I’m kind of in a dilemma. If I was to write a prologue to a fantasy story about the history of the kingdom and the political scope of what is happening there, is it necessarily a bad infodump? All of this knowledge is incredibly important to understand the context of the story, even at the beginning, and I make the narrator explain it in an interesting way (as though he was telling a story around a campfire or something). It’s meant to have a sort of “movie-montage” feel to it. It’s a backstory/history, but it’s meant to have an interesting, almost action-packed feel even though it’s only brief snippets of scenes. (If any of you have watched The Hobbit movies, you understand the beginning prologues are kind of interesting. It’s a bit like that). So, is this a bad infodump, or can it be good if I make it interesting?
It is probably still a bad infodump, at least if you intend to sell the story to a traditional publisher.
Because it is not immediate, we don't know who the main character is, and all the "action" is in the past and has nothing to do with the present.
I have been told (by a real publisher) they he wants his MC up front, page 1, and they want them interacting with other people by page 2. At least a conversation. He doesn't want a "contemplative" opening, or an "in transit" opening (somebody thinking about life, the universe and everything while on the bus to work).
My advice is to dump the reader into the middle of your MC's everyday life, give the MC some normal-life problem to solve that requires human interaction, to help reveal their character. Let the reader figure out what is going on. If the background is truly important, it should affect the actions and decisions of the MC, and the MC can "remember" those pieces as they go. It is okay to leave the reader in the dark and reveal the back story slowly. Not just okay, but better, it builds mystery, and interest.
The problem with infodumps, no matter how interesting you try to make them, is they are just a lot of information you want the reader to memorize, and readers cannot memorize much. You are saying "Remember this guy [you never heard of] wants this girl [you never heard of] but she loves this other guy [you never heard of] because ...
The reader is out. Readers remember things by following the hero they are interested in through scenes and vicariously experiencing, through their imagination, what the hero is experiencing. They remember the scenes, and the people they interacted with, and what was said. They remember what is important, so they only remember the bits of the background story that actually has an impact on the MC and what they do and say.
One thing you can do to aid that is to make some character fairly uninformed about the backstory, so your MC or other characters must explain it, or alternatively, make your MC uninformed about aspects of the backstory, so he needs to be informed about it by other characters. Or some mix like that; nobody knows everything, but due to the mission elements are discovered.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that because some best-selling or famous author got away with something, you can too. JK Rowling is the richest author in the world, but on the craft of writing she is pedestrian, at least for adults. She appeals to the middle grade, non-adult teens especially. On the imaginative front she is stellar, off the charts, very good at combining fantasy and mystery, and that is what has carried her books to #1. After she was rejected by nearly every publisher in England, by her account. (Probably because her writing is pedestrian, and modern publishers don't read very far before pitching stories into their reject pile: Which her book was rescued from, by a publisher's child.)
JRR Tolkien is an excellent writer, also with stellar imagination. I wouldn't count on being a one-in-a-hundred-million writer. If you are, that's great, but you will still have a better chance if you avoid the obvious modern prohibitions that every publisher knows: Don't start with an infodump. Don't try to "make it work". Don't start with a prologue, or wall of text, or wall of dialogue, or a "contemplative" opening.
Open on the MC's normal world, solving their normal world issues, interacting with their culture and other people. Figure out what is actually necessary from the backstory to justify the MC's actions and those of others, and incorporate that as you go. Thousands of best-sellers do it, thousands of good movies do it, you can do it too.
There's a much better way to handle backstory you want your reader to learn. Handled appropriately, you can make learning your backstory not merely tolerable - you can make it something your readers are hungry to find out! The key is, as other answers have mentioned, to drip feed the backstory and context throughout your story.
At the beginning of your story, you don't want your readers to know what's going on. You want to give them just enough that they know you know what's going on. This makes the backstory a compelling mystery, and every little drip you give your readers from then on sheds light on why the main character's story matters.
It's a bit self-indulgent, but anime shows pull this off all the time. In Spirited Away, the main character Chihiro suddenly finds herself trapped working in a magical bathhouse. For the entire first half of the movie, she understand absolutely nothing about how the bathhouse or the magical world it exists in works, and neither does the audience. She eventually learns just enough to break a curse on her family and escape, but even that information is never infodumped. She, and the audience, learn all of it by reading in-between the lines of what happens and inferring how things work. As another example, the show Full Metal Alchemist has an incredibly rich magic system and elaborate world, but the only thing we know after the first episode is how wrong alchemy can go when used carelessly. The story ultimately includes elements from grudges from old wars that have never been forgiven, shadowy cabals that have been using dark magic for generations, desperate wizards willing to throw away their humanity for a taste of more power, and the horrifying implications of what powers alchemy - but we know none of this at the start of the show, and all of it is revealed very gradually.
This approach is also used by master writers. Terry Pratchett uses this all the time in the Discworld novels. The Discworld is a fully developed world that's reused across the entire franchsie, and Pratchett doesn't shy away from explaining how the overall world works at the beginning of his novels. But most of the individual novels are focused on one specific mystery. He consistently introduces the question of the mystery at the beginning of the novel, then very gradually chips away at it until one specific and compelling aspect of the Discworld has been explored in detail. In Going Postal, an all-powerful despot finds himself forced to strong-arm a petty criminal into running a post office that's been abandoned for decades. The question at the beginning is, why in the world does the despot need to pull so many strings just to get the mail to go out? By the end of the novel, we learn about a power struggle between the most powerful men in the city, with the post office at the heart of it - but there are only the vaugest hints of this by the time the protagonist shows up at the post office. And in Soul Music, Death becomes caught up in the surreal case of a musician who is simultaneously dead and very much alive, playing the best music anyone has heard in generations. It turns out that the poor bard is being possessed by an ancient entity so powerful that even Death is pushed to his limits struggling against it - but we don't learn exactly what this entity is until the climax! The entire book gradually gives us more and more information about this mystery, so that the reveal feels like meeting an old friend. But the full context isn't given to the reader until the very end.
In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglass Adams writes about the galaxy being threatened by a violent race of aliens who aim to revive an ancient war using a superweapon that will wipe out all life. We don't find out about the evil aliens, let alone their history or aims, for about half the book. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe takes us into Narnia and carries the children through the beginning of their adventure before we meet Aslan or learn the full extent of the White Witch's despotic rule. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone doesn't begin any worldbuilding infodumping at all until Harry escapes the Durselys, and the mystery of the titular Sorcerer's Stone isn't fully solved until Quirrel and Voldermort explain the final missing pieces to Harry in the climax.
In all of these cases, by withholding context and backstory at the beginning and gradually explaining it, the writers keep the audience and readers curious about what's going on. Every time a new piece of information is given out, the readers need to reconsider everything they've learned in its light, and readers are invited to guess at what's truly happening.
Yes, it's bad. Don't do it. Infodumps in the prologue are the sign of a true amateur. To the average reader 'prologue' means 'optional'. Most will skip the appetiser in search of the meat.
In this circumstance you cannot equate movies with books. People with cite the Star Wars prologue as a defence but Star Wars is a film to be VIEWED. The prologue is one of the few occasions where the customer is required to READ. If they'd wanted to read they'd have stayed at home with a good book and not ventured out to the theatre.
The only reason for an infodump is if the information cannot be revealed via a scene.
You can move the "infodump" out of the main narrative, and include it as reference material in the front-matter or appendices.
For example, instead of your MC reciting the list of important events leading to the start of the story, include these in a timeline at the front of the book.
The reader will not read it before they start, but they will refer back to it as events are mentioned in the text. Or you can use a footnote to suggest a reader refer to it.
Likewise with maps, geneologies, Dramatis Personae, etc.
NB: historical novelists have the same problem and handle it (I think) slightly better than fantasy writers. CJ Sansom's "Shardlake" series and Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" are good examples to follow.
I know the question is months old but you probably didn't yet finish writing the book and you certainly haven't selected an answer, so here's mine.
Prologues are stories, and stories aren't bad. What matters is execution.
Let's see what makes prologues bad so we can think about overcoming those aspects.
- prologues are boring if/when, instead of immersing readers into the world, they work as a filter--like reading from a history textbook. The obvious solution is to use POV characters, dramatize the key points (throw away the non-key points or weave them later into the story), and use all-senses immersion to draw readers into the world as opposed to keeping them at a distance.
- prologues are infodumps if they're written as exposition about a world no one cares about yet. The solution to this is to write the same information as action (i.e. dramatized scenes).
- but if you write the backstory as dramatized scenes, the problem becomes that readers may bond with someone else than the MC, usually someone who'll die or be irrelevant to the story. This is more upsetting when there's a switcheroo where the writing makes them think the POV is the MC, and then backtracks on that promise. The solution to that is twofold: a) making the correct promise so readers know the POV is indeed a throwaway one, so they won't bond and be disappointed and b) immersive writing that makes reading entertaining enough to overcompensate (visceral all-senses details, characterization through action, interesting bits of inner monologue suggesting the worldbuilding etc). I'll return to this point.
Writing isn't an exact science so, rather than thinking in terms of 'bad' and 'good', I prefer to think in terms of 'what can I do to make this exact story work?' In light of that idea, here are execution tricks that should make your prologue work.
1). Dramatize it. You already said you want your prologue to be somewhat of a montage.
Now, we're taught as writers that putting information on the page in the character's voice is already much more entertaining than writing plain exposition. But inner monologue still isn't the best way to write the backstory. For instance, I'm struggling to read Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell (recommended by Brandon Sanderson). The problem is that the main character's voice is, at best, ponderous. It's unfunny, it's unfocused, it's long winded, and frankly the narrative doesn't seem to know where it's headed. This pile-up of negative qualities kills pacing (where pacing = the narrative seeming to progress in some direction). Kingdom of Liars opens to a long (or at least slow) internal narrative where the character outlines something about his father being a traitor, and him being judged at the time for some obscure act. The fact is the guy is in a courtroom but the narration is kept close in his head which makes it feel like nothing happens because the camera is angled inward rather than outward. So unless the voice is funny-as-hell Pratchettian and you have something interesting to say, inner monologue falls flat in comparison with action.
Returning to the idea of montage, what I'd do is write mini-scenes with the key points of the historical conflict I need to convey. No war to make it exciting? No problem. Equally well, I'd open with (I wrote this example on the spot--sadly I can't seem to format it any better):
Queen Galpharmina tapped her fingers on the cold golden ram head of the throne's armrest, keeping her face straight as she measured the Envoy. The sweaty itch under her klakhor wool wig made her scalp twitch--it turned out klakhor was as bad as sheep in this heat wave.
The Queen kept her unblinking gaze on the Envoy and gave the silence time to mount as the Envoy stewed. In the meantime, she made a mental note to try the peacock feathers wig tomorrow.
The richly clothed man standing before the throne's foot very slowly blanched under her stare. Worry lines deepened on his face and his hands shot up to grab onto the thick rings of his Baramettal collars, the insignia of his rank.
In the quiet, Galpharmina's words resounded like the new durasteel cannon she witnessed tested only yesterday. "Kill the Envoy."
The Envoy gasped, falling to his knees, and he opened his mouth in shock.
A deafening din erupted, filling the throne room as hundreds of voices whispered, shouted, and begged. At the back of the crowd, several courtiers shuffled hurriedly to the exits.
Galpharmina made another mental note with their names. Effortlessly, her voice covered the crowd as she breathed in and let her Power Octaves flow out her throat to amplify her sound. "Send his flayed carcass to Mad King Phear." She used that name on purpose, so he will hear of her contempt.
The Envoy's lips moved like those of a beached fish but no words came out. He placed his hands on the floor as if to stop himself from falling.
Galpharmina's trusted advisor burst out of the crowd and made for the throne, his white hair in disarray and his velvets disheveled as if he ran. He kneeled next to the Envoy, in an exaggeration of court manners.
"What is it, Treak?" Galpharmina asked as if she didn't know what he was about to say. As if they hadn't rehearsed this scene weeks in advance.
"My Queen," Treak gasped, "think of the consequences! King Phear will declare war."
On cue, Galpharmina said what she'd--quite literally--been itching to say for hours. "Then let him taste our new artillery."
The Envoy's eyes shot up at her, their whites bulging like those of frightened horses.
The crowd's din peaked and cheers rose from the throng of courtiers in the audience. "She did it!" "The Queen has durasteel!"
This scene can, of course, also be written as "The Queendom of Batakria developed new artillery in 1765 to face the threat from the north. Their breakthrough was based on discovering a new metal infused with magical properties".
Write these mini-scenes viscerally. Write them in super close POV to make the readers enjoy the throwaway characters and breathe the world. Use all-senses immersion to make the experience of reading these mini-scenes as much about being transported to that world as they're about the world information you want to convey.
Make the right promises. If you write mini-scenes dramatizing the key points of a long war, possibly one spanning centuries, all the POV characters will be dead at the end. Readers often hate prologues because they've been given the wrong promise. They dislike getting invested into a character only for them to die unexpectedly 2 pages later (unless it's a modern fantasy based on subverting tropes and hence is killing the Chosen One to show it). So make it obvious from the first lines that all these characters will die and this is for the story's benefit. In the example above, while readers are probably amused by Galpharmina and Treak's scheme to maximize the impact of the announcement, they won't be shocked to discover she's dead for 500 years when the main story starts.
Keep the mini-scenes short. The shorter the mini-scenes that dramatize the key points of the Ten Thousand Years War are, the less time readers have to become invested in characters, and they can have fun instead. Sure, you want readers be invested in your characters, but in the right ones, not the throwaways.
Keep it interesting. Give each mini-scene a payoff. A super cool artifact is found, or a key person is saved, or a disaster is stopped with the prices of the character's lives (so they die but they win), or a cool fact about the world is revealed. If you use worldbuilding information as payoffs rather than presenting it as exposition, its entertainment value increases tenfold.
Write interesting characters. This is a special point, because I just said that readers shouldn't get attached to these throwaway characters, and that's true because you don't want to put readers off before they start liking the book. But the POV characters should still be cool and interesting to read about. Opening with incompetent, unsympathetic characters give a tone to the book and that tone will feel like stale coffee that's been sitting in the mug for days. Sketching the characters lightly through action, and making them chase the key point of the scene will make them dynamic and interesting. You don't need fully developed characters, you just need to have them do little quirky things that make them stand out.
3). Give your prologue an arc. Outline the key points of the Ten Thousand Year War of Heavens and make the scenes build on each other as if it's an episodic story with an opening, a plot, and a conclusion. Like Asimov did with the Foundation. This will give it the meaning and direction prologues often lack because the throughline of the conflict can be traced through the scenes.
3). Only write the interesting bits. By which I mean the key highlights of the Ten Thousand Year War of Heavens that shaped your world. Start the scene at the latest possible moment and end it early.
I know, defining "interesting" is the hardest thing but here's my shot. Interesting means a) stuff that doesn't happen in our world, i.e. is unique to the secondary world you're writing and b) stuff that's outrageous enough that it makes readers think "wait, what? how does this work?" Anything that readers already read elsewhere is in the great trove of common knowledge. You can safely rely on that knowledge of readers and skip the parts they're familiar with from Game of Thrones or Lost or whatever. Skip to the good bits that make your world unique and stir curiosity.
4). Call it something else than prologue. Why do you necessarily need to call it a prologue? How about "Before the Beginning"? Or "How the Helionisil Archipelago Got Destroyed". Or something quirky like "The Evolution of Battle Customs During the Ten Thousand Year War Before the Jade Emperor of Heaven Descended the Black Gate Carried by the Nine Winds of Perfection." Whatever you name it, make that name to be a hook. Make it interesting such that anyone who picks up the book will read it and say "oh I gotta know what this is about". If you hook readers well, they'll cut you more slack and be willing to wait and see where you're leading them.
Writing is like stage magic. The essence of the story stays the same, whereas the entertainment comes from how you do it. You don't have to be honest and call it a prologue. Make like a magician and call it something enticing. Storytelling is like hiding your kid's spinach in their fruit juice because they find a green drink more exciting and you can trick them by blending spinach in. Hide the concepts in the storytelling in a way that makes them exciting.
If this is what you were already planning to do, you'll be fine.
Anyway, you can do it. Good luck!