Thoughts on Prologues and Epilogues (Let’s Talk Bookish)

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme, hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books & Dani @ Literary Lion, where we discuss certain topics, share our opinions, and spread the love by visiting each other’s posts.

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)

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Thoughts on Prologues and Epilogues

Prologues

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.

Epilogues

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?

Briana

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on Prologues and Epilogues (Let’s Talk Bookish)

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Oh, I love when books summarize the previous ones! I know there are a lot of book summaries online now, but once I sit down with a book, I want to open it and read it, not pull out my phone and start surfing the internet to find a summary.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. David M Cameron says:

    I think I agree, Briana. With regard to Shaharee’s point I don’t think the ‘What has happened in previous books’, is an epilogue, but rather an aid to readers. The time between books can be long and it is a quick recount to get the reader back into the swing of the story. I am just starting book 16 of a series I haven’t read for at least a couple of years and it is taking time for my memory to get back up to speed. This is a distraction that a short update on what has happened prior to the new book, can avoid. After saying that, I hate television programmes that start with ‘Previously’ and show the main parts of the last episode, and end with flashes of what will happen in the next. I always stop watching at these points.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I wouldn’t call it a prologue either, but I’d love if more books did it! I know a lot of fans have started putting book summaries online to help other readers, but I have never remembered to actually look one up. Once I sit down with a new book, I want to open it and start reading it, not get online and try to figure out what happened before.

      Ah, the TV ones are hit or miss for me! I don’t usually “binge” shows because I don’t have a time, but even with, say, the new Marvel shows where Disney+ is realizing one episode a week, I can remember what happened last week! I don’t think I’d need a summary unless I literally waited at least a month between each episode.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol says:

    I usually don’t mind prologues or epilogues. It seems like the stories I really wish had an epilogue, don’t! I remember wishing for an epilogue in The Girl With the Louding Voice. I can think of one instance where I absolutely hated the prologue……it was the prologue in Where the Lost Wonder. the prologue was a major spoiler to a main event in the plot. It involved an ambush and massacre and was graphic. It ruined my reading experience because I kept waiting for that scene in each chapter and read with feelings of dread and apprehension. Since I read an arc, I pointed out my experience and dissatisfaction in my review…..I’m sure it was in the final published copy 😩 I could never understand the point or purpose of that prologue except as a spoiler.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, the book I read where the prologue was just a scene from a book (also one where someone dies, interestingly) was the worst. Is the beginning of the book so boring they have to put the climax at the start?? At least I understood the entire premise of the book was that someone dies, so I knew it would happen even before I started reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I don’t have issue with them as long as they are good. I love it when prologues give some idea where it all began, mostly in fantasy, something about history of world or legend and how that caused the present world, like we see in movies in the beginning. Sometimes I don’t like them when it makes me confuse. I always enjoy epilogue. I love good ending or if it series, I want cliff hanger in epilogue than in actual ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, that’s what I was thinking as well! I usually don’t mind it if it’s set 100 years in the past, or even if it’s like 3 months earlier but has useful information about the plot that doesn’t fit in the main story. I just dislike it when it seems only there be “atmospheric.”

      Good point about cliffhanger epilogues! I think I like those better than “wrapping up all the characters and saying what they’re doing 20 years from now” epilogues.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fives @ Down The Rabbit Hole says:

    Wow, great thoughts here! I didn’t realize that industries professionals were generally against prologues. I totally agree that they should have informative value…otherwise please just stick with Chapter 1. And I also completely feel you on being more disappointed by epilogues than impressed as well. Often I am more satisfied with what my imagination comes up with rather than having it fed to me in an epilogue. Great post!

    Here’s my own response:
    https://downtherabbitholeblog.com/2021/07/02/lets-talk-bookish-prologues-and-epilogues-are-they-necessary/

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I know there’s often a part of me that wants to know what happens to the characters years later, but I think it’s a better feeling to be left wondering and wanting to know and making up my own theories rather than to get some hasty epilogue that’s just like, “And then Bob because a banker and Jane went to law school, and they had two kids named Amelia and Jordan who both became professional tennis players.”

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  5. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I’m generally lukewarm on prologues. It usually seems like an attempt to make a dull beginning seem more interesting, or else it’s trying to inject mystery into something that’s not all that mysterious. Or, it will introduce characters who end up being killed right away, and then on the next page you jump into the story with the main character, and I just wonder why they do that?

    I’m not terribly keen on epilogues, either, though I’m less annoyed by them than I am by prologues. Usually with epilogues, the author is trying to say, “here’s what happened to the characters in their lives”, and I’m usually happier when the book just ends and I can make my own headcanon about what happens after.

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