Does your book need a prologue or epilogue? … Does your dog need a sweater? Does your burrito need black beans? Probably not, but then again…maybe?
No genres require prologues or epilogues, and you should never feel compelled to write more chapters if your story feels complete without these elements.
That said, when done right, a good prologue can grab a reader’s attention or elegantly introduce a key piece of mythology. An affecting epilogue can offer the reader closure, explore the ramifications of a character’s actions, or work as a teaser for future books in a series.
Prologue Best Practices
A prologue provides backstory or context that places the reader in the novel’s world before the main story begins. The prologue should be able to stand on its own—chapter one should make sense even if the reader skips the prologue (as many will do).
It's OK to use a different style for the prologue—for example, first-person narration instead of the third-person omniscient point of view you used in the main text. But this is not the place for experimental poetry or a ten-page dream sequence. The prologue should be relevant and supplemental to the main story. Keep it short and simple: the reader should be able to go right from your book description to the prologue to chapter one without confusion.
Some effective uses of the prologue include:
- Scaring the pants off your readers. Although some editors will say you should never use a prologue to try to hook readers, thriller and horror writers are actually quite good at this game. The prologue is a heart-stopping description of the book’s resident evil taking its first victim. And then the first chapter shows our protagonist attending to some daily minutiae, unaware of the horror that awaits...
- Explaining the existence of fantastic beasts. Need to quickly establish how on earth your modern-day protagonist is half elf and half vampire? A prologue that serves as an origin story for a myth (or mythic beast) can save you all kinds of clunky exposition later on. But the key here is to focus on one stage-setting event in the mythology and avoid giving an exhaustive history. If your world-building is complex, consider providing other types of reference materials in the front matter, such as illustrated family trees and maps, so that the prologue doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting.
- Purposely spoiling the outcome of your story. In this type of prologue, the reader gets a glimpse of some tragic or dystopian future, and then the main story is essentially a flashback of what set events in motion. One of the benefits of the post-sorrow prologue is that it saves you the trouble of tacking on a less artistic “and then the world went to hell” epilogue. But this spoiler approach can feel gimmicky if there isn’t a good reason for it. Ask yourself this: How is the story enriched by the reader knowing the outcome up front?
- Rebooting a series. If you're midway through a series, especially if there’s been a long gap between books, the prologue can help to reintroduce the main conflict/outcome of the previous book. This is a good time to employ a dream sequence or flashback, but this type of prologue should be super short, lest it read like a TV episode recap.
The Artful Epilogue
Epilogues are easier to pin down. They’re mostly used to flash forward in time to provide closure on character relationships or explore the ramifications of the book’s events. Epilogues can be disposable—a fun character beat or a bit of fan service—or they can be serious and even devastating. Some epilogues completely change the reader’s perception of the story.
In general, though, the denouement should happen before the epilogue. So your detective should push the killer off the yacht in the last chapter. Then the epilogue is where the detective decides he needs a vacation and takes the yacht to the Bahamas or where the killer washes up on a distant shore to plot revenge.
Some effective uses of the epilogue include:
- Returning to “real life” after a perilous event. When your plot moves at a fast clip and on a defined timeline (say, over the course of a few days), the epilogue provides a breather and a way to check in with characters as they recover from injuries, reunite with love interests, or fall back into their usual hijinks.
- Illustrating a changed world. An epilogue is the easiest way to place your characters’ actions in the greater context of historical (real or imagined) events. Just make sure that you stay in the fiction zone. If your epilogue is a dissertation on your novel’s Very Important Themes, that might be a sign that you’ve failed to make those points within the main story.
- Providing closure/fan service. Common at the end of series, this type of epilogue is trickier than it seems. You’ll find just as many readers who were disappointed by the epilogue to the Harry Potter series as those who were delighted by it. When your readers spend years invested in beloved characters, it seems cruel to deny them closure, especially in regard to character romances. But that doesn’t mean your readers need a nineteen-year retrospective of spouses, children, and career choices. A page of dialogue between two fan favorites might be more satisfying than twenty pages of exposition. Ask yourself: What ending do I think the story needs?
- Messing with the reader’s head. The epilogue is a great place to tell the reader that everything they thought they understood is wrong. The unreliable (or dead all along) narrator reveal is almost cliché at this point, though it’s still effective if you have the skills to pull it off. Again, intent is key: Is the twist epilogue really more powerful than telling the same story in a more linear fashion?
- Creating a cliffhanger for the next book. If you don’t have the space (or material) to include an excerpt from your next book, you can use the epilogue as a teaser. Even if you don’t have set plans for a sequel, you can offer a scene that creates a nebulous threat or uncertainty that leaves the door open for more adventures.