Novel Beginnings and Endings: A Primer on Prologues and Epilogues

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If you’re working on a novel or memoir, you’ve probably considered how to begin and end your work. Should you open with a prologue? If so, what should the prologue contain? Should I include an epilogue too?

There is dissent among agents and editors about whether prologues are necessary. Some suggest that your first chapter should do the work that your prologue does. If your first chapter is written well (see my previous post), a prologue isn’t necessary, they claim. Other publishing experts feel prologues can work if they are done well.

Prologues are commonly used for genres such as historical fiction, thrillers, horror, and sci-fi and fantasy. They’re ideal for world building and providing background on a character or situation that may not fit into the main text.

If you’re considering starting your story with a prologue, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Prologues

  • Keep it short and simple. Prologues are shorter than chapters, which can run as long as 12 to 15 pages or more. Most prologues are only a few pages.  
  • Provide a glimpse of the past or future. If there’s a part of the backstory that’s integral to the main plot line that readers need to know in advance, a prologue might be the best place for that backstory. It’s better than flipping back and forth between the present and that other time or place, writes Shaelyn Bishop of Reedsy.
  • Use it for world building. Readers get a sense of what this new world looks and feels like, adds Bishop. You might be able to divulge some details about scene or present a different place and time that grounds readers
  • Reboot a series. If there’s a long gap between books in a series, the prologue can re-introduce characters, scenes and story lines from previous books.
  • Use an alternate point of view. For example, for a mystery or thriller, the prologue might be written in first person from the point of view of a person who is murdered, while the rest of the story is written from the perspective of the person investigating the crime.

These are general guidelines, of course. A good example of a well-written prologue is Caught by Harlan Coben, which follows several of the guidelines above. It’s shorter than the main chapters in the book, it introduces a character who becomes the focus of the story. It provides background to this character’s life story, which later becomes a contentious issue with the protagonist. The reader is left to decide which is true about this character – the one introduced in the prologue or the one the protagonist thinks he is.

Further, the prologue provides relevant and supplemental details to the story line. In this action-packed thriller, the prologue works because readers get caught up in the action. It also does a good job of tying into the conclusion, which answers all the questions readers need to know.

Ultimately, the best judge of whether to include a prologue is you. You know your story best. Let your story determine if you need a prologue or not.

Epilogues

There is less debate about epilogues, which come at the end of your story. The Write Practice describes the epilogue as “the moment when the reader learns the fate of the characters or when the hook to a sequel is revealed.” The epilogue generally has a different tone, point of view and time period compared to previous chapters. It is often set some time in the future, such as the epilogue for the Harry Potter series which placed the characters far into the future where they are seeing their own kids off to Hogwarts. Like the prologue, the epilogue is shorter than the chapters, usually only a few pages.

According to Kirkus Reviews, the epilogue can serve any number of purposes:

  • Illustrate a changed world. The epilogue can show how the world changed as a result of the conflict and action that took place in earlier chapters. If the prologue or early chapters showed dire circumstances, show how those circumstances changed and perhaps how the protagonist’s life changed.
  • Provide closure. Whatever remaining threads need to be tied up can be done in the epilogue. It can answer questions readers might have, such as “What happened to so-and-so?”
  • Return to real life after a difficult journey. The epilogue can serve as a breather after an action-filled story. It’s where characters recover from injuries, reunite with loved ones and resolve outstanding problems.
  • Create a cliffhanger. If the book is part of a series, the epilogue can provide a cliffhanger for the next book in the series, including a hint at a possible future conflict. In this case, the epilogue will whet the reader’s appetite for the rest of the story.

When contemplating whether to use an epilogue to conclude your novel, ask yourself “What do readers need to know to feel satisfied about the outcome?”

When used judiciously, prologues and epilogues can work like bookends, giving your novel a structural boost that can be carried throughout your novel 

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