Prologues and Epilogues: the Before and After of Novels

Prologues and epilogues (or forewords and afterwords) appear to be similar in nature, but I have polar opinions about the two. I find prologues extremely to be useful plot devices, and epilogues to be a weak endings. You’d think I would either hate both or love both, but that is simple not the case.

Let us first take the prologue. I find it useful for several reasons:

Backstory
Sometimes you simply can not sprinkle in necessary and backstory early enough in the first chapter. At least, not without infodumping. Indeed, using prologues is a way to fix infodumps. Instead of telling about the event, show the event in a prologue.

Foreshadowing
If your novel is starting slow and takes a while to get to the main plot or inciting event, one way to keep your readers interested is to use a prologue that foreshadows events to come. For example, the villain making plans. These types of prologues are like a promise. The reader now has a reason to keep reading: they know something is going to happen.

Deus ex Machina Fix-o-Matic
If an event appears suddenly and without prior hinting, usually you go back and add mentions of the characters or circumstances involved. However, this may not be possible, especially if it is supposed to be a surprise to the POV character. If the event is major and close to the beginning, a prologue may fix this. Certainly not a usual use for prologues.

Gap-Filler
Another unusual use for a prologue, and not one I would have immediately thought of, had I not been writing a series. During the gap between two of the books in my series, a character stews on certain emotions. I used a prologue to convey how this came to be so that it was not a complete surprise to my readers.

Before I move on to epilogues, I have to mention I have a fetish for stylized prologues. They add spice and say, “This is unusual and different.” While I generally write single POV, first person, past tense, I usually use a different set up for my prologues. I find present tense from a third person POV the best dynamic for my usual style. It feels fresh. Try experimenting writing prologues in different tenses and POV’s.

Epilogues annoy me. Sometimes, if I am really happy with the ending, I won’t read them. I know, it sounds odd. Don’t I want to know what happens to the characters after The End? Well, I do. But I don’t want it told to me under a little narrative titled “Epilogue.”

“The End” is powerful. The story is over. Done. Complete. An epilogue ruins this. When a story is finished, it should be finished, and not need an epilogue to tell the rest of it. In fact, epilogues can break the momentum and feel of the “actual” stories and therefore weaken the ending. If an ending is not meant to be read last, is it really an ending?

If there really is more to tell, if you are itching to show that Dick and Jane marry, hint at it. Hint at is strongly. Maybe they are even engaged at The End. If you simply can not convey the after story, let the readers decide for themselves how they want the “rest of the story” to be. We have the imagination.

I understand authors who want to write epilogues, I really do. It’s an urge to make sure everyone knows it all works out, an urge to make sure everyone gets it. As an author, you may have more history for these characters, and you want to show that. But we readers don’t need to know any more. In this case it’s an issue of “killing your darlings” to make the writing live.

And that is why prologues are useful and epilogues defeat their purpose. Do you use prologues or epilogues? Care to differ (or completely agree) with me?

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About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on January 27, 2011, in On Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I like prologues and epilogues. 🙂 They help in all ways. 🙂

  2. Abby aka PrincessoftheKing

    I’m big prologue fan. 😀 The prologue to my current story gives a ton of backstory, but not as an infodump.

    I have yet to decide my opinion about epilogues… I always read them, but they do kind of destroy that sense of “The End”.

  3. I adore prologues, which I use mainly for foreshadowing. It’s great to be able to hint at stuff that will happen later, and to show what the villains are doing, since I write in limited third person, meaning that my readers don’t witness anything my main characters don’t experience.
    Epilogues can be good for some things, as long as they are well written. They’re useful for showing what happens later, like what happens to the characters. But I know what you’re saying, about how powerful “The End” is on it’s own.

  4. I agree about prologues. I’ve heard advice that you should drop prologues and that you should “leave out the bit that readers tend to skip” (guest speaker from a WritingExcuses podcast said that). But I haven’t really seen it like that. They’re not all that terrible, if done right.

    Then again, like everything in the realm of noveling, prologues can be written badly and then…well…that’s bad. I think it’s more down to the writer’s skill rather than the evil or good of prologues.

    I haven’t really had much experience with epilogues so far to say yes, no or maybe, but I can see your point of view. In my own writing I find epilogues kind of…redundant. I like to do something fun with my endings, like have a glimpse of what the life after the story holds/held for a supporting character who was close to the protagonist(s). But I have that incorporated into the ending of the story, not as an “Epilogue.”

    Hmm…this reply ended up being longer than I expected. A rather compelling argument.

  5. Leandra Falconwing

    I guess for me, epilogues come before “The End.” 😛 I don’t often use them, but I don’t mind them, either. *shrug*

    I do agree with you on prologues for the most part, though. I don’t use them much either, but in some cases, they’re definitely useful.

  6. I LOVE prologues. I love reading them and writing them. Prologues are wonderful in every way, as long as they are written well.

    Epilogues are a little on the edge. It depends on the story. Sometimes, a simple “The End” is what’s needed. But sometimes you want to see an epilogue. For example, the Harry Potter series has no epilogues until the final book. At that point, the readers want an epilogue. We’re so attached to the characters that we almost need to see what happens later. In that case, an epilogue is perfect.

    I can’t really say anything about my own writing. I love the epilogue I have on my one and only finished novel, but is it necessary? I don’t know. Epilogues walk a fine line, in my opinon.

  7. I enjoy both. Some I think are too long and all the info is not necessary. But, I’m kind of long winded, so my epilogue will probably end up being long. I’m reading these comments because I have just finished the first draft of my first novel. As soon as the last page was written I knew that I wanted to write an epilogue. I have no formal education in writing, the little I know comes from the half a dozen “how to” books I’ve purchased. The how too books can be very frustrating, for me anyway, because I find that different authors have different thoughts on everything from this topic to the basic what’s right and what’s wrong. So much happens in my last chapter that I definitely need to show where my characters end up. If I were reading it, I would want to know. Plus, in my case I’m hoping that the epilogue will also serve as a bit of a hook for the next novel, as it will have the same characters. I want to take the readers to a place that will make them want to know more.

    This topic has been discussed in our writer’s group and the opinions are as mixed as the ones here.
    (This is the cut version 😐 )

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