The different parts of a book each serve useful functions. Sometimes, authors include introductory or closing sections that stand a little apart from the main narrative, like forewords or afterwords. What is a prologue or epilogue exactly? Read on for definitions, examples and tips for using them in your own books:
What is a prologue?
The word ‘prologue’ comes from the root word logos meaning ‘speech’ and the prefix pro- meaning ‘before’. It’s literally the before-word. Prologues originate in the introductory spoken parts that would typically precede an early modern stage drama.
In more modern times, the prologue is a device authors often use to:
- Give the reader exposition that explains their world without having to resort to info dumps in the main narrative
- Show a key event, setting or situation that is significant for the remainder of the story
- Create a standalone event that casts a veil of mystery and lingering questions over the following story
We’ll get to examples of these uses as well as tips for writing a great prologue. But first:
What is an epilogue?
An epilogue, like a prologue, is a section of a book that stands outside the narrative, as a kind of commentary or supplementary addition. Except the epilogue (as the prefix indicates) comes after the main narrative.
This is most common in contemporary fiction when the story flashes forwards, after the main action has ended, to a later situation. J.K. Rowling controversially used this device to end her Harry Potter series. Rowling showed her central characters when they were much older after the series main conflict had resolved.
There are various reasons why you might include an epilogue in your book:
- To hint at a coming sequel: For example, an epilogue might introduce a new, suspenseful development somewhat related to your main story arc
- To foreclose possibility of a sequel: Rowling’s epilogue had something of this effect as it showed characters after much time had passed. This use is risky. To the reader the ‘I want you to know this is the absolute ending’ ending can feel more like a communication of the author’s intent than something relevant to the story arc
- To show a core character or narrator’s final reflections
So what are examples of effective prologues, and how can you create one that adds to your story (rather than giving it unnecesary bulk)?
1. Writing prologues that explain your world
This type of prologue is particularly common and useful in genres like fantasy and science fiction where imagining another world is core to the reader’s journey.
If you have all kinds of mythical creatures or intergalactic trade groups, info dumps are tempting. It can be tricky to introduce these details in the ordinary flow of your book without it reading like a professor stepping in to give a lesson.
Because paragraphs that read like dusty encyclopedia entries distract your reader from the unfolding story though, a prologue may be simpler.
If you do write a prologue, keep it ‘storified’. Just because it stands outside the main story events a little doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be compelling. It’s best not to give readers a dry, scientific outline of your world that they’ll skip for the main narrative.
So how do you write prologues that entertain while also giving some explanation of how things work?
1.1. Include humour, if relevant
If humour is part of your story, a funny or whimsical prologue is effective.
Take this example: The opening prologue from The Colour of Magic (1983), the first book in Sir Terry Pratchett’s comical Discworld series:
‘In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…’
Pratchett’s prologue is laced throughout with grand, faux-epic language (‘the curling star-mists’). This pokes fun a little at the grand, sweeping imagery and language of many epic fantasy introductions. Pratchett draws attention to the improbability and absurdity of his magical world (‘in an astral plane that was never meant to fly’).
This approach creates the playful, affectionately mocking tone that is distinctive of Pratchett’s style. Even as he pokes fun, Pratchett gives us detailed yet broad details about his world. By the time we get to the main action, we don’t need an explanation for every world building detail.
1.2. Share information relevant to key events of your story
The introduction to Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) is also a good example of an effective prologue.
Tolkien’s lengthy prologue is divided into 5 parts in the table of contents. ‘Concerning Hobbits’, ‘Concerning Pipe-weed’, ‘Of the Ordering of the Shire’, ‘Of the Finding of the Ring’, and ‘Note on the Shire Records.’
This expansive prologue allows Tolkien to share primary information about the history and nature of the race of Hobbits, as well as the history of ownership of the ‘One Ring’. We get some social history affecting characters’ viewpoints and origins, as well as the history of an object of greatest significance for the plot.
By getting all this explanatory detail out of the way in a prologue, Tolkien gives the reader a ‘user’s manual’ of sorts for the coming story. When we encounter mention of hobbits or the ring, we already have background – a frame of reference.
Tolkien keeps his prologue interesting with anecdotes and imagery. For example, in ‘Concerning Hobbits’, we read this about Hobbits’ height:
‘They seldom now reach three feet; but they have dwindled, they say, and in ancient days they were taller. According to the Red Book, Bandobras Took (Bullroarer), son of Isengrim the Second, was four foot five and able to ride a horse. He was surpassed in all Hobbit records only by two famous characters of old; but that curious matter is dealt with in this book. ‘
Tolkien’s prologue, while mostly background information, thus also gives us specific, detailed descriptions. These make his world more vivid and real. He also hints explicitly that this information about some Hobbits riding horses is relevant to the coming story. The prologue thus conveniently teases coming events.
2. Writing prologues describing significant background
In the section of Tolkien’s prologue titled ‘Of the Finding of the Ring’, the author also recaps key events. We learn how the One Ring came into the character Bilbo Baggins’ possession. This recaps the events of Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (1937). The prologue describes exciting events in summary form. While relevant, they are not the main action of this story:
‘ …just in time Bilbo saw his peril, and he fled blindly up the passage away from the water; and once more he was saved by his luck. For just as he ran he put his hand in his pocket, and the ring slipped quietly on to his finger. So it was that Gollum passed him without seeing him…’
Tolkien describes Bilbo’s escape with the ring. This part of the prologue introduces one of the ring’s powers (granting invisibility to its wearer). We thus get detail relevant to the coming story, in action-filled yet concise form.
It’s not only fantasy and science fiction that use this type of prologue, however. Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel Into the Water (2017) begins with a brief, half-page section titled ‘The Drowning Pool’, before the chapters listed under ‘Part One’ in the contents begin.
The section titled ‘Libby’, all in italics, describes a disturbing scene:
The men bind her again. Differently this time: left thumb to right toe, right thumb to left. The rope around her waist. This time, they carry her into the water.’
Hawkins, in her unsettling prologue, gives the viewpoint of a character named ‘Libby’ as she is drowned. The reader only learns much later about this specific event and it’s fuller background, however. The following sections focus instead on events leading to other characters’ near-drownings.
Hawkins thus delays revelation explaining the scene of her prologue, yet it’s still relevant to multiple characters’ experiences across multiple time periods in her book.
Reading the above examples, how can you write a gripping foreword that adds to your story by introducing key events?
- Use plenty of action: Both Tolkien and Hawkins include moments of tension and drama in their descriptions of background events
- Create elements of mystery: We may well wonder what became of Gollum after Bilbo took the ring, or who ‘Libby’ was
- Keep it concise and purposeful: Even though Tolkien’s prologue is one long piece of narrative, his table of contents identifies the 5 separate subjects it covers so that as we read it, we notice we are learning about five aspects of his world
- Use standalone events to introduce important themes of your story: Hawkins prologue, for example, highlights the violence against women that is underwritten by problematic views on gender, an issue the book continues to explore across time periods
3. Writing epilogues that hint at forthcoming sequels
Hinting at the events that are already underfoot in an epilogue is a useful way to keep readers intrigued and on the lookout for your next installment.
If, at the end of your book, for example, your no-nonsense detective catches a serial killer, your epilogue could show a new copycat killer, perhaps, engaged in suspicious activity. For example:
‘A man in a scruffy, faded bomber jacket sits at a greasy desk, snipping. The scissors cut hurriedly around a mugshot Detective McHarry would recognize instantly. The man slides a musty scrapbook in front of him, cuttings loosely cradled in his calloused hand.’
‘Who the heck is this now?’ your readers would likely ask themselves. When writing sequel-teasing epilogues:
- Relate new developments to earlier action: If your epilogue feels completely unrelated to preceding action or narrative, it might be too confusing. Ensure continuity
- Create suspense: Give enough information to intrigue. Play with leaving information open-ended. In the example above, the man with the scrapbook could be anyone.
- Keep epilogues concise: When you’ve already resolved the main action of your story, anything that follows it may feel particularly tiring to read after the climax. Try to keep to a page or two at most.
4. Writing epilogues where characters reflect on prior events
An epilogue or afterword from a character’s point of view may be emotionally satisfying. For example, in Evelyn Waugh’s classic wartime novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), the main character Ryder revisits a college friend’s family manor when it has become a military station during the war.
The earlier descriptions of Brideshead are full of life, but in the epilogue, the manor is like an uninhabited shell. The sense of the manor’s former grandeur, now falling apart under siege, gives the epilogue a nostalgic, wistful tone:
‘Wonderful old place in its way,’ said the Quartering Commandant; ‘pity to knock it about too much.’
Further on, Ryder says:
‘It did not take us long to make our tour of the echoing rooms.’
The sense of ruin and abandonment in the altered setting brings home the depersonalized devastation war entails. It creates an affecting contrast with the earlier descriptions of the laughter, romance and other intrigue characters share at this stately home.
The epilogue, where Ryder experiences a profound change of place, has an emotional effect. It conveys a haunting sense of fading splendour produced by war and the march of time.
When writing epilogues such as these where characters experience the past from a new vantage point:
- Evoke emotion: How does your character feel under changed circumstances: Nostalgic? Sad? Stronger? Weaker?
- Imagine ways to incorporate your stroy’s main themes:‘Class’ and ‘status’ are key themes in Brideshead Revisited. The epilogue shows how war levels these. The manor is no longer quite so grand and has been damaged. History and place-attachment are sacrificed to politics and change.