Prologue and Epilogue. Do they have a use? Should they be used? Can you have one without the other?
Personally, I like prologues and epilogues whether they are action packed or just information that I might find interesting. The former because it gives me a glimpse into the past and piques my interest in what’s happening now and the later because it often gives me a peek into the future to see how these people I’ve come to like and root for get on after the story ends.
Sometimes there is some piece of backstory – perhaps history – that is important to the outcome of story as a whole. And often, if it is separated by time and or place from the rest of the action, it seems more appropriately placed in a prologue. Sometimes the story is complete at the end of the last chapter, but the writer wants to share something extra about the future of these characters that happens after the book ends so the author adds an epilogue.
But sometimes that backfires. In my first book published, a reader made this comment: “I loved the book and the characters, but why did you kill your hero?” I gaped at the man. “You didn’t read the epilogue?” His answer: “No. Should I have?” I told him to go home and read the epilogue and then let me know what he thought.
But that little exchange made me look at how I’d handled the ending in a whole different light. All of my romances are neatly tied up in the last chapter, the conflicts resolved and the happy-ever-after assured. I only include the epilogue to give the reader a peek at their life down the road. But if they choose not to read it, they don’t come away dissatisfied with the resolution of the story they just spent 300 pages reading. But that first book, ended with my hero being shot by a disgruntled citizen while he was waiting to vote. It’s a chaotic scene with my hero, Matt coping with confusion, pain, weakness and finally loss of consciousness. It leaves the reader not sure just how that election would turn out, since my hero was one of the candidates running for the office of President. But I thought I was being so clever with my epilogue that showed him two years later among the dignitaries at the launching of a new destroyer giving his wife a very personal hand sign that they had shared in other places in the story. Should that book ever get amended I will change that epilogue to be chapter 30 where it should have belonged in the first place. I’d only separated it out because of the lapse of two and a half years between chapter 29 and the epilogue. I guess there’s a time and place for everything and some books don’t need an epilogue. And some information shouldn’t be saved for an epilogue no matter how clever the writer thinks it is.
As for Prologues. While I like them and always read them with no expectation that the action is going to begin immediately, in our world of instant everything, readers expectations are for things to start right away, and perhaps prologues aren’t the best way to begin a book either. I just recently critiqued the prologue and first few chapters of a book by a writer not yet published but working toward that goal. His prologue was eloquently written and his description of the scene so vivid that I could feel myself in that silent room watching the dust motes dance in the shaft of sunlight and listening to the majestic ticking of an antique grandfather clock. The problem was that outside of this well described scene the action dragged. Several pages of troubling conversation hinted at an unpleasant situation, but didn’t really go anywhere. A reader eager for action would put the book down long before they got to the end of the prologue. Once I got to chapter one where the action did start, I suggested to this author that the prologue could be either seriously shortened or removed without impacting the story. The vague hints of information divulged in the prologue could just as easily be incorporated into the story at a later time, perhaps with a journal entry, a flashback, or a recounting of some bit of family history. Especially since his very first sentence in that first chapter was an attention grabber that left the reader with questions demanding answers.
Authors spend a lot of time and effort researching their stories and setting the scene. It’s a natural urge to want to share all that fascinating information with our readers. But does a prologue come across as an unnecessary dump of backstory? Or does it suck them into the story, and make them want to turn the page?
In the fourth book in my Tide’s Way series I included a prologue. It was brief, one page and all action with little introspection and a minimum of scene setting. An IED explodes, and my hero, a career Marine snaps into action rescuing fellow Marines who were trapped in their upended MRAP. He is shot, and seriously wounded, but perseveres in spite of the pain until all his men are accounted for. And I leave him there in the care of the medic reciting the 23rd Psalm. A lot happens in those few short paragraphs, but it’s urgent and important and if I've made you care about this young man you definitely want to know if he’s going to survive. So you turn the page. I could have titled it chapter 1 and perhaps that would have made no difference, but its brevity and nature just seemed different, so I called it a prologue. Had the reader decided to skip the prologue, they would have discovered the important information eventually anyway, but without that glimpse of the caliber of the warrior.
So, I guess my advice to other authors would be: Every book is different. Know your genre and what the expectations of your readers are and avoid using prologues or epilogues unless there is a very good reason to include one.
Why not hop on over to these other bloggers and see what they think about prologues and epilogues?
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-QS
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Victoria Chatham http://victoriachatham.blogspot.ca
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Connie Vines http://connievines.blogspot.com/