Authors of books about writing urge the writer who uses
prologues and epilogues to follow certain rules: the prologue should be
different in time or place from the main body of the novel, or from a
different point of view from that of the protagonist. The writer should
test the material, to see whether it might best be located in the main
body of the book, before adding a prologue or an epilogue.
Most prologues can be grouped in one of two categories.
The historically popular “How I came by this story,” involving the
discovery or receipt of a manuscript, is found in many novels, including
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, 1719, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet
Letter, 1850, and Nabokov’s Lolita, 1955.
In the second category, used often by thriller and
mystery writers, the prologue describes a precipitating event, while the
novel proper describes the responses to, or consequences of, that event.
The event can be a theft, as in Elizabeth Lowell’s Midnight in Ruby
Bayou, 2000, when rubies are stolen in St. Petersberg (Russia).
Because of the theft, “the first in a long, deadly row of dominoes began
to fall” (3). Similarly, in the prologue to Wilkie Collins’s The
Moonstone, 1868, often described as the first detective novel, the
1799 theft in India of a magnificent yellow diamond generates the rest
of the story.
A murder or murders may be the precipitating incident,
as in Ian Rankin’s Dead Souls, 1999; James Ellroy’s shoot ‘em
up between police and criminals in L.A. Confidential, 1990; and
Barbara Parker’s Suspicion of Guilt, 1996, written from the
point of view of a murder victim just before she is killed.
The precipitating incident may be described in the
prologue, but not explained until later, as when a character in Philip
Margolin’s thriller, The Associate, 2001, is startled by a
photograph in an art gallery. The character is murdered, and the reader
doesn’t learn for many pages what he saw, why it troubled him, or why he
Another type of prologue is used in Science Fiction,
where the multiple worlds, the creatures that inhabit them, and the
backstory are so complicated that special explanations are required.
Such is the case in Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love.3
The backward-looking prologue is unusual, but in the
hands of an accomplished writer can be excellent. In Donna Tartt’s
prologue to The Secret History, 1992, the narrator discusses
events that occur after the opening of the novel. The reader learns that
the narrator and his friends have killed someone; in the book proper,
the reader learns why and how. An epilogue explains what became of the
people who participated in the murder.
In V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas,
1961, which spans more than 40 years of Mr. Biswas’s life, the prologue
begins ten weeks before the protagonist’s death, when his story has
nearly come to an end. His actual death is described in the epilogue.
Some writers use a double prologue. The first prologue
in Sahara, 1992, by thriller writer Clive Cussler, is set in
1865 in Richmond, VA. The second prologue takes place in 1931 in the
Southwest Sahara. The book opens in Mali, Africa, in 1996.
Michael Crichton uses the double prologue in the
thriller, Jurassic Park, 1990. His first prologue, which he
describes as “Introduction,” is titled “The InGen Incident,” and ends
with this line: “many of the principal figures in the InGen
incident…were willing to discuss the remarkable events leading up to
those final two days in August 1989 on a remote island off the west
coast of Costa Rica” (xii). In the second prologue, “The Bite of the
Raptor,” a doctor in Costa Rica treats a young man who has been savagely
attacked, and who, before he dies of his injuries, identifies the
creature that wounded him. The epilogue takes place in San José, where
the Costa Rican government is detaining witnesses to a catastrophe
involving unusual animals and many deaths on a Costa Rican island—the
story revealed in the main body of the novel.
Umberto Ecco, in The Name of the Rose, 1980,
uses the first prologue, entitled “Naturally, a manuscript,” to explain
how the writer-editor came by material written by Adso of Belk. A second
prologue, written by Adso, ends with the sentence “may my hand remain
steady as I prepare to tell what happened” (25).
A few prologues stand out for their originality. In
Frankenstein, 1831, Mary W. Shelley’s prologue (which she titled
“Introduction”), is designed to explain why and how Shelley, “still a
young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an
idea.” Robert Louis Stevenson’s prologue to Treasure Island,
1883, is a poem dedicated to The Hesitating Purchaser, designed
to close the sale of his book. In Steinbeck’s prologue to Sweet
Thursday, 1954, Mack, a character from Cannery Row,
describes all the ways he would have changed that book. Steinbeck
follows his suggestions in Cannery Row’s sequel, Sweet
Epilogues can also be of more than one type. The
typical epilogue is “They lived happily ever after,” translated into
concrete details, and set in a specific period after the end of the
novel—one year later, for example. Or the epilogue might inform the
reader that villainous behavior was punished after the book ended, or
that something has occurred or has been discovered that suggests the
possibility of another book—the protagonist is pregnant, perhaps. This
type of epilogue can be a commercial for the next book, and is useful
for the series writer.
But the epilogue writer need not confine himself to the
usual or the typical. The epilogue to Margaret Atwood’s The
Handmaid’s Tale, 1986, is part of a transcript of the proceedings
of a meeting of an historical association, held in the year 2195. A
discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale (which takes place in the
late twentieth century) is occasioned by the discovery of records
pertaining to the book. In John Irving’s The World According to Garp,
1976, the 69 page epilogue, entitled “Life After Garp,” describes what
became of, or will become of, the large number of characters that
When a writer chooses to use both a prologue and an
epilogue, they should be in accord in both style and subject. In Tom
Wolfe’s A Man in Full, the prologue describes a clash between
the mayor of New York and a Harlem audience. The book proper is the
story of Sherman McCoy, who has an automobile accident in Harlem. The
epilogue is an article from The New York Times dated a year
later, describing McCoy’s arraignment for the manslaughter of a young
black student. Wolfe’s approach is both ingenious and congruent.
The prologue to Patricia Cornwall’s Cruel and
Unusual is a “Meditation” by a murderer awaiting execution, an
intriguing opening. But the epilogue is of the “commercial for my next
book” type, seems incongruous after the fascinating prologue.
Mystery writer Henning Mankell’s prologue in One
Step Behind, 2002, in which an unidentified man kills three people,
and arranges their bodies in a tableau, is interesting and provocative.
But the epilogue, in which the criminal (now guilty of nine murders) is
interviewed after his arrest, should have been in the book proper. This
“epilogue” does not describe what happened after the book ended, but is
a part of the story.
Writers sometimes refer to books enclosed by a prologue
and an epilogue as “framed.” Les Edgerton in Hooked, suggests
that framing “helps in stories in which the narrator is looking back on
the story, perhaps in the form of an adult recalling a childhood
experience” (109). He cites Larry Watson’s Montana, 1848 as a
successful example of a “prologue and epilogue featuring the narrator as
an older man looking back” (111). Montana, 1848 is interesting,
and the structure works. Like many other uses of prologues and
epilogues, this approach could be helpful to other writers.
1 Several novels recommended to me as
containing a prologue or an epilogue did not. Information in the book
might have been included in an epilogue or a prologue, but was, in fact,
in the body of the novel proper. Among these are Gone With The Wind,
Dracula, and Tarzan.
2 Many students of English literature,
including this writer, were forced to memorize part of that prologue in
3 The writer of this type of prologue should
make the pages of history, genealogy, etc., brief, or the reader may
never read the novel proper.