Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s a finite order to this regardless of the order you write them in (some write their ends first: no one will ever know the difference, really). The beginning always comes first. The end always comes last.
What about the beginning of the beginning? And the end of the ending?
Prologues and epilogues are style features. There are no rules that say a certain story or genre of stories have to include them to make them “whole.” While a prologue can serve as an isolated way to pull a reader into a book, an epilogue gently guides them back out, tying off loose ends and (hopefully) leaving them relatively satisfied with their decision to read the story from cover to cover.
They work with some stories, and not others. Deciding whether to include them in your story isn’t as easy as deciding to write a beginning, a middle and an end.
If you’re debating whether or not to include a prologue and epilogue in your book, here are three questions you can ask yourself to help guide you to the right decision for your project.
Q: What is the relationship between past, present and future in your story?
Prologues are typically used to introduce a reader to events that happen before the actual story begins—days, years, maybe even centuries before the narrator meets you at present. Similarly, epilogues often follow a gap between the end of the present and skip to the future, to show how the book’s events shape its characters later on in their lives.
A: If your story takes place in the “present” (whether it’s in present tense or being told in paste tense in chronological order) but needs some exposition to get it going and wrapping up at the end, a prologue and epilogue might work in your favor.
Q: How much is your narrator willing to open up to his/her audience?
We love creating broken characters. We enjoy setting them up in the aftermath of a bad situation and helping them work their way through it. Just like IRL, characters facing tough circumstances might be in denial about past events or reluctant to open up to their audience (your readers) about what they’ve been through. At least, at first.
A: If your narrator starts out a little closed off, reluctant to share information and/or shy, skip the prologue and use a final chapter to settle things at the story’s close. If your character is taking this opportunity to share past events with your readers in reflection, a prologue and epilogue can do wonders for your character’s “credibility.” More on that later. Probably.
Q: Does your story have a definite beginning and end?
This might seem like a dumb question. Obviously a story starts somewhere and ends somewhere else. But imagine a story that plays with tenses, shoving you forward and pulling you back from start to finish. Or one that starts at its end and works backwards to show the reader a beginning? Then you have your trilogies, where book one can start with a prologue but certainly can’t end with one.
A: If you’re going to get fancy with time, it’s probably best to leave a prologue and epilogue out of the mix. This method can get too confusing if you’re not careful; sometimes letting the reader dive straight in is your best bet. If you need to give a character a chance to explain a few important points before the story, and you want to let them come back in at the end to finish things up, prologue and epilogue yourself out.
Those are not verbs. That’s fine. Pretend.
Each story you write will have its own flow: there are no right or wrong answers to any of the above questions. The most important thing you can do is trust your gut (and your brain) and let the story unfold the way it wants. If you write the entire thing and feel something is missing, try adding a prologue and epilogue to see if that solves the problem.
They won’t work for every story. But sometimes, they have the power to change them for the better.
Now get to writing. Give yourself some loose ends to tie up later and go from there.
Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.