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 

Love to Read? Check Out These Book Review Websites

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February’s theme is “for the love of books.” 

Once you’ve finished reading one book, how do you decide what you will read next? For many readers, turning to online book review sites is the next best thing to getting a personal recommendation. These sites are especially appealing to those who prefer to read the latest releases. But it can be difficult to discern which of the newly published books are worthy of their time and money.

Book reviews – whether through an online review site or in a print publication – offers some perspective of what’s available. You’ll likely find two kinds of reviews: long-form reviews with a more thorough analysis of the book’s content written by a hired staff person or freelancer, and shorter reviews submitted by book fans, usually published on sites like Goodreads or Amazon.

There are more book review sites than ever before. The Internet and social media have made it possible to share opinions about the books we read more quickly and easily. I think this is in response to the growing number of newspapers and magazines that have downsized staffs and no longer have the resources to hire full-time book reviewers. Sites like Goodreads and BookRiot have successfully filled the void.

Book review sites have become a vital part of the publishing industry. Authors value them for providing an outlet to help them promote their books. My guess is that publishers like them too for a similar reason. These sites have created communities of readers from all parts of the world. They’re bringing the world together over a shared love of reading.

If you’re the type of reader who prefers to read the newest releases as soon as they come out, book review sites are the places to go to find out what is being published and by whom. If you’re the type of reader who likes being part of a reading community and likes learning about what other people are reading, book review sites can serve your needs well.

So what are the best places to go for book reviews? Here’s a rundown.

New York Publications — Most traditional book reviews are published by newspapers and magazines. The two that come to my mind are The New York Times and The New Yorker Page Turner section have extensive coverage of book reviews and literary criticism because, after all, New York City is where a good portion of the publishing action takes place. Most of these reviews are longer, more detailed pieces, so you can gain more thorough insight about new releases.

Goodreads — Several friends rave about Goodreads as the go-to source for everything-books. Read book reviews, keep track of books you want to read and find out what other people are reading. One of their highlights is their annual reading challenge. To participate, enter the number of books you plan to read in the coming year, then as you complete each one, update your tally to see your progress.

Kirkus Reviews – Launched in 1933, Kirkus Reviews is a book review magazine. Reviewing books is their forte, and they do it well. The magazine provides authoritative reviews of books weeks before they are released, and they offer a roundup of reviews for consumers in a weekly email that you can get delivered to your inbox. Kirkus also offers services to authors, such as marketing promotion and editing services.

Publishers Weekly – A publishing industry mainstay, Publishers Weekly covers industry news, author news, bestsellers, digital works and international. They also post publishing jobs and have a special section, BookLife, geared toward self-published authors.

Booklist Online – Geared toward librarians and libraries, Booklist is a publication of the American Library Association. But their Booklist Online site has reviews of adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. They offer advice to librarians about what newly published books should be added to their collections. But their reviews can be helpful to any avid reader.

IndieBound.org – Geared toward independent bookstores and publishers as well as fans of indie books, IndieBound.org does a great job of supporting this niche industry. In addition to summarizing the latest independently published works, the site has a search feature so you can find an independent bookstore near you. There is no online shop at IndieBound.org because their goal is to get more people shopping at the nearest independent bookstore.

The Book Reporter – Operated by book fans, The Book Reporter provides reviews and news of the latest releases, but also posts their own guides for reading discussion groups.

The Millions – The online literary magazine covering the arts, culture and books. The Millions showcases new releases every week on Tuesday, which it calls New Release Day.

Book Riot – In addition to sharing book reviews on the latest releases, Book Riot posts a weekly podcast, All the Books, which is a roundup of book recommendations.

Bookbub – Fans of e-books will appreciate the Bookbub site for its news and reviews of e-books.

I’m sure there are many more online book sites you can explore. Don’t forget your local bookstore staff who are usually in tuned to the latest industry news and can recommend new authors and newly published works. There’s usually a staff recommendations section to browse as well.

Despite the many sources around, I still believe the best recommendations come from the people you know, whether that’s a sibling, a friend or your hair stylist. You can never go wrong with a personal recommendation.

So what about you? Where do you go to read book reviews and learn about the newest releases?