In Defense of Prologues and Epilogues
Posted February 2, 2012on:
As I was writing up a new epilogue for a book I’m working on, I was reminded of some of the criticism I’ve seen directed towards epilogues and prologues lately. Apparently they’ve become A Bad Thing, though I don’t know when this happened. I’ve seen a few agents, editors and other publishing types bemoaning manuscripts sent to them with a prologue; one suggested she trashed any book that happened to have one.
This seems like an overreaction to me. True, prologues and epilogues, which are little scenes set outside the main story that serve to get the book started and bring it to a close, can be either ghastly, dull or both. But done right, they can serve an important purpose. Personally, I love them. I use them for all kinds of things, and they play lots of different roles in the stories I write.
Setting the stage
A good prologue has a lot of purposes. One of them could be to set up potential conflicts, give a (reasonable) amount of background or establish a setting. The prologue in Romeo and Juliet does all of those things. In a very short space, the audience now knows what the setting and major conflict are. This prologue also basically tells the audience exactly what will happen: they know they’re watching a tragedy from the outset. This changes how people experience the play, though it doesn’t stop them from wishing it could all come out differently this time. The entire mood of the play would be vastly different without the prologue.
This is part of what the prologue in THE SPARK does. One of the characters commits a terrible act of betrayal, and the prologue sets this up. When we see this character later on, it’s with the knowledge that she’s about to betray her friends. We also have some context; her betrayal, when it comes, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We know why she does what she does.
The prologue in FLY INTO FIRE vividly describes the destruction of Union Tower, which creates a somber, tense mood that bleeds into subsequent chapters. It also affects our view of Sky Ranger, since this event is something he’s trying to find some way to either outrun or accept for the entire book (and, really, for the rest of his life).
Lastly, prologues can be used to set mood. I’m experimenting with adding a dreamy, rather abstract prologue to something I’m working on now, which contrasts with the initial feel of the first part of the book. But it does set up some of the more dreamlike and fantastic events that happen later on, which I like.
Epilogues, on the other hand, are all about putting a cap on what’s just been read. The epilogue at the very end of Harry Potter’s seven book epic is a nice example (I’ll let you look it up. Don’t pretend you don’t have the book lying around somewhere). The epilogue here does a couple of things to put a period at the end of the series’ sentence. First, it establishes a return to normality and the continuation of the very things the heroes fought for. The scene is set at the train station, waiting for the train to Hogwarts, which both reinforces that normality while passing the torch to a new generation. It also extends the arc of the major characters, leaving them paired up and with a gaggle of children to put on the train. The final words of the book and the series establish that Voldemort has not returned, and so all will be well. The epilogue caused a lot of controversy among some fans, but it does what it sets out to do by wrapping up what needs wrapping up. The book and the series wouldn’t feel as complete without it.
The terse epilogues in Dragnet are another great example of wrapping up a story. Each episode concludes with a few lines about what happened to the criminal, leaving the audience feeling satisfied.
I like using epilogues to wrap things up, and also to give some context to what’s been read. The epilogue in BROKEN is St. Val’s letter, which explains a few things and also in essence grants Penny her heart’s desire. The epilogue in FLY INTO FIRE has the characters gathering a year after the events of the main story, which draws a line under those events. There’s also a bit of symmetry there, one of the first scenes in the book takes place in the same location as the epilogue, and the coming together of the epilogue balances the destruction of the tower in the prologue. The epilogue of THE SPARK is all about glimpsing both the future and the past, and could also work as an endpoint for all three books. All of these epilogues, which are set outside the story, wrap up character storylines and establish that the world and the characters have moved on, though perhaps not unscathed.
I can understand why folks might not be fans of prologues and epilogues. They can feel trite and unnecessary, especially if they’re long and drawn out. I think the best prologues and epilogues are short snippets. If they’re chapter-length, then I start to wonder why they aren’t just chapters! I do feel, though, that when they’re done right, prologues and epilogues add immeasurable value to a story.
What do you think? For them? Against? Any favorite examples, either good or bad?