Many authors include a prologue to their story that gives context, exposition or backstory, or an afterword that supplies further resolution or intrigue. 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’ origins are the introductory spoken parts that would often precede early modern stage dramas. Bharti Kirchner over at The Writer gives a great prologue definition:
A prologue is a preliminary act, a teaser, if you will, used to usher a reader into the story, generally happening in a different time period and place. It sets the stage for the main actions to take place. It tantalizes.Bharti Kirchner, ‘The Pleasures and Perils of Prologues’, The Writer, Updated October 21, 2018.
Authors often use prologues to:
- Give readers exposition that explains their world without having to use info dumps in the main story
- Show a key event, setting or situation that is significant for the remainder of the story
- Establish a scenario that provides context for the events of the following story
We’ll get to prologue examples below 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 extends the main narrative. Except the epilogue comes after the main story.
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 resolves, a device some readers found too pat and tidy as resolutions go.
There are various reasons why you might include an epilogue. An epilogue in a novel may:
- Hint at a coming sequel: For example, an epilogue might introduce a new, suspenseful development
- Limit the possibility of a sequel: Rowling’s epilogue had something of this effect as it showed characters after much time had passed.
- Provide resolution on another level: If a main character’s arc has resolved, the epilogue may suggest, for example, how things resolve generally for an ensemble cast. Think of the sometimes saccharine ‘Character X is now…’ type of summary that tells the viewer what happened to a specific character after the events of a comedy film or series.
Epilogues vs prologues: 6 functions in stories
Here are several ways you could use a prologue or epilogue (with examples along the way):
- Use prologues to give context for your world
- Include prologues to unify story elements
- Add history using wiki-like prologues
- Describe significant background events
- Write epilogues that hint at sequels
- Add afterwords showing affect and change
1. Use prologues to give context for your world
Many authors use prologues to supply context for the reader: A means to understand or frame what will follow.
Paula Hawkins begins Into the Water (Doubleday, 2017) with a prologue that gives context for the dark, thriller nature of the story in describing a woman being bound and drowned.
Prologue example: Creating context in a preface
If you’re wondering how to write an epic prologue, look no further than George R. R. Martin’s prologue to A Game of Thrones (Bantam Spectra, 1996).
This is an excellent example of giving rich context through a prologue. Martin’s example establishes:
- Setting: We learn about ‘The Wall’, a barrier of stone, ice and magic between the Seven Kingdoms and the dangerous northern wilderness. The men who venture beyond the wall in the prologue discuss the cold, one revealing his ears were cut off due to frostbite
- Key conflict between groups: We learn about some of the groups dangerous to the Seven Kingdoms’ human inhabitants living beyond the wall (‘wildlings’ and ‘Others’) in a deadly encounter between humans and Others
- Broader values and norms: We learn about societal practices in Martin’s world, such as the character Will who was a poacher until he was caught red-handed and forced to join the Night’s Watch or lose a hand. We immediately learn that punishments in the Seven Kingdoms are harsh
Agent Andrea Brown gives a caveat to writing prologues, which Martin avoids by making his prologue read as immersive and engaging as a first chapter:
“Basically editors and most agents hate prologues,” says agent Andrea Brown, president of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. “They are sorely overused and seem like a cheap device. Much better for authors to be creative—come up with ways around them and start the novel with a great first chapter.”Andrea Brown, quoted by Kirchner, ‘The Pleasures and Perils of Prologues’.
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2. Include prologues to unify story elements
A prologue or epilogue should be relevant to the story. It brings together key elements (the way, for example, George R. R. Martin’s prologue to A Game of Thrones brings together two key worlds – the world of humans and the world of The Others beyond The Wall).
Another way you may decide to use a prologue is to bring together themes or even story characters in a single place or image, as in the example below:
Prologue example: Unifying characters in Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann’s complex novel Let the Great World Spin (2009, Bloomsbury) features eight central characters, including a monk, an artist-meets-addict, a cynical judge and a prostitute.
The novel begins by describing the day in August 1974 when Phillipe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Down among the spectators are all eight of the story’s characters. The audacity, dreaming and ‘recklessness’ of the act is reflected in their individual arcs. The tightrope-walker image unifies them in place, and in all the act symbolizes.
Like Martin’s prologue, this prologue example conveys a sense of place too, in the rattling off of New York street names, for example:
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it must be the perfect city joke – stand around and point upward, until people gathered […]Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Bloomsbury, 2009), p. 3.
3. Add history using wiki-like prologues
The introduction to Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) is also a good example of an effective prologue. It is interesting to compare Tolkien’s approach to George R.R. Martin’s in terms of the narrative devices each author uses.
Martin uses the individual incident to illuminate the whole (an unexpected skirmish beyond The Wall illustrates the nature of his world). A specific scene, specific conversation, gives context.
By contrast, Tolkien’s lengthy prologue is more encyclopedic.
The prologue to Tolkien’s cycle is divided into 5 parts with a 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 read social history, as well as the history of an object of greatest significance for the plot.
Tolkien gets all the explanatory detail out of the way in his prologue. It’s a ‘user’s manual’ of sorts for the coming story. When we encounter mention of Hobbits or the One Ring, we already have background – a frame of reference.
Prologue example: Giving wiki-like details
As for the Hobbits of the Shire, with whom these tales are concerned, in the days of their peace and prosperity they were a merry folk. They dressed in bright colors […] Their faces were good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking. And laugh they did, and eat, and drink, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times.J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (George Allen & Unwin, 1954), p. 7.
The details given about Hobbits in the above extract of Tolkien’s prologue read like an encyclopedia entry. There’s a sense of broad strokes and generalizations very different to Martin’s approach.
What is especially interesting is the contrast between this rosy picture of Hobbits in Tolkien’s prologue, the ‘scientific’ style of the Hobbits’ description, compared to the visceral danger and raw emotion his characters experience in the story (the story itself having a more illustrative and immersive style).
4. Describe significant background events
In the section of Tolkien’s prologue titled ‘Of the Finding of the Ring’, the author also recaps key events.
We learn, for example, how Bilbo Baggins set out on the adventure whereby he came to possess the One Ring that is the object of the quest in The Fellowship, too:
As is told in The Hobbit, there came one day to Bilbo’s door the great Wizard, Gandalf the Grey, and thirteen dwarves with him: none other, indeed, than Thorin Oakenshield, descendant of kings, and his twelve companions in exile. With them he set out, to his own lasting astonishment, on a morning of April, it being then the year 1341 Shire-reckoning, on a quest of great treasure […]Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 14
If you’re planning to write a prologue to describe significant earlier events, ask:
- Which characters are worth introducing now?
- What do these events illustrate, what key to understanding what follows in the story will these details give my reader?
Example of significant background given through a prologue: Into the Water
Paula Hawkins’ 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:
Again! Again!Paula Hawkins, Into the Water (Doubleday, 2017), p. 3.
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 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 events depicted in 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 strong foreword that adds to your story by introducing key events?
- Use detailed action. Both Tolkien and Hawkins include moments of tension and drama in their descriptions of background events.
- Create elements of mystery. The reader will likely wonder why Bilbo’s adventure led to his ‘lasting astonishment’ or what happened to ‘Libby’ in Hawkins’ example.
- Keep prologues concise or well-structured. 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 part of the issues the book explores. This issue recurs throughout the book across time periods.
5. Write epilogues that hint at sequels
One way you could use an epilogue is to hint at further developments in a forthcoming sequel.
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 small 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 hands. He would escape detection, he’d studied every case.’
‘Who 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 it a paragraph to a page if possible.
6. Add afterwords showing affect and change
An epilogue or afterword is an opportunity to bring home a sense of the journey your characters have been on (and the journey you’ve taken your reader on).
Epilogue example: Wartime reflection in Brideshead Revisited
For example, in Evelyn Waugh’s classic wartime novel Brideshead Revisited (Chapman and Hall, 1945), the main character Ryder revisits a college friend’s family manor after it has become a military station for the war.
The earlier descriptions of Brideshead are full of life. Yet in the epilogue, the manor is a shell of its former glory. The sense of the manor’s former grandeur, now that it is falling apart under siege, gives the epilogue a nostalgic tone:
Wonderful old place in its way,’ said the Quartering Commandant; ‘pity to knock it about too much’.Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945).
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 devastation war entails. It creates an affecting contrast with the earlier descriptions of the laughter, romance and other intrigue characters share at Brideshead.
The epilogue, where Ryder experiences a profound change of place, has an emotional effect. It conveys a haunting sense of how war reduces the familiar into ruins and remnants.
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 to some extent. The manor is no longer quite so grand and has been damaged. Old orders are displaced amid violent change
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