FOR THE artistic & imaginative WRITER

Prologues & Epilogues

There are many ways to begin and end stories. Sometimes the story starts you in the action; other times, the stage must first be set. Sometimes the ending is a cliffhanger; sometimes it’s more precise and changes the way the story is read. Today we’re talking prologues and epilogues—what are they? Are they right for you? Let’s find out!

Beginnings and Endings

So we hear a lot about prologues and epilogues, but what are they? To over-simplify, they are beginnings and endings. The words have roots in Greek: a prologue is “before saying,” so logically it occurs before the rest of your story, and an epilogue is “in addition to saying,” which means it occurs afterward. But prologues and epilogues are more than just “the beginning” and “the end” or sections of text that come before or after your stories. Many stories choose to forgo one or the other, and most stories choose not to include them altogether. Let’s take a closer look at why.

Once Upon A Time…

A story might have several types of text before its first chapter, but not all of them directly related to the story. Unlike an introduction, a preface, or a foreword, a prologue is a part of the story itself. Introductions, prefaces, and forewords are––explanations on the text and provide information about how the text came to be and/or how it was written—they are not part of the fiction itself.
A prologue, however, fulfills a specific story role: it provides a setup, but it is also a part of the work it sets up. It provides details about the characters and the world we are about to embark into, but it is usually set apart from the main story. A prologue may often be many years before the main story begins, or it may occur in a different place than the rest of the story entirely. The important common factor is the set up: something that happens in the prologue is vital to know ahead of time to fully understand the story. Prologues are also often not lengthy. They span from a couple hundred words to a few pages. Kind of abstract, right? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Prologue Examples

In Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, we are given this for the opening: “Two houses, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From an ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
Whoa. There’s a wealth of information there before we even get into the tragic love story. Even this snippet of the prologue tells us a bunch! The setting is in Verona, there are two groups of people of similar esteem that have a long-standing rivalry, and some baaad stuff is going to go down. Not every word of your prologue has to be as punchy as Shakespeare’s—after all, scripts rely on visual elements as well as written—but the point is that the prologue is providing vital information that would otherwise not be convenient or easily disseminated throughout the rest of your narrative. By giving us this information immediately, we are saved having to ask questions later, like “Why do the Montagues and Capulets hate each other so much? Where even are we?” Romeo and Juliet is not about why the families hate each other; it’s about what happens to two kids as a result of that hatred.
But we’ve got more modern examples, too, like this excerpt from Scott Westerfeld’s apocalyptic novel, The Last Days. It describes the origin and meaning of the children’s nursery rhyme, “Ring Around the Rosy. Ever hear this charming little rhyme?

Ring-around-the-rosy.
A pocket full of posies.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Some people say that this poem is about the Black Death, the fourteenth-century plague that killed 100 million people. Here’s the theory: “Ring-around-the-rosy” was an early symptom of the plague: a circular rash of red skin. In medieval times, people carried flowers, like posies, with them for protection against disease. The words “ashes to ashes” appear in the funeral mass, and sometimes plague victims’ houses were burned.
And “we all fall down”?
Well, you can figure that one out for yourself.
Sadly, though, most experts think this is nonsense. A red rash isn’t really a plague symptom, they say, and “ashes” was originally some other word. Most important, the rhyme is too new. It didn’t appear in print until 1881.
Trust me, though, it’s about the plague. The words have changed a little from the original, but so have any words carried on the lips of children for seven hundred years. It’s a little reminder that the Black Death will come again.
How can I be so sure about this rhyme, when all the experts disagree?
Because I ate the kid who made it up.
NIGHT MAYOR TAPES: 102-130

OOF. Every time I read that, I feel like crying. While this prologue provides less directly useful information than that of Romeo and Juliet’s (unless, like me, you enjoy learning morbid factoids about plagues) the impact is no lesser. This prologue is largely about setting the tone for the rest of the novel, and a reminder that no matter how light-hearted or normal things may seem, something big and bad is coming (and coming from a novel called The Last Days, maybe I should have been less surprised?). Aside from tone, this prologue helps us gear up from the story in more subtle ways: we know that there are beings that eat people and that they have the potential to be incredibly long-lived. It also makes us wonder: who is this mysterious “Night Mayor” mentioned? Who recorded this apparent interview? If these tapes are in the hundreds, what else does this Night Mayor know? All of this context goes with us into the first chapter.

Does My Story Need A Prologue?

Absolutely not! Many stories get on just fine without them. And for each successful prologue, there are twice as many that bog down a story before it even begins. If you’re not sure if your story needs a prologue, ask yourself this:
Is there a vital event or information that a reader needs to know before diving in?
Is the event or knowledge a catalyst that sets the main story into motion?
Can that event or knowledge be explained later without confusing the reader?

If that information needs to be put up front—such as how a certain Ring came to not be destroyed so it could be in the possession of a particular Hobbit, or how a certain Dark Wizard was defeated by a mere infant—you may find yourself in need of a prologue. And it’s not as though the story of the prologue is unimportant; it just isn’t the current story you’re telling. It’s important information that sets up the tone and the world you’re writing. However, it’s equally important to make sure that the prologue isn’t merely taking the place of exposition.

…And They All Lived Happily Ever After

Just as many different texts can appear before a story, several can appear after as well. Like a prologue, an epilogue is still a part of the story. It is not the afterword or acknowledgments; the author is not speaking as themselves. The function of an epilogue is to provide closure. The main story has ended, the climax reached, the day saved. The epilogue goes past the ending, often with a time skip of its own. It may also provide a moral or message to the piece, or even tell us simply that the suffering of the characters was not in vain. It is a closing statement of a story that provides a final piece of information on which to reflect.

Epilogue Examples

So perhaps obviously or perhaps not, SPOILER WARNING. Talking about endings here is going to give a couple of stories away! We’re going to start with Shakespeare again (sorry! So many good examples…). This is the ending to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spoken by a character in the play directly to the audience:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long.
Else the Puck a liar call.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Puck is advising us, if the story was not to our liking, to pretend it was merely a dream, and not to criticize, because they’re really sorry you didn’t like it. I like this epilogue because it’s crafty. It could be simply what it states: that they truly didn’t mean to offend, and if so, it’s only a story. But given the dreamlike setting of the story preceding it, the fairies, and the frivolity, this epilogue could also be a comment on taking things too seriously or even an extension of the fairies reaching their magic beyond the scope of the play into the audience. The meaning of this epilogue is not directly clear, but it provides much to ponder.
Other epilogues are more straightforward, such as the final chapter of the Harry Potter series. Turn the page of the penultimate chapter, and the next words you see are “Nineteen years later.” As the entire series takes place over a seven-year span with a book for each year, this gap is significant. The epilogue shows the protagonists as adults with children of their own, now school-aged and getting on the Hogwarts Express as they themselves did so many years ago. The epilogue is packed full of little details—who married whom, what the heroes are doing with their lives now, where friendships have strengthened and fallen apart—the kind of things that are endearing and rewarding to read. There are no hidden meanings; it is merely the aftermath of the danger, a glimpse into the future that shows hope and happiness for the characters after a long struggle with the forces of evil. It is a clear, closed ending.

Does My Story Need An Epilogue?

As with prologues, the answer is the same: not at all! And you can have an epilogue without a prologue and vice versa. It depends on the needs of your story. Some writers like to have concrete endings, some prefer stories to be more open-ended. An epilogue is a convenient way to show how characters have changed since coming face-to-face with danger (or themselves!). If you’re not sure an epilogue is right for your story, try asking this:
Is the story finished as is? Or is there additional information that can be provided?
Does that information help provide closure or shine a new light on your story and/or its message?
Does this information raise too many new questions?

An epilogue can change the way a story is interpreted entirely. I’ve read quite a few epilogues where I’ve wondered, “What was the point of all that?” afterward. A bad epilogue can leave a sour taste in a reader’s mouth and feel like a waste of time. As such, an epilogue should compliment a story, not undermine it. If the information provided is going to challenge the character arcs and plot events, it may be best saved for a sequel or not included at all.
Don’t let the negative scare you! Play around with including or removing prologues and epilogues—see what works best for you and your writing! And remember, the world needs your story!

Ghost Writer, Molly Brynne

Thank you for joining us this week for Ghost Authors! We hope you enjoyed this week’s post written by our very own Ghost Writer, Molly Brynne. You can follow Molly on her Instagram @mxmearcstapa and Twitter @nefariousmollyb. Also, if you’d like to read more posts written by Molly, you can search her name in the search engine on our website in the top right-hand corner and see all the articles she has written for us. If you’d like to know more about her, be sure to check out our “Meet the Team” page for more information. If you have any suggestions for future articles, please let us know by sending us a quick message. Thank you so much for your time this week. Please leave all your thoughts and comments below! Until next time, have a happy Tuesday!

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