Adding a prologue and/or epilogue to your novel should be approached with care. Where the prologue can add a bit of backstory and an epilogue can help tie up loose ends, these tools don’t always add to the quality of a story. In fact, if not used judiciously, a prologue or epilogue can actually backfire. Continue reading to learn how and when to use these tricky literary devices.

What is a Prologue?

A prologue appears at the beginning of your book, right before the first chapter. The purpose of a prologue is to provide the reader with some needed information before they launch into the story. The prologue may summarize past events or offer a glimpse into a character’s background. A well-written prologue might spark a sense of curiosity or provoke intrigue, either of which can whet the reader’s appetite.

What is an Epilogue?

The epilogue appears at the end of the book, immediately following the final chapter. An author may use an epilogue to provide closure, especially if the story ends without resolution. Instead of leaving the reader hanging, an epilogue might provide clues about what the future looked like. An epilogue can also set up a future sequel. A talented writer can give the reader just enough information to ensure sales of a future installment.

Prologue vs. Epilogue

When considering these literary tools, an author can use both a prologue and epilogue, either a prologue or an epilogue, or to skip them altogether. Most authors use neither device, but that doesn’t mean a prologue or epilogue wouldn’t be an asset to a piece of fiction. Indeed, adding a clever prologue can draw the reader in right away, making them excited about starting chapter one. An epilogue, too, can be utilized to leave the reader feeling satisfied after investing their time and emotions in the story.

When deciding whether to use a prologue vs. epilogue, it truly comes down to the way chapter one and the final chapter play out. If a beta reader communicates that reading chapter one was a choppy, confusing ride, then adding a prologue would offer a solution. The same goes for the end of the book and whether beta readers feel emotionally unsettled or robbed of the final pieces of the puzzle. An epilogue provides a cure for that problem.

How To Write a Prologue

Consider keeping these important points in mind when contemplating how to write a prologue:

Consider the Angle

A prologue will serve a specific purpose for the storytelling endeavor. Before deciding to add a prologue, think about what it would accomplish for the story. Is the purpose of the prologue to provide background information, sometimes referred to as an info dump? Would the prologue be used to spur a reader’s curiosity, shock, or some other powerful emotion? Identify the purpose of your prologue.

Keep Them Interested

Since the prologue is the first encounter your reader will have with the story, make every word matter. Stoke interest in the reader by utilizing one of these prologue tactics:

  • Drop into Action. Create a riveting action scene that immediately grabs the reader’s interest and stirs the imagination.
  • World-Building Time. Use the prologue as a world-building tool to help lay the foundation in which the story will unfold.
  • Character Hints. Introduce a character, one that will appear in later chapters, by revealing a key event in the prologue.

Keep It Short

When writing a prologue, follow the less-is-more rule. Keep your prologue pithy and short, versus a detailed info dump, to ensure your reader remains engaged. Remember, a prologue is not supposed to be an entire chapter, so keep it brief.

How To Write an Epilogue

Just as much care should be taken when wondering how to write an epilogue for your book:

Consider the Purpose

When creating an epilogue for your book, keep in mind its purpose. Did the story end in a cliffhanger that might require some resolution? Is the epilogue needed to give the reader some closure after becoming attached to the characters? Do you want to drop some hints that a sequel may be forthcoming?

Keep It Short

An epilogue is not an additional chapter; it is an addendum to the final chapter. The epilogue is not a synopsis of the story; it is a standalone mini-story that often places the main character in the future to provide closure. Remember, brevity is king when penning an effective epilogue.

Famous Prologues/Epilogues in Literature

To better understand what a well-written prologue and epilogue look like, consider these classics:

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare (prologue)

“Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;

Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-marked love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss our toil shall strive to mend.”

Moby Dick, Herman Melville (epilogue)

“‘And I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee’ Job.

The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck.

It so chanced, that after the Parsee’s disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab’s bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out of the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan. FINIS”

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