Monday, May 2, 2011

Prologues and Epilogues and Opinions, Oh My

Ah prologues and epilogues, you either love them or you hate them.  Those familiar with my previous posts know that I'm pretty sweet on prologues, myself.  In fact, if I could get them to cook, clean and do laundry, I'd flat out marry them--I'm sure the hubs would understand. 

Many agents and publishing companies despise the prologue--I've not heard much about their position on epilogues which leads me to believe there's an indifference there. Why such disdain for prologues?  Because often times they aren't used correctly (which is just another thing we writers need to worry about aside from practicing proper punctuation and grammar). 

When executed correctly, prologues, in my opinion, can serve an extremely vital purpose setting the tone for the entire novel. However, if  used solely to up the word count or as a dumping site for useless, uninteresting information, they are a writer's worst nightmare.  In essence, the prologue is a tightrope of which a writer precariously traverses at their own risk.  If executed successfully, the prologue adds a sense of intrigue and aids in the flow of the novel, propelling it to heights unimaginable.  On the other hand, if done poorly, the results could make your book a shelfwarmer, if it's even published at all.

A prologue should be used to accomplish at least one of the three functions (there may be more that I'm leaving out and, as always, I invite you to chime in):

1.  To entice the reader.  When I think of a beautifully effective prologue that entices the reader, I instantly think of the prologue in Water For Elephants.  To entice the readers, this prologue jumps right in the middle of the most pivotal point in the book igniting the reader to burn through the rest of the pages like wildfire.  When a prologue is used to this effect, it's dynamic; a force to be reckoned with.  This is the type of prologue I love to read, the type of prologue that inspired me to include one with my as yet unpublished novel, Enigma Black

In Enigma Black, my female protagonist is forced to make the painful decision to leave everyone she knows and loves in order to join a secret society charged with the capture of a masked sociopath (of whom killed her parents when she was a teenager).  In my prologue, my protagonist watches over those she left behind from afar, reminiscing about her former life and the hell that has overtaken her in her new life.  Is it perfect?  No, but I like to think it sets the stage for the rest of the story to flow like a steady, uninhibited stream. 

2.  To give the reader pertinent information on the back story.  If your story includes an involved, pertinent back story (keyword here being pertinent) of which absolutely cannot be incorporated elsewhere into the actual body of the novel, then by all means include it in a prologue.  Just bear in mind that, like most prologues, the information you contain here will be scrutinized and may be deemed unnecessary by some unless you keep it interesting, to the point and, most importantly, brief.  No one, not even myself, appreciates a long prologue.  In fact I often compare long prologues to family functions:  Entertaining at first, but if carried on for too long, absolutely excruciating.

3.   To give the reader information, in general.  Some novels take place in settings or involve circumstances or concepts that are entirely foreign to the reader.  For example, if your story takes place on a different planet and said planet is substantially different than anything seen here on planet Earth (especially if it involves different political policies or moral compasses), then providing some background information in the form of a prologue may be necessary in order to avoid confusing your readers.


So you've decided to pen a prologue, now what? Well, as in every aspect in writing--or so it seems--there are fairly well-defined lists of Dos and DON'Ts  the same (surprise, surprise) is true with the penning of prologues:


*Keep it Brief--Remember, you aren't re-writing the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.  Prologues are most effective when they are brief and to the point--unless you're Ayn Rand or Leo Tolstoy, then you can totally get away with it and brilliantly.

*Please stay relevant--It's exciting to learn new things.  However, outside of the classroom or the non-fiction section, people usually don't pick up books for the purpose of learning over their entertainment value.  As a writer, it's fun to research and obtain the information necessary to complete a novel. Just don't use your prologue as a repository for all the crap you didn't use in the body of your novel.  Trust me, your reader most likely doesn't care to learn as much about foreign policy or the Jonas Brothers as you did.

*Refrain from making your reader pass the smelling salts--This should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway:  Keep your prologue interesting.  If your readers are falling asleep two pages into your novel, what do you think the odds are that they'll actually finish it?  The purpose of your prologue is to entice your readers, to make them want for more.  It's a teaser promising to take them on a journey they've never experienced before.

*Keep the tone the same as the rest--Simply put, if your story is in first person, keep your prologue in first person and vice versa

*Have it include either the protagonist or the antagonist--Most people want to bypass the formalities and get straight to the point.  They don't want to deal with some piddly sidekick or a member of the supporting cast.  They want the main characters, the playmakers in the novel.  That's why it's a good idea to include your main characters--if there are any characters in your prologue at all.  As a twist, if your story includes a particularly nasty antagonist, then including them and their perspective in your prologue may be a smart move as well.  People love to hate villains and a particularly intriguing one whose dastardly deeds are explored within the first few pages will most likely reel your reader in hook, line and sinker.


*Rob Chapter One-If the content of your prologue can fit comfortably (i.e. make sense) in Chapter One, then you may want to reconsider the prologue and either incorporate the material into your first chapter or make it Chapter One instead.  This is usually going to only occur when your prologue is informing the reader of pertinent information or defining the back story.

*Plagiarize yourself-If there's one prologue I hate--yes, there is actually one type of prologue I DO hate--it's those prologues that are simply the product of a copy and paste job from a later chapter.  There is simply no excuse for a writer to do this other than out of sheer laziness.  I understand the need to fluidly incorporate the prologue into the scene it references but, as a writer, you should have the creativity to do this without having to rip yourself off.

*Size matters--As stated above, if you're readers are breaking a sweat from just reading the prologue alone, then chances are they're going to set the book down, recover, and then avoid it like the plague until the next yard sale.

*Wallflower--We all have those chapters that we're just "meh" about.   You know what I'm talking about.  Those chapters that are important but don't thrill you as much as the others do.  They're nothing special, they're just there.  This can by no means be your prologue.  It is absolutely imperative for your prologue to intrigue the reader; it is absolutely imperative for your prologue to intrigue you.  Re-read your prologue and ask yourself how it made you feel.  If your answer is "meh", revise it or don't include it at all.

Some Handy-Dandy Tips:

The following are a couple of tips I discovered while doing a little research of my own on prologues.  I've included a link below to some of the more helpful sites.

         --If you absolutely positively think your novel must include a prologue, give your novel, sans prologue, to a person who has yet to read it and has no idea what it's about.  After they've read it, give them the prologue.  Does the story make sense without the prologue?  If yes, then perhaps you should rethink the prologue.  You may also want to ask them if the prologue added anything to the overall novel.  If they can't tell you that your prologue was at least in their top three things about the novel, then, again, perhaps you should rethink its inclusion.

        --Research novels that include prologues.  Obviously, those authors have discovered what works and what doesn't and what better way is there to learn than by example.


I liken epilogues to those fancy, sparkly ribbons people add to gifts for that extra ounce of pizazz.  You know the ones I'm talking about. Those silver doodads with the glitter embedded in them that hang down in spirals in childlike ringlets--there's probably proper ribbon terminology for this of which I'm too lazy to research at the moment. Anyway, what I'm getting at is that, without the ribbon, the gift wrapping itself is satisfying enough but,with it, the whole package is more appealing--more complete.  This is how an epilogue should be to a novel.


*Make it flow--If your epilogue is nothing more than an afterthought, it's probably not important enough to include in your novel.  The entire novel needs to flow, epilogue and all.  One rough wave could potentially overturn the entire ship or, at the very least, help spring a rather nasty leak.

*Encore, please--Do you want to write a sequel? If so, an epilogue is a great way to hint at an unresolved conflict, introduce a new plot twist or end with a cliffhanger for the characters to address in a future book.

*Again with the length--The rules governing length are a tad more liberal with epilogues. Still, try to keep your thoughts brief and concise.  I remember watching The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King wondering why the last twenty minutes of the film was necessary.  I've never read the books by J.R.R. Tolkien (I know blasphemy) so I wasn't sure if it was something that was also included in the book.  From what I was told, it was the epilogue (for those of you LOTR fans, if this is wrong, let me know).  I'm not going to argue with the work of  J.R.R. Tolkien as if he felt it was necessary, it was necessary.  My point is that one shouldn't leave their reader/audience feeling as though ANY part of their work was unnecessary.  Every aspect of your novel should work as a well-oiled machine and nothing should be included "just because".


*Don't make it too cutesy--Unless it's a romantic or all around flowery, happy novel in general, don't do the whole "And they all lived happily every after" ending in your epilogue with the protagonist being married to their soul mate, with forty kids playing around their feet as they swing joyfully on their porch swing.  Maintain the same tone of the novel.  If it's a bittersweet novel all around, then the epilogue shouldn't stray too far from that theme.

* Leave unanswered questions at the finale--If it's the end of a single book or the series, don't use the epilogue to introduce a whole new array of drama to leave your audience wondering "what the hell".  My personal preference is to have everything wrapped up in a nice, neat manner leaving little, if any questions.  A good epilogue will efficiently tie up all those loose ends leaving the reader satisfied.
As always, I hope this blog was at least somewhat helpful to you all.  Remember, any advice or opinions of mine are to be taken as just that:  My opinion.  As writers, you need to write what's comfortable to you and what's in your novel's best interest.  I just ask that you don't stifle yourself with the personal preferences of others.  If you want to include a prologue in your novel, by all means, include it.

Sources: Novel        


Megan Conway said...

This is really helpful, Sara, especially the Epilogue part. For one of my WIP's, Unexpected, I'm planning an epilogue, but I wasn't sure how to do it. Now I know. I'm going for the "Encore, Please" kind of epilogue.

As for the prologue part, helpful as well. I'm trying to figure out how to go about doing one for Unexpected, but it's so long. The info is important and can't be placed elsewhere in the story. The events here also takes place 8 months before the actual story starts. At the moment, I'm just calling it Chapter 1, though it IS essentially a prologue. This will be either type #2 or #3.

Great post and keep it up,

- Megan Conway

(BTW, that last part of Return of the King is just falling action, not an epilogue. It doesn't even have an epilogue.)

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Thank you Megan! I always like hearing that my blog posts are somewhat useful! What you described definitely sounds like Prologue material. Personally, I love back stories. Condensing them is the tricky part. I've been working on my prologue for quite a while now and there are still more edits to be made :-/

Thank you for the Lord of the Rings clarification. Like I said, I never read the books and was wondering why the last 20 minutes of the last movie was necessary--not that I'm saying it wasn't good, it's conclusion just perplexed me a little.

Kendra said...

Great post, as always. However you know me well enough-- I detest prolgues and epilogues. I avoid them whenever I can. Then again, the genre I write doesn't really require them so that makes it easy.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

Excellent post. My novel, and my current WIP, both have prologues of a sort, but they're really just short vignettes, around 200 words long. My MC remembers past lives and in each I've used them to introduce a significant past-life memory that he keeps seeing in his dreams.

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Paul--That sounds interesting. I think prologues are their most effective when they're short in length like you described.

Megan Rae Lollman said...

This was extremely helpful! It answered a lot of questions that I wasn't sure where to find the answers.

I have a pretty lengthy prologue and I wasn't real sure what the acceptable limits were on prologues, but I imagined anything over three pages was too much. Anyhow, after reading this I will have to make some changes to the actually writing, but I've decided to turn it into Chapter One.

Thanks so much!


Anonymous said...

Great article! I'm not a huge fan of epilogues myself (leave 'em wondering!), but prologues, I like.

One of your reference links is broken though - was this it? ?