Before & After   11 comments

Prologues and Epilogues. Yes or no?

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Depends on the Story

You can surf around the net and run across writer advice articles that say don’t do prologues and epilogues and then you can find articles that say prologues and epilogues done well are great writer techniques. There’s controversy and some people take their stances very seriously.

I think the story should dictate the use.

The Beginning

A prologue gives readers extra information that advances the plot. Some prologues give background information about the story — such as a sci-fi or fantasy book that includes a useful description of the alien world. Think Lord of the Rings or Dune. Others grab readers attention with a exciting scene from the middle of the story or an important event in the past that drives the action of the novel.

I use a short prologue in the beginning of each of the books in Transformation Project. They’re not wholly necessary, but they started because one of my beta readers suggested it in the second book Objects in View. He felt there needed to be a connection with the first book. I didn’t want to do a synopsis of the previous book and I didn’t like putting a lot of reminders of previous events in the second book. I’d recently read a really well-written series where the writer wasted a lot of ink on reminding readers what had happened in the book they just read. I didn’t want to roll my eyes at those explanatory paragraphs in my own books.

So instead, I created a memoir written by JT Delaney looking back at the present times. I write the novels in 3rd person, but I write the prologue in 1st person. It’s an excerpt from another book the reader has yet to see — a person looking back on history and how they felt or the events that touched them most personally. At some point, my characters will leave their small Kansas town and JT Delaney is going to offer observation on the larger world.

Having created a prologue to solve a problem in Objects in View, the character of JT Delaney continued to write the memoir and, as I’ve said before, my characters dictate the story. I know who this character is. I’ve had people ask me and I’m not telling. Guess and you might get something for a correct answer.

The prologue is not wholly necessary, but I think it’s a nice touch. It says someone survives the end of life as they knew it and at least one member of the Delaney family will go forward — but who. Maybe I’ll tell in the last book in the series.

I haven’t written prologues for any of my other books and I don’t know that I will — unless — well, there’s a time jump in Daermad Cycle that might need a prologue in a later book. I don’t think prologues are necessary, but they can serve a useful purpose under some circumstances.

A couple of things I keep in mind. A prologue should be interesting. It should focus on the important information. It should be short. You don’t want the prologue to eat the main story. The language and tone must work with the main story or, in the case of my prologues in Transformation Project, I focus on keeping the style consistent with the memoirist. It’s the same person in every book, so it should sound like the same person writing.

Don’t use the prologue for a massive information dump. I love Tolkien’s writing, but I must have started The Hobbit 15 times before I could get through the info dump it starts with. For the same reason, I only read The Lord of the Rings after I saw the first movie. The prologue didn’t bother me once I saw the movie and when I decided to reread it this winter, I just skipped the prologue. Your prologue shouldn’t glaze the eyes of your readers. Which is why mine are short and don’t include a lot of information.

The opening pages of a novel are critical moments when you grab the reader’s attention. Because I usually end the books in Transformation Project with a cliff hanger, I don’t want to keep readers guessing for too long. I want to resolve the cliff-hanger quickly. Readers will put up with a one-page prologue, but I don’t ask them to stick it out for longer than that. My goal in the prologue is to hint at something in the later story that will make them want to continue after I’ve resolved the cliff-hanger. JT Delaney is a historian who knows what happened. Follow the bread-crumbs to the next event.

In other authors’ writing sometimes a prologue is a waste of ink and sometimes it’s a major hook. In JM Darhower’s Ghosted, the story starts with a prologue. A man standing in the rain outside a house where a wake is taking place, confronted by a woman who tells him to go away. She can tell he doesn’t want to and she can also tell he’s wasted. He goes and then you see a little girl coming to her mommy. Well, you can guess the future story in this visceral scene. It’s a romance so you know something is going to draw the father and mother of this little girl together, and you’re left with all these questions of how or when or if it’s even possible. And it doesn’t really answer any of those questions, so that it forces the reader to find out what happens next. It’s great because you read it in the preview of the novel and you have to buy the book to find out the answers.

The End

Authors as far back as Homer and as recently as Harry Potter have used epilogues to follow up on characters after the dramatic climax of the story. In a romance the epilogue may show the two protagonists living happily ever after. A thriller epilogue may show the protagonist healing from devastating mortal wounds and uniting with a love interest.

I hope I’m writing great stories that help my readers emotionally connect with my characters so they want to know what happens to them in the future. An epilogue shows the emotional impact the story’s events have on the characters after the excitement dies down. Think about the last chapter of The Hunger Games series. Kattniss and Peeta are raising their children and Kat is looking back on the events that got them there. It’s bitter-sweet and you learn a lot about the events of their world since the revolution. I wanted to know that information and it helped me to lay the characters to rest, knowing that they were okay, though scarred by their experiences.

I never really thought of my teaser chapters from the next book in the series as epilogues, but researching for this blog post revealed that that’s what they’re classed as. I’ve already created a cliff-hanger when I ended the main body of the work. Some character’s future existence is in jeopardy. Readers who started Life As We Knew It with Shane’s gun in his mouth should expect that I might kill any character in the series at any moment. So, I don’t need to make my teaser epilogue into a cliff-hanger. I do want readers to know that the next book will be as exciting as the book before it. Yes, buy the next book. You won’t be disappointed. The story is continuing, there may be a twist coming, prepare for a change. I try to remember as I’m writing the main story that something in the next book must draw the reader onward. The series epilogue is not a tacked-on piece of concluding evidence–it’s a clue that creates a desire to read the next book. And, by the way, it is rarely the first scene in the next book and it never resolves the cliff hanger of the book it is in. Doing that would just defeat the whole purpose.

Now, when a story is over, it should be over. Not every story needs an epilogue. Readers wanted to know Kattniss’s ultimate choice for spouse and how her life worked out, but other stories don’t need that. One of the greatest disappointments for me in reading the Deverry Cycle was the ending epilogue of the series. I didn’t really need to know how everybody turned out how many years after the ending of the action. There was no need to tie up every single thread. I prefer my imagination to how Katharine Kerr, an otherwise phenomenal author, tied everything up. Sometimes there’s satisfaction in an epilogue and sometimes it’s just plain anti-climatic. I suspect it’s hard to conclude a series you’ve been working on for 20 years, but I was left bored by the way she chose to do it.

One of my favorite examples of an epilogue that works is from Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm. There’s a little bit of a time jump from the ending of the story — when the main female character decides she can remain married to the alpha male who has significant communications problems from a brain injury. The scene shows their marriage working, their friends doing well, it remarks on what the female character is doing and on the successes of her husband in overcoming his disability. It shows that he’s not healed, but coping and she accepts him as he is. And then it hints that she’s about to get pregnant — and does it in a deliciously fun way that harkens back to an earlier scene in the book. The reader is left satisfied that the characters are in a good place in their lives and with a little imagination, they can imagine them raising children together and living happily ever after.

It’s What the Story Needs

Not every story needs a prologue or an epilogue. Some need one and not the other. Every story is different and good novelists understand that. Our goal should always be to give the reader what they need to make the story as rich for them as we imagine it in our heads. While there might be controversy about prologues and epilogues, excellence should always be in style.

Posted April 26, 2021 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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11 responses to “Before & After

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  1. As I mentioned elsewhere, i rarely notice if I’m reading an epilogue.At least, the well-written ones that flow with the story.


  2. Your idea of writing prologues in the first person which gives a connection to the previous book is a good one. Perhaps I’m misreading this, but I’d be grateful if you could clarify whether each prologue (‘an excerpt from another book the reader has yet to see’) focuses on the book before or the next book in the series. Thanks!


    • JT Delaney (whoever that is) is writing a memoir some 15 years in the future, explaining the events as remembered. In each excerpt there’s a touchback to earlier events, but the point is really to comment on what’s going to happen in the book the reader is about to start. It’s always vague. I envision it as the introductory essay for the chapter of a history book.


  3. There’s a place for a well-written prologue, but I think that the best epilogues are those that entice the reader into the next part of the series.


    • Yeah, that’s how I use them. I also don’t mind an epilogue in a standalone that shows the characters in the future doing well or still progressing. It’s the happily-ever-after chapter. I must have been about eight when my dad gave me a book of fairytale princesses and they all ended with happily-ever-after. I remember going to my mom and asking her “What does that mean?” Coz in my experience, nobody I’d ever seen lived an entirely happy life. There’s always garbage to take out and dog-poop to scoop out of the yard. Miind you, I was 8 and I was already asking this question. Clearly destined to be a writer.


  4. It is always interesting to read people’s thoughts on these prompts. I have not yet had call to use an epilogue or a prologue. I don’t like epilogues that tells you briefly what happened years down the line. I personally prefer to decide that in my own mind or read a sequel book.


  5. Never thought of teaser chapters as epilogues… but I’ve read a few of those chapters reading through the end of a book and stopped, flipped back wondering W.T.F?


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