Prologues and epilogues don’t always get the best raps, and for good reason—they can be tricky to write. And even though you may be convinced that the details in your book’s prologue or epilogue are vital to the story, some readers skip them entirely. At Writer’s Relief, we know that determining whether a book really needs a prologue or epilogue can be one of the harder decisions novelists must make. Here’s some guidance on how to make the best choice for your book!
Should You Have A Prologue Or Epilogue In Your Book?
What You Need To Know About Prologues
A prologue, or short section before your first chapter, often serves to provide background information for the reader. Usually it takes place before the main action of your story begins. Prologues are great tools when necessary, but if you don’t truly need a prologue, consider that it may backfire by making your book seem slow to start.
Keep in mind that the opening pages are perhaps the most important ones in a book—especially when querying literary agents who are often too busy to read more than the first few pages before deciding if they’d like to request your manuscript.
To determine if you really need a prologue, ask yourself these questions:
Do you have crucial background information to share? Did a major event serve as the catalyst for your story that readers will need to understand? Do you have a character who’s important to your text, but whose role in the story occurred significantly earlier than the start of the novel, and thus can’t be seen or remembered from your eventual protagonist’s perspective? If either of these things is true for you, and this person or event needs to be introduced before your story begins, a prologue can be the best way to handle these situations.
Is your first chapter as strong? Writers often try to create an action-packed, attention-grabbing prologue to make up for the fact that their first chapter is slow-moving. If this is the case, you might want to make the details in your prologue part of your first chapter.
Can the prologue create a sense of mystery? If you have a prologue, it should convince the audience to read more of your book. If a prologue will help you create an intriguing circumstance or introduce suspense in a way you couldn’t do otherwise, consider using one!
How To Write A Prologue That Grabs Attention
Don’t info-dump in your prologue. In a fantasy or science fiction novel with tons of background and world-building details, you may be tempted to use your prologue as a SparkNotes-esque summary of these essentials—but this can be a big turnoff for agents, editors, and readers. If they’re bored or confused, readers may skip the prologue altogether. Only use your prologue to introduce the most vital information!
Create a prologue that stands out from your first chapter. Your prologue and first chapter shouldn’t feel exactly the same. What does your story need that only a prologue can provide? Perhaps your prologue should be written from a different character’s perspective, or take place before the main action of your story—whether that’s a few days, a few months, or even a few years.
Make your prologue emotionally resonant. While one goal of a prologue is to provide readers with the context and background information they need, you also want to make sure they come away fully invested and ready to turn the page and start reading chapter one. Immediately establishing an emotional connection through strong writing will entice your audience to continue reading.
Don’t let your prologue get too long. At Writer’s Relief, we’ve seen prologues that range from a few sentences to a few chapters. Though there’s no hard-and-fast rule, a prologue should generally be no more than the length of a typical chapter—and shorter is definitely better. You want to hook and intrigue readers, not saddle them with an opening that’s too dense.
What You Need To Know About Epilogues
An epilogue is the opposite of a prologue—it comes after your final chapter and serves to provide closure and resolution to your story. The epilogue explains what happens to your characters after the main body of your book.
Just like prologues, epilogues aren’t always necessary—and adding one might spoil a great story that should have ended sooner.
To determine if you really need an epilogue, ask yourself these questions:
Will your book have a sequel? An epilogue can be a great tool to hook readers into the next book in your series. If the main plot of Book One is wrapped up in your final chapter, you can use your epilogue to sow hints about the plot to come in Book Two!
Do you have a lot of loose ends to tie up? Though we usually recommend writers don’t try to juggle too many subplots and secondary characters, some books can do this well—and an epilogue can be used to tie up any loose ends in these relevant threads. In a multi-POV novel, an epilogue may help wrap up the story in a way your final chapter couldn’t.
Will readers want to “follow up” on your characters? Just as a prologue can reveal an event that happened long before your story’s time, an epilogue can show readers where your characters end up. For example, you can let readers know that the lovers’ relationship survives and they later get married, or that a character in peril ultimately lives a long, happy life.
How To Write An Epilogue That Satisfies Your Readers
Don’t make your ending too tidy. While ending a book on a cliffhanger is never a good idea, a perfect, happily-ever-after ending can also be unsatisfying for readers if they’re left with endless questions. Writing a good epilogue is all about striking a balance: answer the major questions, but don’t fill in every detail. Give some overall direction and let your readers’ imaginations fill in the gaps.
Consider a jump forward in time. A commonly used tactic with epilogues is to take readers a few years into the future to give them an idea of how your characters’ lives turn out. Maybe readers would be delighted to find out that your fierce warrior character settles down to raise sheep on a quiet farm, or that the shy, geeky character goes on to run a giant tech company.
Don’t reiterate your book’s themes and messages. While books can be powerful tools for teaching lessons, no one wants to be hit over the head with the story’s moral. If you’ve subtly—but effectively—woven a message into your novel, there’s no need to rehash the same lesson in your epilogue.
Our Most Important Tips For Prologues OR Epilogues
Keep your tone consistent. If your prologue or epilogue doesn’t feel like an organic part of your story, readers will find it jarring and unsatisfactory. Make your narrative voice consistent on every page of your book!
You don’t always need both a prologue and an epilogue. Many writers think that if their book has a prologue, it must be balanced with an epilogue, or vice versa. But that isn’t the case at all! You can have only a prologue or only an epilogue.
Treat your prologue or epilogue like a very short story. Rather than a summary or a report, treat your prologue or epilogue as a totally separate entity with its own plot and characters. While they should tie in to the overall story of your book, the prologue or epilogue shouldn’t read like a synopsis—or like just another chapter. You want readers to be invested in what happens in your prologue or epilogue the same way you want them to be invested in your book as a whole.
Need help? Check out the Writer’s Relief blog! Our blog is chock-full of articles about writing, grammar, making effective submissions, and getting published.
Question: Which do you prefer as a reader, prologues or epilogues?