authors · writers

Prologues and epilogues – is there a point to them?

It’s the final Round Robin of 2016, and I can hardly believe it! Has someone put me in a time machine and zoomed me to the end of the year? It seems no time at all since I was opening the first page of my 2016 calendar!

Talking of endings and beginnings is the perfect introduction to this month’s Round Robin topic, which was suggested by author Victoria Chatham:

round robin, helena fairfax

Prologue and Epilogue. Do they have a use? Should they be used? Can you have one without the other?

First of all, the Prologue. Oh, the dreaded question of the prologue for writers. How I’ve agonised over this at times.

According to my useful friend Wikipedia, a prologue is: an opening to a story that establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information.

helena fairfax
Image courtesy of Pixabay

I think that’s a great description. BUT should an author supply this context/background in the opening pages? Or is it better and more appealing to the reader if the author gets straight into the action and allows the backstory and context to emerge as the novel progresses?

This is the big dilemma for an author. Personally, I’ve only used a prologue once, and that was in my novel A Way from Heart to Heart. I wrote two drafts of this novel. Draft one started in the present day (with no prologue), with a scene where the heroine greets the hero on the doorstep. The atmosphere between them is a little distant, and neither character appears particularly sympathetic. I intended to drop the backstory into the book gradually, because I’d had it drummed into me that prologues were a BAD THING by lots of writing experts. I read this passage aloud at my writers’ group and it didn’t go down well. It wasn’t obvious what was going on, and my hero came across like a bit of a stalker. That wasn’t at all what I intended!helena fairfax, a way from heart to heart

So, after trying my best to avoid a prologue because “experts” told me it was wrong, I tried writing a prologue to “establish context and give background details,” as it says in Wikipedia. In the opening prologue to A Way from Heart to Heart as it has now been published, I describe how five years before the actual story begins the heroine’s husband dies in Afghanistan. In the prologue, she is brought the news by the hero. The reader immediately has sympathy for them both through this prologue (at least I hope so!), it’s full of action, and it sets up the entire premise of the novel – that the heroine is terrified of further loss for her son.

I think prologues can be useful, but you should think very hard before using them, and only use them if the story will genuinely suffer without one.

And now on to epilogues. As a romance author, I do love a good epilogue if it shows the helena fairfax, the silk romancehero and heroine actually living their happily ever after. Epilogues can be useful if there are a couple of loose threads to the story that might leave the reader wondering what’s happened to a particular character. I’ve only written one epilogue, and that was for my novel The Silk Romance. Again, I thought long and hard about it. It’s obvious at the end of the book that the hero and heroine are in love (I’m writing romance, so I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers!) I could have finished the book without an epilogue, but I thought readers might like to find out what happened to the heroine’s family and best friend, and so I wrote a scene with them all together. I love to create a really happy, uplifting ending, and so I was really touched when a reader emailed me specifically to say how much she’d loved the epilogue. Hooray!

Victoria’s final question regarding prologues and epilogues was: can you have one without the other? Yes, I’d say you definitely can!

What I’ve mainly learned through my own writing is you can tie yourself in knots trying to stick to so-called rules, but when it comes down to it you should write the story the way YOU think is best!

I’m very interested to know what other authors have to say on this topic. If you’d like to find out too, please click on the links below.

* * *

As a reader, how much do you think about the fact that an author has used a prologue or epilogue? Do they interrupt the flow of the story or do you find them useful? As a writer, do you try and avoid them or do you think they are sometimes necessary?

If you have any comments at all, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-QS
Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
A.J. Maguire  http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Victoria Chatham
http://victoriachatham.blogspot.ca
Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Connie Vines http://connievines.blogspot.com/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Kay Sisk http://kaysisk.blogspot.com
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

 

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25 thoughts on “Prologues and epilogues – is there a point to them?

  1. Hi Helena, Interesting to hear about your writing group’s reaction. Although you could win them over in the ‘without’ version, it’s true that many readers decide whether to buy from the opening page alone so you clearly made the right decision. anne

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    1. Hi Anne, that’s a good point about whether the opening page will attract readers, especially as my books sell pretty much entirely as ebooks. With the “Click to see inside” feature, readers are judging the book by the first page. The pressure is on to write an arresting opening.
      Thanks very much for dropping in!

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  2. I believe how successful a prologue or an epilogue is depends on how well it’s done and why it’s being used. I’ve seen some that were excellent and others that flopped. I’ve used prologues without epilogues and epilogues without prologues. For me, the key has been length and what it adds to the story.

    Marci

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  3. I think we are sisters in the writing world. The third book in my series features a heroine who is a war widow with a son, afraid to trust her heart again and I did use a very brief prologue that shows her waking up on an average morning and hearing a car door close out front so she goes to the window and sees the tops of officer dress hats coming up her front walk. It’s all about the emotion slamming into her in that moment and explains a lot about why she resists my very likeable hero when the book starts. Likewise, I have an epilogue in three of my books that do just what yours do. My romance was all finished in the last chapter with a happy ever after assured and the conflicts resolved, but I chose to give my readers a peek at their life a couple years down the road – a feel good ending, but if skipped not a disaster.

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  4. Helena, that story definitely needed to start with the first interaction between these two people. It’s inherently emotionally gripping for anyone with a smidgin of empathy, so an excellent hook.

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  5. A well-written blog. You gave an excellent example of how a prologue worked and from the description, I’d agree it needed a prologue. And I think everyone is okay with epilogues.

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  6. In my case, probably only if it’s a real-life tale with a few unplanned odds and ends to which I must at least alert the reader; but any writer must streamline a plot so it isn’t bursting out all over the place in all directions.

    I once had an acquaintance with literary pretensions who couldn’t organise himself for love nor money, and ended up ranting off into the distance while going on about a half-hour explanation at the start…

    He never got anywhere, and I’ve no doubt as to why.

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    1. Hi James, I like the way you talk about a plot “bursting out all over the place”. I can imagine writers sitting at their desks trying to rein in their words :) If only I had that problem. I’m generally trying to coax them out!
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your great comment!

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  7. I think that if you comply with whatever is currently named as off-trend, or on, by bloggers and creative writing advisors and God knows who else, your books can become too ‘by numbers’, reined in, etc. If a prologue is right for your story, include it. Ditto epilogues; readers love to have storylines rounded off. You can do so much with an epilogue, add a twist, leave a hanging question, etc.

    I’ve said this before, but it’s relevant here, so I’ll say it again. I’ve always written from multiple POVs (per chapter, I mean, not head-hopping!), usually first person. I was told six or seven years ago by an agent that she loved a book I’d submitted but she could never sell it to a publisher unless it was written from one POV. Nowadays, it’s hard to find a book that ISN’T written from multiple POVs. I rest my case :)

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    1. That’s so interesting what you say about trends in writing, Terry. One thing I’ve had to learn is to have confidence in my own writing. J.K. Rowling was told there was no longer any interest in schools for wizards. If she’d written what the “experts” had told her to write, there’d be no Harry Potter.
      And there are writers who head-hop (Nora Roberts is one). Does the reader care as long as it’s done well and it’s clear who’s thinking what? I doubt it.
      Thanks so much for dropping in. I enjoyed your comment!

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      1. Aha, the dreaded head-hopping. I think you have to know what you’re doing, and be aware that you are writing from the omniscient narrator’s POV, or whatever it is (I am not too up on these things!). If it’s done well, fine (and NR obviously has a massive fan base), but too often it’s done by amateurs and first time writers who don’t understand point of view, and leap all over the place because they’re not able to convey the mood of the non-POV character in any other way. I review a lot of indie books, btw!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, there’s a skill to conveying the mood of the non-POV character. I know exactly what you mean! One of those things I took for granted when I was reading good writers, but I realised how hard it is when I first began writing.
        Thanks again for your great comment!

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  8. Interesting discussion on this topic here. I agree the prologue can get a reader’s attention and perhaps work as a tease to garner interest in the story. That’s what I hoped to do with one of my stories. The epilogue does wrap up a story nicely if it is done well–kind of like dessert does for a good meal. But I agree with your main point–listen to your writer’s heart to decide what is right for your own story.

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    1. I like your description of the epilogue as like a dessert. It’s great when you’re reading a book that you don’t want to end, and you find there is still an epilogue to read after the final chapter.
      It was an interesting topic. Thanks so much for dropping in!

      Like

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