If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve probably heard of the cardinal sin of using a prologue or epilogue in your book. But it’s not really a bad thing to use them. Sometimes they’re just unnecessary.
Here is my guide to using prologues and epilogues.
What are Prologues and Epilogues?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a prologue as, “a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work.” So, a prologue can be seen as backstory or additional information the reader may need in order to understand the story.
The famous Shakespearean play Romeo and Juliet has a prologue, and it works well for the piece:
Two households, both alike in dignity (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene), From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life; Whose misadventured piteous overthrows Doth with their death bury their parents' strife. The fearful passage of their death-marked love And the continuance of their parents' rage, Which, but their children's end, naught could remove, Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage; The which, if you with patient ears attend, What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
Now, this prologues serves as almost a summary of the story, as we know that Romeo and Juliet kill themselves because their parents will not allow them to be together. But this prologue is important to the story in that it sets the stage. If you use a prologue, you need to set the stage with it.
For more information on writing a good prologue, check out this MasterClass.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an epilogue as, “A section or speech at the end of a book or play that serves as a comment on or a conclusion to what has happened.” This section can almost be seen as an afterthought. There’s just one more scene you wanted to include or you wanted to let the reader know that your protagonist’s life turned out okay.
One of the most famous epilogues is from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It is usually referred to as the “19 Years Later” section, as that is what it’s titled. This epilogue shows our favorite characters 19 years in the future with their own children, specifically Harry’s youngest son Albus. This epilogue is well-loved by fans of the series because it gave them a glimpse into the future of the wizarding world.
For more information on writing a good epilogue, check out this MasterClass.
Pros and Cons
Now that we know what prologues and epilogues are (and some examples of successful ones) let’s take a look at the pros and cons for each.
Not all prologues are awful things you should shy away from. Here are my top three reasons to include a prologue in fiction:
- Provides Backstory. A prologue that provides backstory can be incredibly helpful in novels where you can’t quite work the information into main story. If you can work that information in, though, do it!
- Viewpoint of A Different Character. Your prologue could provide the viewpoint of a different character in the story. The book I’m reading now, The Final Trade by Joe Hart has a prologue told from the viewpoint of the protagonist’s mother when she [the protagonist] was an infant.
- Hooking the Reader. Hooking the reader is incredibly important no matter if you start your book with a prologue or not. But sometimes a prologue allows for you to jump right into the action without any kind of buildup.
Unfortunately, there are prologues that just don’t work. Some writers think that they need to have a prologue, and usually commit these mistakes:
- Reveal too Much. Sometimes your prologue gives away too much information and takes away the mystery in the story. The reader won’t get the opportunity to form their own theories about what happens because you gave them all the information up front.
- Irrelevant: I see this in fantasy books more often than any other genre. The author sometimes starts the book with a prologue set when their magical world came into being. This information could be interesting, but a lot of the time it’s not needed.
- Info Dumps: I recommend you stay away from info dumps in general, but do not use your prologue as a place to info dump. It’s lazy writing to include how every character looks and their relationships to one another in one big paragraph. Work the information into the story. It’s more interesting and your readers will appreciate you more.
Personally, I love epilogues. I like to know if my favorite character really gets her happily ever after and if the villain gets what’s coming to him. Here are my top two reasons to include an epilogue in my own writing:
- Closure. This is the biggest reason to use an epilogue. In the book I’m querying, I include an epilogue that occurs six months after the conclusion of the book. This epilogue provides closure for not only the readers, but for my main character.
- If You’re Writing A Sequel. I love books that are part of a series. But if you’re going to use your epilogue to hint at a sequel, please do readers a favor and actually write the sequel. I read Your Heart Will Be Mine by Natasha Preston and she ended the book in a way that makes you think there’s a sequel. There is no sequel, and Preston does not intend to write one. This has angered me so much that I don’t want to finish any of the other books I have by her!
You can mess up an epilogue just as easily as you can mess up a prologue, so you have to treat it carefully. Here are the most common mistakes I find in epilogues:
- Too Perfect. If your epilogue is a picture perfect image of what your protagonist’s life looks like after the events of the book, then you could potentially destroy your story. No one’s life is perfect, and making it happen in your book is so unrealistic you could lose readers.
- Doesn’t Add Anything: If your story can work without the epilogue, then you don’t need it. The same goes for a prologue. Don’t include what you don’t need. Every word in your book should have a purpose.
- Taking Away the Mystery: Like with giving too much information in a prologue, writing an epilogue can take away the theories that your readers come up with for your characters’ futures.
Do you use prologues and epilogues? Do you think your books can succeed without them?