Should a story, or even a series of stories, use prologues and epilogues. Is there a standard for using these devices? Does it only apply in certain circumstances?
How do you writers out there feel about a prologue that shows a future scene in the story, and then ‘Chapter 1’ which takes places days/weeks/months earlier?
Are they best avoided? Thoughts?
I was a bit disappointed to see that other commenters were generally in favour of prologues and epilogues, with the (arguably slight) caveat that they should “work”. That’s pretty undeniable: if something works, it works. But in general, prologues and epilogues don’t work, and I think that’s because they’re a symptom of more fundamental flaws in the story.
There are some common justifications that writers make for prologues:
- They draw the reader into the story.
If the main story you’re writing doesn’t draw the reader in, you’ve got some serious problems that a prologue won’t solve. If a reader is drawn in by a prologue, but then reaches the main story and finds that the author is actually writing a different story, the reader is likely to be kind of annoyed. And if that different story is not as compelling as the prologue, what have you gained? You’ve delayed the reader’s disappointment, at best.
- They provide important context or background.
If the context or background are so important that they need prime placement at the start or end of the story, then maybe they are the story. Write them instead.
With these justifications, writers are actually trying to justify not working on the real problem: their story, or at least the opening of their story doesn’t work. And if they tack a prologue on there, what’s the result? They have a prologue, and then a story that doesn’t work.
I think I have less of an issue with epilogues, although my question again is: if you’ve just given me the powerful emotional climax to your story, why are you undermining it by taking me away from the story that just concluded? Give me denouement — I love some good denouement — but don’t switch gears and take me away from the experience of the ending.
I’m trying to think of a really great piece of literature that starts with a prologue that really works well. Nothing is coming to mind, though. Suggestions welcome.