Including a Prologue & Epilogue in Your Novel

In part four of this twelve-part blog series, founder of Books from Start to Finish Graham Schofield continues to share his thoughts on the need—or not—for a prologue or an epilogue in your novel.

In part five in the series, Graham will look at narration.  

In part three of the series, Graham discussed plot, pacing, and timeline.

The Prologue: Do I or Don’t I?

That’s a dilemma many writers face at the start of a new book. Do I need something before chapter 1, or do I start there? Many new writers have a view that every work of fiction needs a prologue, but this is not the case. Some books have a great prologue, one that really draws the reader into the story, and some will leave the reader wondering why the author bothered to write it.

So, what should you do?

To answer that, let’s explore the purpose of the prologue. This is often to provide atmosphere or to generate an understanding of the book’s setting, but the biggest purpose is to hook the reader and draw them into your story.

A prologue can be used to outline backstory, removing the need to have flashbacks or conversations or memories to explain the background to the reader. A book about someone getting revenge could all happen in present time, but the “wrong” may have been done many years in the past; here the prologue would describe the prior events.

Alternatively, a prologue can relate to events that will take place near the end of the book, and the story then explains what has led up to this moment.

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But When is this Justified?

The points made above will probably give you a good idea of whether you need a prologue or not in your story, but if you’re still not sure, then consider this:

If you just called the prologue Chapter 1, would the story move ahead easily from there anyway? If the answer is yes, then forget the prologue. If you need to provide historical background for the story to make sense, then use a prologue. If the reason is only to provide a hook but this could be done in Chapter 1, then do that.

Before you make a final decision for your book, look at some of your favorite books and see if they had a prologue or not. If they did, what was the approach taken and why did it work well? If you still can’t make up your mind, go to the bookstore or the library and look at a book that could be described as similar to yours; what did the author do and did it “work”?

A Final Word: The Epilogue

Whenever people ask me about having an epilogue, I usually tell them it depends on whether they want to spell out the “happy ever after” or leave it to the reader’s imagination. If the hero and heroine finally get together on the last page, do you want to just leave it there, or talk about what happened to them in the future?

If you want your readers to decide what happens for themselves then you can even have some kind of loose ending. If you want to wrap it all up and offer real closure, then write an epilogue.

As with the prologue, you need a clear purpose for having an epilogue and should not use it to simply tie up loose ends. Without good reasons for including it, an epilogue can create an anti-climax after a blockbuster ending. Alternatively, when the ending is abrupt or surprising and raises questions in your readers’ minds, then an epilogue can be very useful. Only you can decide if the end of the final chapter will leave your readers satisfied; if not, then write an epilogue.

I will end with this point to consider: Harry Potter. After over 4,000 pages full of intrigue and excitement, JK Rowling chose to tell us that Harry married Ginny and Ron married Hermione and what Harry did for a job, etc. For many, the question was: where was the good vs evil? For me, a real Potter fan, I found that to be a big “so what?” moment and would have preferred to decide for myself what happened. Even JK Rowling later admitted that Harry and Hermione should have been together—wouldn’t it have been better if we could have imagined that for ourselves? A small point, I know, but that’s how important it is to get the use of an epilogue right.

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Have you found another model or method that helps you develop a three-act structure for your book? If so, let us know via social media @DigiWriting!  

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About Graham Schofield

Founder of Books from Start to Finish, Graham Schofield works with authors of fiction and non-fiction to write, edit, and publish their books, including many different business owners across numerous industries. He can be contacted at graham.schofield@write-edit-publish.com.