“What is past is prologue.”
– William Shakespeare
Prologues and epilogues in fiction have become a hot topic in recent years. Some agents and editors won’t even look at them, while others embrace their world-building. For writers, particularly of fantasy and sci-fi, setting the stage with a prologue can feel like a necessity; across all genres, writers are fond of follow-ups to share their characters un/happy endings with readers. The question is: are prologues and epilogues necessary?
The unsurprising answer: it depends.
If an author includes a prologue, it really should be short and sweet, maybe two or three pages. The purpose is to set up the reader for the real story that’s coming next. Think about how an episode of a television show starts off: often you’ll have a few minutes where an unstable situation is presented—sometimes a recap of where the last episode left off—or, in the case of many sitcoms, a quick joke before the opening theme song kicks in. That’s what a prologue should be like; it should set up and move seamlessly into the main story.
The purpose of a prologue is not to describe the world in painstaking detail, nor is it to follow the back story of a side character before diving into the actual main character’s story in Chapter 1. Readers skip this stuff, or else they get bored. Some may even feel cheated when they’re expected to switch gears from an informative prologue to the narrative. If writers want to hook their readers right away, it’s not through geography or history.
Personally, I find this especially true in sci-fi and fantasy worlds; many authors seem afraid that the reader will be overwhelmed by their worlds without any setup. Don’t worry about this. Trust your reader. As long as context clues are supplied along the way, we’re really fine with getting right into the adventure.
If a prologue is as long as a chapter, it might as well be a chapter, or else it can be broken up into scenes throughout the story. Additionally, if it’s a flashback or a background setup scene for the main character, it should be integrated into the story. Giving readers your character’s motivation right off the bat takes away the fun of figuring out their stories.
Prologues that take place in the middle or at the end of a story can be scrapped. We’ve all read a book that starts in the middle of an action scene, typically ending with the protagonist wondering how s/he got to this point. It’s an open door to go back to the beginning, but it’s a tired trope, and often little is gained from being thrust into the action only to be dragged back into the setup. It’s best to start at the beginning in this case.
Some writers may worry that their current beginning isn’t interesting enough, and that’s why they need prologues. That’s not necessarily true; if the beginning isn’t grabbing the way writers want it to, it may need some editing or reworking. Perhaps it just isn’t the best place to start the story. Find the point where the action begins, maybe just a tiny bit before it, and begin your story there. Any background information can always be included at a later time.
So, for prologues: yes, they can help to set up a piece, but they can also slow down the opening pages of a book. Think about what you hope to achieve with a prologue, and if your goal can be accomplished in Chapter 1, go with that. If you find that a prologue is necessary to set the stage, go for it. There’s always the editorial period once the first draft is down if you want to change anything.
On the epilogue side, I would say that it’s almost never necessary. Off the top of my head, the only epilogue that gave me what I wanted was one that followed the protagonist’s death; the point of view switched to another character not too far in the future and gave readers closure that would be impossible in the regular narrative.
Many readers, myself included, seek resolution but also want the ending to be open for interpretation. Some readers may want to picture the characters calming down into a simple life after the adventure is through, and others would prefer to think that the cast has too much “hero” in their blood to ease into a quiet lifestyle once the last dragon is slayed. A conclusive but open ending allows readers to see the story through to the end and entertain the beliefs they’ve cultivated over the course of the book. This especially goes for series.
Many writers forget that once the book is published and in the hands of readers, it no longer belongs solely to its author. Readers take stories and add their own flavor. The characters who become fan favorites, the lines of dialogue most quoted, and sometimes even the most common interpretation of how a character looks or acts, all come from audience involvement.
Epilogues are writers’ ways of hijacking that participation. To an author, epilogues may feel like a clean way to tell the readers what happened in the end, but in reality, epilogues usually take away the fun of imagining what comes next.
As a rule, epilogues should only be used to offer closure on the plot that the author has set in motion for the book. The reader must get something concrete out of reading these final pages, not just a “where are they now” scene. My earlier mention of explaining what happened after the protagonist died is an example of when an epilogue is appreciated. Once the plot is over, though, the writer has done his or her job—the rest is up to the reader.
What are your thoughts, readers & writers? Do you enjoy a good prologue/epilogue? Do you have a reason why maybe they’re not the best idea? Let me know in the comments!