Browsing through some writers’ groups this morning, the question popped up about whether authors should include epilogues. And that got me thinking about all the discussions about prologues, too. Should authors use them? Do readers read them?
Like everything else when it comes to writing and publishing, the answer is: it depends.
What is An Prologue
Typically, a prologue is a significant event that occurs well before the main story timeline that either provides a hint at the motivations of a particular character or identifies a significant event that sets off consequences that affect a future story. However, some authors will also use them as a “sneak peek” at a future scene that is meant to hook the reader into a story that may not appear to be what it seems when the book begins. Some of my favorite police/investigative TV shows use a similar technique. You either get the horrific crime that sparks an investigation or you see a gripping scene, but then the story rolls back to a previous space and time and tells the story of how all the characters and circumstances in that initial scene came to be.
What is a Epilogue
Epilogues are a flash forward at the end of the book that gives a glimpse of what life is like for characters in the near of semi-distant future. It is popular in romance novel or books with happy endings, but a epilogues exist in any genre. To continue my television analogy, a prologue is like the little bit of script you get at the end of movie that tells you what happened to characters in the years that followed the end of the movie. So-and-so married so-and-so, or Mr. Somebody went to law school and graduated top of his class, or Ms. Anybody eventually became headmistress of the school and saved more than a million lives during her lifetime. In some cases, an epilogue might also be used to hint at a future book or storyline.
Do You Need Either? Do Readers Read Them?
Need is a strong word. Can you write a great story without either one of them? Yes, absolutely. But sometimes, they are exceptionally useful. A couple of things to keep in mind:
If you write and epilogue, make it some of your best writing. Don’t just throw a bunch of backstory on the page and call it an epilogue. Use the same rules and techniques of storytelling that you use in the rest of the book. The scene doesn’t have to make sense to the reader right away, but if you are going to include it, by the end of the book, it should be very clear why you included it.
As for prologues, I for one really dig a short prologue after the end of story, especially if it’s a stand alone novel. I want to know what happens to the characters I’ve gotten to know after the story is over. Will I be upset if there isn’t one? No, but I will always read a epilogue. Always.
Now, do readers read prologues? Again…it depends. Some will skip the prologue, others will start at the beginning of your book. That’s why it’s so key to write a good one if you are going to write one at all. Write a bad one and you’ve turned off your reader even before the first chapter. And you can’t reveal information in the prologue that is necessary for understanding something later in the story. Prologues should support your main story. They should never, in my opinion, be required reading.
Lots of folks will insist that traditional publishing and literary agents hate prologues. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Do some dislike them? Sure. But just as each genre has its own nuances (for example, prologues are more common in sci-fi and fantasy than other genres), so does each publisher/agent. And the truth is, if the prologue is as interesting and engaging as the rest of the story, it won’t prevent your book from getting published.