jul 27 at 6:30
up vote 39 down vote accepted

Not too lazy. Your work habits really have nothing to do with it. The question is, can you make it interesting?

Providing context is difficult because it is a chicken and egg problem. No one cares about the context until they know what is a stake, and no one can tell what is really at stake until they know what the context is.

Ways of handling this go in and out of fashion, and the idea that you can avoid an infodump at the beginning by having two characters fill in the background with dialog later is a popular approach at the moment (though more so with aspiring than published authors). But when it comes down to it, this is still an info dump, and an infodump with dialogue tags is not really an improvement.

The real answer, as you can see in the works of successful authors, is not any form of info dump, but compelling immersive writing. Thus LOTR starts off by immersing us in the Shire. HP starts off in Privet Drive. Cannery Row starts off with a stunning description of Monterey. These are not info dumps. These are vivid immersive portraits of a world, a place, a time, a people.

This stuff is compelling by itself, if it is done well. It does not have to start with a plot. (How far into LOTR do we get before the plot is properly initiated?) At most they require a kind of tension that suggests that the material for a plot lies ahead, that this is the sort of place where something interesting could happen.

That is what you need to do. Not an infodump, in any form or in any place, but an immersion in a compelling situation.

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    @Clarkey The LOTR book does not begin with the forging of the Rings. Nor with Frodo. It begins with Bilbo - his party, his neighbours, his eccentricities. The existence of the Rings and the nature of the One Ring are not even mentioned until the second chapter and a time skip of almost 17 years. – Galastel Jul 25 at 13:58
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    @Clarkey Don't compare a movie to a book. What in a movie can take a couple of minutes with dramatic visuals, in a book might be several pages with the readers having no stakes yet in the story. GGx has a good answer to your "what if". – Galastel Jul 25 at 14:12
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    @Clarkey I've seen that executed pretty well in some fantasy novels. Often the characters featured are very important to the narrative; but aren't who the narrative follows. It's also a good opportunity to tease interesting things about your world that you can slowly reveal through the narrative. – JMac Jul 25 at 16:04
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    @Clarkey You can do that - Robert Jordan is a good example. The Wheel of Time starts off ~1000 years before the main story, with Lews Therin Telamon wandering around being out of his gourd crazy. Brandon Sanderson takes it to an extreme in The Way of Kings, where he has THREE long prologue chapters before actually getting to the main timeline of the story. It's effective, but I've found that those books offer more engagement in the prologue on a re-read than on the first read. Food for thought. – Adonalsium Jul 25 at 16:11
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    I like this answer, should be noted that both HP and LOTR have their infodumps in Hagrid and Rivendel respectively. They're just far enough along in the books that the readers have already bonded with some of the main characters. – DonFusili Jul 26 at 8:02

That Star Wars crawl is affectatious nonsense. It is there for the same reason Harrison Ford's voice-overs were in the original cut of Blade Runner. They borrowed a stylistic element from Old Hollywood to signal to the audience the retro-inspired framing of the story.

It is communicating information, but it's not an infodump. It's communicating style and genre in a winking, self-aware nod to kitch – a style that is so out-of-date it is obviously done with intentional irony:

enter image description here

It also serves as a false beginning to get the audience seated and quiet so the REAL beginning can have it's full impact. After some nostalgic cheese that has lowered expectations and bewildered the audience, simultaneously delivered with deafening musical fanfare, it gets quiet and then the real opening happens, which is epic but even more so because now everyone is focused:

enter image description here

Now we are in medias res and the action is moving very quickly. Maybe if we remembered any of that infodump crawl from before we might know who these people are or why they are being chased, but oh well, it was something about rebels and empires blabla. I guess that makes sense, it is enough to know there are two sides and there is a power imbalance.

Fortunately, it's easy to follow the action because it is obvious what these characters represent and how I am suppose to feel about them because they are dressed up in melodramatic costumes:

enter image description here

The man in the black hat is being villainous, and the little school marm lady is acting tough but we know she is in trouble. Somehow that makes us like her even more.

Despite a lot of fast confusing action we are ok because there are no surprises about these characters. He is literally wearing a skull mask under a nazi helmet. She is wearing a white flowing gown with no underwear. That infodump crawl was confusing. The explosions and robots were confusing, but there is nothing confusing about these two.

That's a good thing because we're about to leave them in the midst of their cartoon black-and-white conflict to go see the real real beginning: a story about a boy on a planet who dreams of adventure….

The moral of the story is, that infodump crawl at the beginning of Star Wars is not really an infodump. It is a parody of a very trite and old-fashioned cliche, to let us know what we are about to see is going to be just like an old Buck Rogers serial. We're not meant to take it as Shakespeare, this is a send-up of all the fun tropes from space adventure serials you watched as a kid.

You can certainly start with a genre-winking prolog, but Star Wars is an example of subverting style and expectations, mixing spectacular visuals with gee whiz nostalgia. In this case, the infodump prolog is not an infodump prolog. But since it inspires you, maybe consider how you can learn from the tricks it was using to manipulate the audience with up-front excitement that looks complicated but makes sense to us only because on some fundamental level it is basically pantomime, before settling into the long boring origin story that will make us care about this kid and his family.

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    Fantastic reply. I thought the SW4 opening crawl was an homage though, not a parody? – Rick Jul 26 at 1:41
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    Yeah, homage is a better word. It's done with love. – wetcircuit Jul 26 at 2:36

The thing about the Star Wars crawl sequences is they’re very short, less than 100 words. They work because they’re short, interesting and presented in a novel way (back then). They’re also necessary to provide context to the opening scene of action that follows.

I would ask yourself the same questions.

Is it absolutely necessary and essential for your story? Where does your novel start? Does it start in media res where the opening scene wouldn’t make sense without the prelude giving context?

Is it really really short? The last thing you want to do is info-dump the reader on page one. You have very little time to hook a reader. Some say it’s only a page, some say five. For some readers, it may be a paragraph. Readers may tolerate a brief prelude but a long info-dump will be a turn off. Much better to start with an action scene that introduces your main character.

Is it really interesting? If your prelude sparkles with an exciting premise, you may get away with it. But if it’s boring, you’ll lose your reader before they even put your book in their shopping basket.

Can you present it in a novel way? If it’s absolutely necessary can you spice it up with a unique delivery? Erin Kelly with He Said She Said has a prelude about a total eclipse. She separates it out into small sections describing each ‘contact’ alongside a picture of an eclipse. She also uses interesting descriptions to keep this prelude alive.

Generally readers like to be shown your story, not told it. They want to figure things out for themselves and draw their own conclusions rather than having a narrator lay it all out on the page in exposition. But, ultimately, it’s your book and you are allowed to be as ‘lazy’ as you like about how you present your backstory. Whether a reader will tolerate it is another thing. Do you really want to risk losing a single reader because it was too much effort to bleed the backstory into the narrative?

In short, ask yourself if the prelude is absolutely essential to provide context to your opening scene/s. If it isn’t, I would avoid it.

Good luck!

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    Another creative way of I've seen of sharing this type of information is to present the prologue as an in-universe news article, or an email or note, or some sort of government proclamation. Share the info in a way that it would have been shared in universe. – David K Jul 25 at 15:53

You often hear the catch phrase, "show, don't tell". There's value to that advice, but don't take it -- or most other advice about a creative effort -- as absolute. Don't break the rules just because you think it's cool and avant garde to break the rules. I've read lots of really bad novels whose goal was pretty obviously more "I'm going to write a story that breaks all the conventional rules" rather than "I'm going to write an interesting story". But don't be a slave to the rules either.

The key question is not, "is it lazy?", but "is it interesting?"

Science fiction stories especially often need a lot of exposition to tell the reader the history and politics and technology and whatever of the story's universe. The trick is how to make it interesting. Consider:

In 2340 the North American Coalition was formed between Canada and the United States. The first president was Herbert Fromme. He implemented economic policies that helped the NAC to recover from recession. The constitution of the new government gave presidents a 5 year term. It divided the country into 30 provinces. The province of Nordia include the old Canadian province of Nova Scotia and the American state of Maine, plus 100 square kilometers of ...

Well you're probably already falling asleep. Why should the reader care about any of this? It's boring.

But something like

After the brutal North American War between Canada and the US, a new nation emerged from the ashes, uniting the survivors of the two countries. As the new united Americans looked across the blasted remains of what was left of their civilization ...

Okay, not great literature, off the top of my head, but there's at least potential for interest. There's somewhere you could go with this.

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    Rolling with that kind of example, a brilliant example of exposition whilst keeping you involved is World War Z. It starts with an introduction as if it were serious historical non-fiction - and that rather dry introduction of course is fictional and sets up that there has been a global zombie war and the world is still devastated as a result. And more than that, it sets the tone for the rest of the book. It's genius-level writing. – Graham Jul 25 at 21:54

A feature of modern SF and fantasy is that readers are expected to tolerate not knowing the details of the world at the start, and to pick up these details as they go along. Instead of an info-dump at the start, the relevant information is presented more naturally as the story unfolds. This requires the reader to be more active, and as a result this can pull the reader deeper into your story.

The classic method is exposition to another character. Frequently you'll have one or more audience surrogate characters who start ignorant of basically everything. As those characters learn more about the world, we learn with them. Often this character is also the lead character too, because that gives us a classic Hero's Journey, but it's not always the case - sometimes the lead character is the one dropping exposition on a sidekick.

This can be obvious, clunky and boring, as anyone who's read Dan Brown will know. But it can be done elegantly too, especially when the way in which this is handled provides more background to the people concerned. In Dune, many interactions with the Bene Gesserit are infodumps, but the way the Bene Gesserit characters approach the situations and the way others react make them an essential part of the story. The infodump provides some detail, but simultaneously you're picking up characterisation and implied information about how the society works.

Sometimes you don't even get that, and you're expected to pick up smaller details as you go. Maybe you have an alien race whose appearance isn't explicitly described initially, because all the characters are familiar with them; but the details slowly emerge as things happen. You don't have to say "he's got tentacles instead of hands", you casually say "I transferred credits with a touch of finger to tentacle", for example.

It's also perfectly acceptable to start in media res, and drop short infodumps or timeline jumps as interludes. This is used pretty frequently by Neal Stephenson and Charles Stross, for two examples off the top of my head.

  • The Bene Gesserit infodumps in Dune are particularly nice, because nobody else trusts them, so whenever the POV follows someone who's not Bene Gesserit you get to hear different sides of the story - there are very few infodumps in Dune that are not contradicted or disputed in some way. – Logan Pickup Jul 30 at 4:51

I don't think it's lazy, however they do irritate me. (Star Wars is the exception.)

What if it's just that the author needs the context cordoned off somewhere in order to get their wind? If so, I have a potential solution. Hear me out..

One of my favorite books is The Rum Diary by Hunter S. It begins with an "info dump", to steal Mark's expression, and that's the lone part of the book I dislike. I read it the first time just to be thorough. But when I re-read it, I skip it.

Relying solely on memory, I recall the plot beginning with Paul Kemp at a bar in New York, wearing a cord jacket, and anticipating his flight the next morning. Turning the pages now to check myself, I see my memory of things was trustworthy.

If I were in a position to read the rough draft and offer Tompson feedback prior to publication, I would suggest dropping the intro because my memory of the novel completely overlooks it, suggesting it's superfluous. ..rather, my imprinting started with the action, which tells us something about where we find the meat and potatoes...i.e. "in medias res".

So perhaps there's some value in writing the context framing just to get under some steam. Then when you're revising for the next draft, try eliminating the context intro and see if the narrative can stand itself up without the backstory crutches.

tl;dr: Write your intro, then when you're a few chapters in, have a friend read what you've got sans intro and use their feedback to decide if you truly need it.

[Aside: There is a music recording technique called a "warm start", where the band plays a chorus or does a few passes through an important chord progression with the tape rolling, just to get in the groove with one another, then they stop momentarily and begin the song where it's supposed to start. Afterwards, the dud intro is eliminated and you never hear it in the final mix. But the producer, the band, and the engineers all know it had an important role in establishing the energy that was ultimately captured in the track.]

It's not exactly lazy, it has the potential to be considered bad writing. If an agent asks you for the first five pages of your book (and many ask for just five), is that what you want to send them? They don't want to represent "dry" writing, they want something engaging from page one. Not fireworks and battles or the world blowing up, but an engaging character doing something in their normal world, and leading into the story.

You'd be misleading them to send them anything else, likely guaranteeing they won't represent you. And if you did send them the first five pages after your dry prelude, if you were relying on that prelude to orient the reader, then the agent won't like those five pages either, because they won't make much sense. So ... rejection on route two.

Like the Star Wars lead in, readers/agents/publishers, by opening the book, will give you a small allowance to get the ball rolling. If your dry prelude is clearly less than a page long (say less than 200 words) then you can probably get away with it.

But if it takes you less than 200 words to provide this back story, you can probably dispense with it! That much information can be conveyed indirectly or in scene, or truthfully, not at all.

Human beings IRL are very adept at picking up clues and piecing together what is going on without being explicitly told what is going on. We can watch a conversation in a restaurant and guess many things about the characters having it. In writing, you can use place names, names of people not present in the scene, and all sorts of things and trust your readers to figure it out.

Just like in real life, we meet new people we have to work with and don't know anything about them, nearly everything we learn about them we learn in context, not by somebody telling us all about them. The same thing can be true of your setting and plot. You can have pages where all the reader knows is "they are going to Seattle" without knowing why. As an author it is up to you to devise scenes to fill in why and the background. Aha, they don't want to go to Seattle but they are. Aha, somebody named "Jack" is going to punish them somehow if they don't. Aha, they are going there to steal something that was stolen from Jack!

I honestly think Star Wars could have opened without the text prelude, and everybody would have figured it out just fine, who the heroes and villains were. The visuals showed underdogs massively outgunned just fine, and we would naturally root for them. The movie might even have been better for it.

Just to add to the other excellent replies, I didn't see any actually post the crawl itself, so here goes:

Episode IV
A NEW HOPE
It is a period of civil war.
Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have won
their first victory against
the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel
spies managed to steal secret
plans to the Empire's
ultimate weapon, the DEATH
STAR, an armored space
station with enough power to
destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire's
sinister agents, Princess
Leia races home aboard her
starship, custodian of the
stolen plans that can save
her people and restore
freedom to the galaxy.....

According to MS Word that's only 88 words. So if you can keep your prelude that short and too the point, then you can probably get away with it. Otherwise you run the risk of trying to introduce and interest people in a bunch of characters they may never see again.

If it's particularly dull you'll kill off any sense of investment in the book or story ... are you writing a fantasy novel or formal business documentation? ;-)

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