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:
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.
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.
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?