Prologues and Epilogues – Is There a Point to Them?

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by Helena Fairfax

Prologue and Epilogue. Do they have a use? Should they be used? Can you have one without the other?

First of all, the Prologue. Oh, the dreaded question of the prologue for writers. How I’ve agonised over this at times.

According to my useful friend Wikipedia, a prologue is: an opening to a story that establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information.

I think that’s a great description. BUT should an author supply this context/background in the opening pages? Or is it better and more appealing to the reader if the author gets straight into the action and allows the backstory and context to emerge as the novel progresses?

This is the big dilemma for an author. Personally, I’ve only used a prologue once, and that was in my novel A Way from Heart to Heart. I wrote two drafts of this novel. Draft one started in the present day (with no prologue), with a scene where the heroine greets the hero on the doorstep. The atmosphere between them is a little distant, and neither character appears particularly sympathetic.

I intended to drop the backstory into the book gradually, because I’d had it drummed into me that prologues were a BAD THING by lots of writing experts. I read this passage aloud at my writers’ group and it didn’t go down well. It wasn’t obvious what was going on, and my hero came across like a bit of a stalker. That wasn’t at all what I intended!

So, after trying my best to avoid a prologue because “experts” told me it was wrong, I tried writing a prologue to “establish context and give background details,” as it says in Wikipedia. In the opening prologue to A Way from Heart to Heart as it has now been published, I describe how five years before the actual story begins the heroine’s husband dies in Afghanistan. In the prologue, she is brought the news by the hero.

The reader immediately has sympathy for them both through this prologue (at least I hope so!), it’s full of action, and it sets up the entire premise of the novel – that the heroine is terrified of further loss for her son.

I think prologues can be useful, but you should think very hard before using them, and only use them if the story will genuinely suffer without one.

And now on to epilogues. As a romance author, I do love a good epilogue if it shows the hero and heroine actually living their happily ever after. Epilogues can be useful if there are a couple of loose threads to the story that might leave the reader wondering what’s happened to a particular character. I’ve only written one epilogue, and that was for my novel The Silk Romance.

Again, I thought long and hard about it. It’s obvious at the end of the book that the hero and heroine are in love (I’m writing romance, so I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers!) I could have finished the book without an epilogue, but I thought readers might like to find out what happened to the heroine’s family and best friend, and so I wrote a scene with them all together. I love to create a really happy, uplifting ending, and so I was really touched when a reader emailed me specifically to say how much she’d loved the epilogue. Hooray!…

What I’ve mainly learned through my own writing is you can tie yourself in knots trying to stick to so-called rules, but when it comes down to it you should write the story the way YOU think is best!

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Helena Fairfax. Helena writes engaging contemporary romances with sympathetic heroines and heroes she’s secretly in love with. Her novels have been shortlisted for several awards, including the Exeter Novel Prize, the Global Ebook Awards, and the I Heart Indie Awards. Her first novel was written through the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme.

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43 thoughts on “Prologues and Epilogues – Is There a Point to Them?”

  1. I wrote a prologue to my memoir that does not adhere to Wikipedia’s description at all! Well, it did in a teensy way, in that it mentions a couple of key details of context, in passing, that one would need to know to make sense of what is going on. Otherwise, it is n exciting (I hope!) first-person present-tense bit that is meant to grab the reader’s attention and empathy (for the main character – me).

    The Wikipedia description sounds so dry. Doesn’t it? I always thought a prologue’s purpose was to pique the interest of readers and draw them in. They should feel *compelled* to read on, I think. The last thing I’d want is for a reader to reach the end of the prologue, thinking, “That’s nice,” and then put it back on the shelf and move on. Ay yi.

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    1. Hi Ellie, your prologue serves exactly the right purpose from your description of it. It gives some context that the reader needs to know before starting the main body of the book. It does sound a dry description in Wikipedia, but the writer has to give that context in a compelling way that is going to hook the reader and make them want to read on. It sounds as though you have done this with your memoir.
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!

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  2. I appreciate them both. But, I also like genealogies and time lines and other assorted information on the series I read. They both work for stand alones, too. Makes them less messy. A start and a finish is great, but completion always gets my attention.

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      1. I stopped reading the Game of Thrones books cuz even with the helps I got totally lost. Which is pretty funny. I devour almost anything in the fantasy realm and read most everything else. MOST everything….

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I watched the Game of Thrones first season and then stopped watching because I was so upset Sean Bean was dead 🙂 I still haven’t started reading the books yet but am looking forward to seeing how they compare. I don’t read a great deal of fantasy – but I do read almost everything else, too!

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  3. Honestly it REALLY depends on the prologue, how it helps the story, and whether or not it needs to be there. I’ve read books with prologues that were ambiguous, open to interpretation and simply unnecessary. However other prologues served to provide a small tidbit of what was to come, or an incident that happened years before that added to the emotion and feel of the book itself! I think in order to decide whether or not to put a prologue in, one must really try to look at how the prologue services the story. Also getting feedback from an objective third party is never a bad idea. Epilogues, in my opinion, are necessary to a good story. Especially if it is a story written so well you are hankering for more! 🙂

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    1. I’ve read books with unnecessary prologues, too, Ocean Bream, where the story wouldn’t be affected in the slightest if the author had left the prologue out. And I love an epilogue when you still want to hear more about the characters!
      Thanks so much for dropping in!

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  4. Done write, prologues can be an excellent addition! Personally, I love a prologue in the style of that in A Game of Thrones: a brief introduction to the world (particularly with fantasy), and a teaser of a glimpse into a mystery not immediately relevant to the main characters, but brewing in the background. A tempting prologue can also help you pull through a slow start or a lot of exposition at the beginning.

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  5. Personally, I use the prologue when I consider to continue the novel with another book (sort of saga)… In this case, even if along the plot of the following I use some “flash-back” to allow the reader to “feel deep” into the story, the prologue helps me to contextualize the whole story.
    Meanwhile, the epilogue help me to summarise the last part of the story when I know there will be a following to the novel… just to add some extra curiosity and push the reader to consider to buy the next novel
    :-)claudine

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Giovannoni, the prologue can be a useful means of recapping for the reader what has happened in a previous book. And I like the idea of using the epilogue as a tempter for the reader to pick up the next in the series!

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  6. You know, I detest prologues and hardly ever read them. They have a place in sagas, I imagine but I’m the type of person that doesn’t previews for movies or just the bare minimum when it comes to a review. As for epilogues, I don’t mind them as much. I actually titled the epilogue in my new novel, The Aftermath, which wraps things up but in one case, leaves the door slightly ajar…

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    1. I have heard of agents who reject books because the author has started with a prologue. These agents argue that some readers skip over the prologue, thinking it’s not necessary. A good prologue should provide context and backstory which is necessary to the actual story. The prologue should serve a purpose. As a reader, I always read the prologue as I assume it’s there for vital information. (If I find it was unnecessary, I’m disappointed!)

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  7. It must be the rocker in me, Helena, but when I see the word Rules I just know I’ve got to break them. Who makes these ‘rules’ and why? When I am reading I am not making a mental note of all the ‘rules’ the author is breaking, might break or shouldn’t break. Write and if it works it works, if not the reader can find another author. I spent a lifetime breaking ‘musical’ rules, and no-one died, there wasn’t a revolution and people who enjoyed it, still play the music. Those who didn’t enjoy it can wear ear-plugs. LOL Do what you want. I bet the sun will still come up tomorrow.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha! That is so refreshing, Jane. When I first started writing I wrote the story I wanted to write. I had no idea there were “rules”. Then I started following the rules and I got writer’s block and lost confidence. Now I’m trying to learn to do what I want. You’re right – the sun will still come up…and it will shine more brightly!! 🙂 Thanks for your great comment!

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  8. I ignore writing “rules” unless they are suitably justified. If an expert says “avoid prologues” then I want to know why. Same goes for epilogues.

    I write science fiction, a genre in which prologues seem to be more common than in others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read a lot of science fiction, Captain Black. (Love your avatar!) A prologue must be useful in SF for setting up world-building. It’s good to question the rules. Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!

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  9. I was listening to something on the radio about adverbs and adjectives being so ‘not the thing to do’ and I thought what a load of tosh. When I was at school – in the dark ages apparently – we were taught creative writing, as in create a written picture for the reader, so we described the settings, the people and so on – not in too much depth or detail, but enough to let folk know the man was short and fat, the woman had a wart on her nose, whatever, to give then some idea of what you were holding in your mind as you wrote. As a reader I filled in the blanks. I guess people didn’t travel so much, there wasn’t TV as widely watched and so some folk never got to see anywhere else, experience much else perhaps and so that is why we were taught this way.Perhaps it is why, when a book is made into a film or TV series, the choice of lead character can be a bit of a disappointment. I suppose as we all have our own vivid idea of what we think they look like. I do think we need a starting point so we need to say the house was Georgian, the road was narrow and twisting, the fields were barren, stripped of all life and the woman was bent, burdened by her life-long load…etc to kick start our imaginations. Now we are told we don’t need to describe or use adverbs. I am the writer. I write what I want. I used to get a bit over-loaded by Robert Ludlum going into detail about how to make a nuclear warhead in his books – I mean pages of it – but none of us is really going to go that far. Prologue and epilogues are great – imagine if you were reading a series, and came in at book two…a prologue would be helpful – it is like the trailer to the movie. But, I am not a million seller author, I am a wayward old rocker who is stuck in her ways and will most likely sell three books to family, because I insisted on doing it ‘My Way.’

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I remember all those rules at school, too, Jane. I try to write for readers now, and not for the rule-makers. The old habits of obedience die hard, though..! They certainly do nothing for the confidence. Up the rule-breakers!

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  10. I think it depends entirely on the structure of the story. I’ve used both prologues and epilogues in both my series because they enhanced the story and reset the scene for the reader; or in the case of the epilogue, set up the entire theme for the next book in the series. Old classic rules don’t always suit modern fiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so right there, Jan! I see a lot of prologues in modern novels and they’re especially useful in series. Great idea to leave a tempter for your next book in the epilogue. Thanks so much for dropping in!

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  11. Thanks for the wonderful post, Helena. Personally, I too think that the writer knows (or ought to, at least) what works for his story. All the rules and well-meaning advice can sometimes be pure noise.

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    1. Thanks, bloggeray, I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. Yes, sometimes I do wonder who invented the rules. Chaucer had a Prologue to his tales, and I’m sure there was no expert there at that time to tell him it was wrong!
      Thank you so much for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve stopped using these and have made them chapters instead. Having them as ‘prologue’ and ‘epilogue’ made them seem as the writing they held was not really part of the book. I don’t think they’re bad or wrong. They do have their place on occasion. One novel I read used the epilogue to list the events that happened to create the ending. I felt like as the reader I was being cheated out of the full story. The rest of the book was good, it was simply a lousy ending.

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    1. Hi quirkywritingcorner, that does seem a strange way to finish a book – as though the author couldn’t work out how else to resolve it. I agree about epilogues and prologues having their place on occasion. If a prologue could just as well be Chapter One, though, then it’s best to start there. Thanks for dropping in, and for taking the time to comment!

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  13. I usually skip the prologue unless I can see that it’s crucial to the plot line, like in Harry Potter books they’re always relevant. And I usually always read the epilogues of it’s a good book and I want to know more.

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