But what do you use for those first few pages?
It’s quite common to use a prologue. Simply put, a prologue is a short [sometimes long] ‘pre-chapter’ before chapter one. These can be used as powerful attention grabbers, but also as areas to dump information on the reader, do cheesy introductions, spy in the villain for no real reason, and/or to show us something the author thinks we need prior to getting to the real story.
Prologues rarely have some form of ‘okay’. They either stink like hogs or shine like your grandmum’s best china. I’ve read only one prologue which fit the term ‘okay’, and even then I didn’t like it.
What makes a good prologue?
Well, it appears to depend on the genre. Readers for different genres will expect different things, and some prologues don’t fit certain genres.
For instance, most historical fiction has no prologue. Those that do have prologues are often boring, and filled with background information about such-and-such who died and are irrelevant except as some form of cynical symbolism. Dystopias (the few that have prologues that work) tend to have very short [one or two page] prologues that are very tense, mysterious, and make the reader ask questions. This sort of prologue - the dark, tense, attention-grabbing kind – works well for almost any genre.
There is one kind of prologue, however, that is an exception. The epic fantasy prologue is, generally, very long. Some, such as Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time have prologues stretching anywhere from twenty to sixty pages.
However, this sort of prologue becomes, in the reader’s mind, a sort of chapter one.
In fact, any good prologue should act as a chapter, standing alone by itself. If the author could rename it ‘chapter one’, it will probably work. At this point, the author should weigh the pros and cons of keeping it as the prologue or just make it chapter one.
The basic rule of thumb* I follow: “If it wouldn’t work as a first chapter, it shouldn’t open your novel.”
Because everyone goes into your book looking for a beginning. And if your prologue doesn’t begin the story, but simply set it up, they won’t walk away happy.
Never use a prologue to dump information. This includes information on the story, the world, the pre-story history, and the characters (especially the villan2).
Always treat the prologue as a first chapter. If it doesn’t work as one, figure out why, and consider changing it so it does.
The prologue should begin the story, not set it up.
A prologue must be concise and gripping. If your prologue rambles on forever and ever about one thing, you’ll lose the reader just as fast as if it was a foreword or preface.
After a long period of observing people, I’ve discovered that people either hate prologues or love them. To give you a generalization: fantasy readers tend to enjoy and read prologues more than others. And yet another: authors dislike prologues more than your average reader.
If there’s one part of a novel that is often overlooked, it’s the epilogue. Not because all epilogues are excellently written and thereby deserve no criticism, but because they normally contain very little critique-able information.
Almost every epilogue is used as a ‘flash-forward’; it’s a chance for the author to show the audience what happens, say, seventeen years after the conflict resolves.
I’ve found very few unsatisfactory epilogues in my browsing of literature, but here are a few marks of those less-than-marketable ones:
-They drag on forever3. This is a hyperbole, as there are no books that stretch into eternity, but it’s still true. Often times an epilogue will grow boring after the first few pages. Why? Because the conflict is over. We’re reading about the characters we loved, but older and changed. Maybe even matured and wizened. Chances are a few of them have fallen in love and gotten married. Ew.
-The epilogue ruins a perfect ending. Imagine this: in the last chapter, the main character is sitting at a table with his best friend and the love interest. Maybe they’re in some tavern, drinking mulled cider and talking about how the villain is crushed forever, and all is right with the world. The best friend says something witty, goes to get another drink, and the lovebird get their moment. Queue the cheesy music and/or the theme song, and pan the
camera prose toward the frosted
front windows of the hole-in-the-wall inn.
The reader is happy, and ready for the credits.
BAM. We’re rushed twenty years into the future, listening to the aged hero telling his children about the time he destroyed the castle of his arch-
We had the perfect last scene.
Not only that, but we already know the main character destroyed that castle. We watched him do it, even as he wept because his sister was trapped under the rubble. We probably even had his future with the love interest planned out, and named all his kids.
A good epilogue wraps up loose ends. It gives the reader satisfaction, brings the conflict to a close, and lets the reader get a glimpse and what will be, after the story finishes. It never ruins a perfect last chapter, it never drags on. It gives us a few last thoughts to ponder, and it always –always- makes the reader want just one more sentence.
What about you? Do you like prologues and epilogues? What are some examples of your favorites? Share in the comments below!
*I never have understood this phrase… why do thumbs have rules?
2I say this because there are countless prologues that try and be clever and shows us a quick glimpse at the villain. It’s more cliché than the thin air your Mentor vanishes into.
3there are very few exceptions where a long epilogue is a good epilogue. For instance, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy has not one, but two epilogues, both of which are rather lengthy. But then, Tolstoy can get away with that when his book is already going on fourteen hundred pages.