This week’s prompt: What’s the difference between having something as a prologue vs. a chapter 1? Is it too much to have both a prologue and epilogue? How does having one (or both) affect how readers perceive the story? Do you think epilogues have more value because they might tie up loose ends? Do prologues have more value because they can set the scene? Do you prefer having neither? (SUGGESTED BY FIVES @ DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE)
From reading thoughts from authors/agents/editors, I’ve gotten the impression that prologues are “not recommended” by industry professionals. (I haven’t seen much mention of epilogues, which I imagine is due to the emphasis on opening your book and hooking the reader – whether it’s an actual reader or an agent you are querying – so they don’t put the book down after the first two pages.) “Unnecessary” is probably exactly the word these people would use to describe a prologue. They prologues don’t add to the story, or are too vague, or just aren’t a “hook” for whatever reason. Personally, however, I like a good prologue. But the key point is “good.”
There are different types of prologues, and I am not a fan of prologues that seem to exist for the sole purpose of being the hook and apparently being more interesting than the actual start of the story. Often authors do this by writing some really dramatic and ambiguous scene that includes a battle or magic or something over-the-top that the reader can’t actually understand until it’s explained on page 250 of the novel. I hate this. I don’t want to read something like, “Smoke wafted into the air. The voices chanted Come, come, come! The witches danced around the fire. It was awakening!” only to cut to page one of the book that has nothing to do with witches and doesn’t tell me what’s awakening. This is lazy writing. Even lazier, however, was a book I read recently where the prologue was literally the climatic scene of the novel. It wasn’t exactly copied and pasted from later in the book, but it might as well have been. Apparently the real opening of the book was so boring that the author had to catch readers’ attention by putting the climax. It was bizarre, and I truly hope I never see this again.
But prologues can be good! If the prologue has actual informative value, not just vague atmospheric value, I am 100% in favor of them. The prologue should be clear; I want to actually know what’s happening in it. And it should tell me something I need or want to know about the story. Often this is something like a scene set 100 years before the main plot of the novel, but it doesn’t have to be.
Authors should just sit down and be very honest with themselves about the function of their prologue and whether the story can be told it.
In theory, I want to say I don’t have an issue with epilogues (and, again, I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of writing advice or industry opinions about them), but the reality is that I’ve read very few epilogues that haven’t made the story fall flat for me.
I believe a strong and memorable ending can really make or break a book, and epilogues often are extra information about the characters tacked on to the story. The epilogue is separate precisely because it’s not part of the story, and it just weakens the end of the book. If authors really want to cater to fan questions about what the characters are doing 10 years later or something like that, perhaps it would be better as fun information on their author website or as part of an FAQ in the back of the book.
Of course, there can be good epilogues, as well; I just think I’ve been disappointed by epilogues even more than I’ve been disappointed by prologues.
What do you think?