It’s an age-old debate. Many readers and authors love prologues, while we often hear that agents and publishers loathe them. In fact, I’ve even seen advice from writing “experts” and agents who implicitly say “no prologues.” This has always bothered me, as plenty of great books I’ve read have included prologues and epilogues. So what’s the drama all about?
Well, on this week’s podcast episode, I sat down with literary agent, Alice Speilburg, and I asked her all about prologues. Essentially, this is what I learned from Alice.
It’s not so much that agents and publishers are anti-prologues…per se. It’s that so few authors actually get them right, it’s easier to just say “no” to them altogether. Most authors simply don’t know the proper way to write them or when they are needed and not needed.
Alice said that prologues and epilogues should function as “book ends” for your novel. For example, if you use a prologue as means to tease the reader, show something intriguing that’s going to happen later on, etc., that’s a proper use of a prologue.
Let’s say you’re writing a suspense/thriller novel. If you write a prologue wherein the antagonist (killer, bad guy) is slinking toward his prey, who is cowering in the corner of the basement, trembling, and waiting for their final moment as the tension builds, then you stop just shy of showing the reader what the antagonist does to the victim, THAT is an excellent use of a prologue.
You don’t want to use prologues to build your world if you’re writing fantasy. That’s a common mistake with fantasy writers. Instead, the world-building should take slowly and be sprinkled throughout the early chapters of the novel, piece by piece.
And if your “prologue” could work just as well as chapter one, then make it chapter one.
Whatever you do, don’t use your prologue to TELL (not show) the reader the protagonist’s backstory, ordinary world, personality, etc. All that should be part of your first chapter.
And as far as epilogues go, same thing. If it wraps up the story nicely and shows the reader how everything turned out for the protagonist once all was said and done, then it’s a proper way to use them. But if you can take out the epilogue, and the story still makes plenty of sense without it, and it’s just full of unnecessary details and information, that’s not proper use of an epilogue.
Essentially, the rule of thumb is to remember that, as I said earlier, prologues and epilogues should function as “book ends.” So ask yourself if yours work that way, and if they don’t, consider leaving them out.
Hope that helps,