Lately Twitter is all abuzz (all a-twitter?) with arguments about prologues and epilogues. Do you need one? Should you delete yours?
I’m not going to condemn all prologues, but in general I’m team no prologue. Too often, they’re in there to cover for a poor chapter one. The author wrote their first chapter, but there isn’t much action or excitement in it. So they put a teaser of bad guys being evil, or some kind of infodump, so that you will be excited enough about what comes next to keep reading even though chapter one isn’t very good. Trouble is, that’s a very small teaser to get people through a whole chapter that isn’t good. Isn’t it better to shave off the prologue and chapter one, or as much as you need to get to the meat of the story? Let your reader begin where the excitement starts. You can always flashback to whatever it was you thought was so important later.
The second bad reason people put a prologue in there is because they want you to know the backstory. But personally, I think the backstory is more exciting when you find it out a little at a time, as the story goes on. Not knowing what sort of world we’re in, what dangers are out there, and what has put our world in such a terrible state can be a huge source of narrative drive, and you spoil it by tipping your hand. For instance, in the movie of The Fellowship of the Ring, Galadriel narrates everything about Sauron right at the beginning. It’s not terrible, but it’s much better in the book, where that information doesn’t appear till the Council of Elrond. Why? Well, because by the time we find out, we’re invested enough in the characters that we care a lot more about the Ring and Mt. Doom and all that. Plus, it gives us a lot more tension throughout the first half of the book, as Frodo is escaping from Ringwraiths, that we don’t know where the Ringwraiths are coming from. (The only flaw here is that the Council of Elrond is much too long and slow. But even Tolkien’s not perfect.)
The third reason is more benign: you wrote a piece that’s really good, but it’s not in the voice of the novel and you want to put it somewhere. For instance, in Red Sister (which I just finished last night), the prologue begins with a really cool sentence: “It is important, when killing a nun, that you bring an army of sufficient size.” That’s a great sentence, and the whole scene is well-written. The problem is that the rest of the book never catches up to that scene, nor does it realize the potential of that cool beginning. Still, it seems to have worked because the author got the book published, and it sold well.
Whatever your reason, it’s always smart to question your prologue. I had what I thought was a pretty good one in my YA cult book. It began, “I was born fifteen years after the end of the world.” It was only a few paragraphs, and I really liked it. It gave all the background for why our heroine lives in a tiny compound with barbed wire all around. But it was followed by a rather boring scene of our characters cheerfully chatting about clothes. I meant it to show how innocent and nice things are at first before they go sideways, but it was boring, and the prologue did not help with that at all. In fact, it spoiled the one bit of tension the story started with, which is “gosh why are they in this cult compound anyway?” So in the end, I cut it out, and rewrote the opening few scenes to show some of the dark side of the heroine’s situation. It must have worked, because I got about twice as many requests for pages as I did from the old version.
Epilogues, I feel differently about. They usually aren’t necessary, but they don’t hurt you in the same way. And they can serve one purpose, which is showing how things ended up without pulling a Scouring of the Shire–that is, Tolkien’s deathly slow ending of Return of the King. You want the story to end when the action ends, but at the same time, you might want to give a little hint of how things end up six months or a year later. Do the lovers stay together? Did they ever undo all the harm done by the bad guys? Ideally I like to have these things sewn up before that last scene, but sometimes they’re not and you may want a little epilogue to show it. I’m thinking of the end of Mockingjay, where the characters remember all those who have died. It’s Suzanne Collins’ way of showing us that things didn’t get fixed easily, that war has a cost. I appreciated that; it wouldn’t have been the same without it.
And that’s really the trick, isn’t it? If the story would be the same without a scene, no matter how much you like it, you should probably take it out.