What is a prologue (and epilogue)? Examples and tips

What is a prologue (and epilogue)? Examples and tips

What is a prologue? | Now Novel

Many authors include prefaces to their stories that give context, exposition or backstory. 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 often precede early modern stage dramas.

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
  • Create a single 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. Except the epilogue comes after the main narrative.

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.

There are various reasons why you might include an epilogue. You might have one to:

  • 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.
  • 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 unnecessary bulk)?

1. Writing prologues that explain your world

This type of prologue is particularly common and useful in genres like fantasy and science fiction. In these genres, imagining another world is core to the reader’s journey. Prologues help to avoid info dumps later on in introducing some of these elements.

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.

If you 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 at genre tropes, Pratchett gives us broad and detailed facts 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.

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 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.

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2. Write 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). 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.

Example of significant background given through a prologue: Into the Water

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:

Again! Again!
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 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 part of problematic views on gender. This issue recurs throughout the book across time periods

3. Write 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.

Writing epilogues and endings - Jim Henson quote | Now Novel

4. Write 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. Yet 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 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.

Writing a prologue or epilogue? Get constructive feedback on Now Novel or take a writing course to improve your writing craft.

10 Replies to “What is a prologue (and epilogue)? Examples and tips”

    1. Hi Marissa, great question! I’m catching up on all the questions that for some reason haven’t created notifications.

      It’s not hugely common to find prologues and epilogues in romance, as they tend to be more in the ‘realist’ mode (depending on subgenre of course). Yet one way you could write a good prologue is to describe a situation that has an impact on your main characters’ lives (and romance). Say, for example, a World War were the backdrop to your romance, you could have a brief prologue describing how the war separates people. Perhaps describing someone waving goodbye from a pier. A prologue is a great chance to encapsulate some of the backstory and themes that are key to the story. I hope that helps!

  1. Great information. I’ve encountered too many fellow scribblers in crit groups who write an epilogue and/or prologue without really understanding what either are or even if either is appropriate for their story/genre.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Elias. Indeed – these narrative devices aren’t always necessary simply because you’re writing a certain genre.

  2. I’ve always been a little fuzzy on whether or not it’s appropriate to include prologues and/or epilogues in books that are a part of a series. For example, if Book 1 has a prologue and/or epilogue, can the second or third book also have a prologue and/or epilogue, or are such things better saved for starting the first book of a series and ending the last book of a series?

    Some of your above examples would suggest this is appropriate, but I just wanted to be clear. I also notice there’s not been much activity on this particular page for a couple years, so any answer would be very, very appreciated. Thanks!

    1. Hi Michi, Happy New Year! Thank you for your question. Structurally, I would say a prologue for book 1 (such as the lengthy prologue Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings to introduce key worldbuilding elements) makes sense, but perhaps not for every book (although you may want to use one to establish a specific setting, mood, viewpoint, etc.).

      For example, Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water has a brief prologue describing a drowning which is then a central plot element of the book. A briefer prologue centering a key event might make more sense for a later book in the series than a lengthy worldbuilding one which would make more sense earlier on.

      As for an epilogue, this is typically ‘after the end’ so may seem strange to have before the end of the story. It typically has an afterword, ‘after-the-end’ effect, but since each book may have self-contained conflicts and story arcs, it may work in individual series entries.

      Personally, though, I’d lean towards a prologue for book one alone, and an epilogue for the final book, as this would ‘bookend’ the series which could create a satsifying sense of structured beginning and ending. I hope this is helpful!

    1. Hi Niranjan, thank you for your question. That is an interesting option. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head where authors have done that, but I don’t see why not. It could provide a useful recap for the reader and would be particularly effective if it had a hook to invite the reader to continue. Good luck with both books.

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