Prologues and epilogues seem so simple. They come before the first chapter and after the last chapter of a book, right? But maybe there’s more to it than that. When is a prologue really chapter one? When is chapter one really a prologue? What is the purpose of an epilogue, and what kind of book actually needs one? Listen to find out, plus bonus material on flash forwards.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: This episode is brought to you by our patron: Kathy Ferguson, professor of Political Theory in Star Trek.
Oren: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren; with me today is…
Oren: And- okay, we can’t start the podcast right away; first we need a prologue, which was set, like… maybe five years ago? And like, Chris had just thought of the idea of Mythcreants, and was like, ‘you know, we need a podcast.’ And this prologue is very important; it teaches you information you really need, right? That’s what it’s for.
Chris: I should also say that this prologue is revisionist propaganda. [laughter]
Oren: Is it- wait, what?
Wes: I would also like to add that one of us cannot provide the prologue for you listeners. We need to get somebody else to do this. [Chris and Wes laugh]
Chris: The podcast was not my idea; I was just like, ‘blog,’ and other people were like, ‘podcast,’ and I was like, ‘what is this thing you call a “pod cast?”’ [Oren laughs]
Oren: Tell me of this thing you call “podcast”. So, today we’re talking about prologues and epilogues. So, I guess we should first get through the definition phase. I tried to look up the dictionary definition of prologue and epilogue, and it was not very helpful. It was like, ‘the setup for a literary work,’ or something. I was like, ‘okay, that’s not a very useful definition.
So, I think- and maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think that, in order to really be a prologue, regardless of if it’s called a prologue or not, it has to be separate from the rest of the narrative somehow. Like, either set really far back, or in a different POV, or a different narrative style, or something that makes it distinct from just being the first chapter.
Chris: Yeah. So, I have a particular opinion about what I would call a prologue. And again, it’s good to clarify that, when we’re talking about prologues, we’re not necessarily talking about, specifically, the text that, in a book, is labelled ‘prologue.’ Because the publisher will make all kinds of different decisions about how things are grouped or labelled or formatted, and it may be called a prologue. [laughs] Sometimes it’s not called a prologue.
But regardless, when we’re- as a writer, we’re looking at what distinguishes something. I personally feel that stories come with an inherent narrative structure, and even if the events are technically continuous, if the story has not started yet, I would classify that as prologue. Now, granted, it should also probably just be cut- [laughs] -in many instances and not be there at all.
I would say that, if you have your character just going about their normal life for a chapter, and then in the next chapter the actual plot appears, and the problem that drives the story shows up, I would consider everything before that to basically be prologue, because that inherent story structure just- it’s before that.
But it’s true that, in most cases, when a prologue is included in a finished work, it is disconnected from the main course of events because, generally, in that case, you wouldn’t really have a good reason to include it at all.
Oren: Okay. So, like, in your mind, the first chapter of Harry Potter is not a prologue?
Chris: The first chapter of Harry Potter is not a prologue, no. I mean- well, it’s a prologue in that- okay, it is when the narrative starts. However, Harry Potter is not an actor in the first chapter of Harry Potter. Does that make sense?
Chris: So- cause he’s the character who actually solves the plot, so it’s a little more complicated than when the problem first appears; usually, it’s actually when the protagonist first encounters the problem. And in the first chapter of the first book of Harry Potter, Harry Potter is not a player yet. He’s a baby. He’s an object. He’s a McGuffin. [Chris and Wes laugh.]
Oren: Right. See, that’s why I considered it a prologue, because it is distinctly different from the rest of the narrative of the novel, even though it does include the problem of Voldemort.
Chris: Right. But I would say, technically, in a story, usually it’s not actually the problem by itself that starts a story; it’s when the protagonist encounters the problem. Because it’s not just a problem, it’s a person solving a problem, and so that person is an important component.
Wes: Yeah. I would consider it to be a little hazy, because I’m of the opinion that, if a book includes a prologue and an epilogue, you don’t need to read either to experience the main plot. And yeah, Harry Potter makes it a little messy, because you could have just started with Harry and had him learn what happens in that first chapter, and you could have shared that with him as he learns of it, right?
Chris: You could.
Wes: But Rowling opted not to.
Chris: Right. It’s not labelled as a prologue, but I think, technically, we would call that a prologue.
Wes: Cause there’s a massive time jump, and that’s sometimes a big feature of prologues.
Oren: Well, the only thing I know for sure about prologues is that I don’t ever actually pay attention to if they are labelled ‘prologue’ or not. Because people label weird things prologues. My favorite one is in The Blade Itself, where the first chapter is labelled “Prologue: The End.” [Chris laughs]
Wes: Oh my god.
Oren: And it’s like- okay, it’s not a prologue; it’s just the first chapter. It starts with the main character, and he’s fighting for his life, and then the chapters ends and the next one starts with him, like, five minutes later after having won his fight, and now he’s doing something else. There’s no way you could qualify that as a prologue.
It’s also not the end of anything. So, like, that’s the one thing that I understand about prologues, is that, whether they are labelled as a prologue or not is fairly unimportant.
Wes: I’m remembering- was it you, Chris, who did a review of- what was it? I Am Number Four?
Wes: Was that a prologue?
Wes: Yes, that was a prologue.
Chris: So, the protagonist was not in it; and this is fairly typical of prologues, where one of the reasons that prologues are used is to create tension when the writer feels like the beginning is too slow, and I think the best example I can think of is Lord of the Rings.
I don’t remember exactly what happens in the book, but at least in the movies, we see the Nazgul riding out to the Shire before we get to Frodo, right? And so, the Nazgul riding out to the Shire would be like, the prologue, and the reason is to- if you have a beginning that needs some warmup, then the prologue creates tension that the beginning is missing.
I Am Number Four was kind of funny, because the actual first chapter had plenty of tension. And so, I feel like the prologue is unnecessary. And even in the best-case-scenario, like, you’re making up for something, it’s always better to have a first chapter that is tense enough. If you can’t do that for some reason- some stories require a lot of setup and it’s just hard, then the prologue can help make up for that.
Wes: I think that maybe- some advice that, if you’re worrying that your first chapter is just not interesting enough, I don’t think you should create a prologue with the purpose of just trying to hook somebody. I think that that’s kind of sloppy. I think you should just maybe decide- don’t start your story there. Maybe there’s a better starting point. Maybe your novel is actually a novella, and you need to just cut a bunch out and get to the important parts.
Chris: I think it’s always good- best to make the beginning as good as you can make it. And it becomes really bad when you have like, the rando dying prologue. [Wes laughs] At least in The Lord of the Rings, the Nazgul are heading straight towards the Shire. Their paths will cross with the protagonist.
But in some books- like, Redshirts does this. It’s unusually appropriate for Redshirts, though. I will give it that. But having a point of view character that then meets the antagonist and then dies in the beginning is just- it’s like, I can understand why it can set tension, but it comes with a really big downside, which is pissing people off. [laughs]
It’s like, they get- people expect the point of view character in the opening to be the protagonist, and so, they’re ready to bond with that character and like that character. And you’re helping it, in fact, by putting that character in immediate danger; it creates more concern, and it helps bond better.
And then, we they find out that that character just dies on them and isn’t the real main character, now their trust is broken and they’re going to be less inclined to bond with your actual main character after you’ve done that, and their experience is going to be real bad.
Oren: It’s also kind of a weird contradiction, where if you make the- you want your character to be as engaging as possible most of the time, but if your character in a prologue is too engaging, then they’re just going to be upset, cause that character they really liked is gone now. And they might like them more then whoever you introduce next, right?
Chris: Right. It’s like, ‘hey, writer, you’re not my real dad. I just want- [laughs] -I just want to hear more about this prologue character.’
Wes: Dealing with that could just- like, it would help to deal with that with just a matter of perspective. Take on a far more distant perspective to avoid that risk if somebody wanted to include that.
Chris: I think that probably does help. It’s very traditional to have a prologue that’s written in omniscient before like, a close limited book, and I think that’s okay. And that’s what Rowling did- now, Rowling’s style, though, is very distant. She’s very well-optimized for omniscient; I sometimes wonder if she should have just written- [laughs] -most of the Harry Potter series in omniscient.
But that’s- we also had like, I think the other thing about the beginning of Harry Potter, besides the fact that it was omniscient, is that the focus was still on Harry, even though it was from the perspective of a different- even though it was focusing- not on a perspective, because it was omniscient, but on Dumbledore, and using Dumbledore to add novelty. But at the same time, the focus of what was happening was still about Harry and Harry’s origins. So, it was really clear in setting expectations in that way.
Oren: Where does the Song of Ice and Fire prologue- I should say, the Game of Thrones prologue, since it’s for the first book, fit in to that? Cause like, I remember it being fairly effective when I read it, but it does have- the POV character in the prologue doesn’t die in the prologue, but he dies shortly after; because it starts with him and his two friends up north of the Wall, and then they run into a monster, and then the monster kills his two friends, and he runs.
And then in the next- I think it’s the next chapter, or just shortly after, we’re at his execution, and we’re in the POV of, I think, Ned Stark. Maybe one of his kids, at that point. And the guy who was from the prologue gets executed. So, he doesn’t exactly die in the prologue, but he dies pretty shortly afterwards.
Chris: Yeah. Well, in many ways, that’s a typical tension-setting prologue. I think, for Game of Thrones, the thing that makes it a little bit different and probably better, is the fact that Game of Thrones has an immediate conflict of all of this political feuding, and then it has kind of a long-burning conflict of these White Walkers.
And so, it is good to help set the expectation of this other plot coming in, so it doesn’t feel random when it enters. And also, the White Walker just feels more threatening, right? So, starting with the White Walkers allows the kind of expectation that, even though we’re going to go away from this for a while, that, eventually, it’s going to come back.
With the person dying, maybe that did make some people upset. I will say, though, that Game of Thrones is certainly a work that is- at least in the beginning, people die, and that’s the expectation it sets. So, if you’re going to be upset about characters dying, you’re probably not a good match for Game of Thrones anyway.
Wes: I still think, though, that- I mean, I guess with hindsight and all that, but if that prologue had not been included- the point is that so many people in Westeros don’t believe in the White Walkers. Period.
And if that prologue wasn’t there, it would be talked about and hinted at, and then you get a great reveal when like, a real viewpoint character actually encounters them. Instead of just, ‘these things are real, and now let’s get into the story.’ It’s kind of heavy handed. I think.
Chris: Right. So, there is definitely reason to just let mystery build around the antagonist of the story in a lot of cases. In this case, the whole like, ‘that thing’s not real,’ happens so often in fantasy- [laughter] -that I don’t think it’s fresh enough that it would have an impact and be like, ‘oh my gosh, the White Walkers are real.’ You would have seen that coming.
And if you didn’t see it was coming, it’s only because there was not enough foreshadowing, and the White Walkers would feel very random, just because it’s so overplayed. But I think you’re right that, in a lot of instances, if you leave that tension-setting, if you leave that view of the antagonist out- which is often what a prologue is; it focuses on the antagonist. If you leave it out, then there’s more for the protagonist to discover during the story.
So, what about flash-forwards? Because, if you have something that’s taken from the middle of the story and then appended to the beginning as another way to add tension or jumpstart the story if it’s slow, but it comes before you actually watch the story start, to me, I think in a lot of cases, those definitely would feel like prologues.
Twilight, for instance, actually opens with a brief- I think it’s about a half-page long, of like, Bella looking back. And it’s kind of intriguing, and I think it sets tension decently. It’s a little disingenuous if you actually read the story. It’s not entirely- like, just written before the story was written; it’s not completely accurate.
Oren: Right. Like, flash-forwards that make promises that the story can’t keep are kind of annoying. I mean, I really liked Red Seas Under Red Skies, but it does have that problem where it’s like, it opens with Locke- I forget, it’s either Locke or John, the two main characters thinking the other one has betrayed them, and it’s like, ‘how could this be, cause they’re such good friends from the previous book?’
And then you get to there and, spoilers, it was a trick that they- the kind of trick that they always play on people. They’ve actually done this before; this is not the first time they’ve pretended to betray each other.
Chris: Yeah. Those are heist books, so it’s just a given that any kind of fight between the protagonists in any kind of heist genre is not real. [laughter]
Oren: But like, I do kind of have a soft spot for the like, ‘I bet you’re wondering how I got into this situation’ flash-forward, and I can’t help but feel like those are probably best suited for more comedic stories, like, lighter stories. Cause when that happens, when the narrator does that, they’re sort of setting a tone that this isn’t really that serious, cause like- if nothing else, we know that the character lives long enough to get to that moment, even if they’re in trouble there.
And there’s usually kind of a jokey tone to those, which doesn’t mesh really well with a serious story.
Chris: They come with a sort of self-awareness, which is generally better suited to comedy. But they can be- set tension, and they can also be very intriguing, so I think they’re definitely a good tool in the right situation.
Wes: But it’s weird, because that still is kind of a different line between prologue… and then epilogue, I guess, and just a general frame story. Cause if I’m saying like, ‘let me tell you what happened,’ and then- I personally would think that there’s an expectation to then return to that moment, and that is a frame story, right?
Chris: That would be a framing device. Or some- I mean, sometimes with a flash-forward, you return to it mid-story, or at the climax or something, like, Megamind starts with a flash-forward that- you then return to that moment at the end like, in the climax area. So, it’s not real hard-lined. But under your criteria, Wes, we could just cut that off and read the story, we would not know. So, it definitely feels like a prologue in that manner.
Wes: That’s a good point.
Chris: Other things I’ve seen… Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, has this like, historian writing? Before and after? Because like, The Handmaid’s Tale is supposed to be some kind of historical document that is- again, before and after, it’s kind of a framing device. I don’t know what Atwood really wanted that for, but-
Wes: I have an idea.
Chris: Oh, yeah?
Wes: This is- I don’t like- this violates my rule, cause I think that they’re actually very important to the story; because, if you didn’t read them, and you just read The Handmaid’s Tale as it is, I think you would come away with a very different perspective, cause especially in the epilogue, it’s basically just some university stuff who’s talking about how they’ve reconstructed this story, and it’s a man.
And so, it’s basically saying, ‘the entire story you just read was put back together by a man,’ which reenforces the control that men have over women throughout the entire narrative. I think that’s the point.
Chris: Hmm. I did not pick up on that.
Oren: I was under the impression that the reason for that was to slightly alleviate the tense feeling of hopelessness that the book leaves you with, because it implies that, ‘yeah, this stuff happened in the past and we’ve moved past that now, and that’s not the case anymore.’ It’s like, ‘hey, all of this horrible stuff that happens in the book, that’s all historical, and now we’re in the present, and maybe things aren’t as bad anymore.’ That’s what I thought it was.
Chris: So, what I’m hearing is that you guys got opposite things. [laughs]
Oren: Okay, I should be fair; I haven’t actually read that yet. This is what people have told me about it. I don’t know.
Wes: You should read it. [laughs] You are right; when you read the epilogue, you’re like, ‘okay, good, it doesn’t sound like Gilead is still around.’ But then you’re like, ‘wait. Why are these men now telling me about this story?’ Like, I feel like that’s deliberate from the author, to know that The Handmaid’s Tale was reconstructed by a man.
Yes, Gilead might be gone, but the fact that men still control women’s narratives persists, and I think that’s a very important message to take away. And I don’t know why- I mean, I guess in that case, it has to be called ‘epilogue’, because it’s not connected to the main plot of The Handmaid’s Tale. And so, in a way, that’s maybe the best label to put on it.
But I still think it’s critical to understanding the themes in the story.
Chris: I mean, if that’s the case then, Wes, I will say that I think it was far too subtle. And this is the problem, I think, with a lot of things that show prejudice and mean to be commentary on that prejudice. It’s because the average person is so used to accepting unequalness and prejudice in our day-to-day life, that they cannot recognize it when they see it. They just consider it normal.
So, I read through that; that did not even occur to me. Or, if it at least did occur to me at the time- cause I don’t really remember it that well, it did not make a huge impression that I thought that this was a major point. And you could totally be right that this was Atwood’s way of connecting the story with the things that are happening today, cause certainly, men controlling women’s narratives happens all the time.
But yeah, there’s that continuing problem with, if you make commentary that is relevant today on stuff happening today, people will not notice cause it’s normal to them.
Wes: And I mean, regardless of- it doesn’t matter if Atwood did that intentionally; you read it that way, and I read it this way, and we have something to talk about, and I think that’s kind of the point. [laughs]
Chris: But what you’re saying sounds totally sounds like something she might do. I don’t know if it is, but it totally seems credible to me. But yeah, anyway, she opens and closes with this historical snippet, and I think that’s definitely the way to go, because when you do something like that and you only put it at the end, it just feels really bizarre.
Like, Steven Spielberg’s A.I. has this really weird thing at the end where it suddenly jumps thousands of years into the future. [laughs] And it’s just- where you have like, robot aliens, that are like aliens and robots. They look like aliens; I think they’re technically robots. [Chris and Wes laugh]
Wes: And everyone is named Albus Severus. [laughter]
Chris: But anyway, it’s really bizarre. But if he had opened with alien robots and then got into the story, and then returned to alien robots, it would have been fine. And so, in that case, if you want to have something really out of context at the end, I think it’s definitely best to start with it. I mean, depending- you would have a simple time jump at the end.
Show ten years in the future, that’s not going to weird people out too much. But if it’s like, really unpredictable, it’s definitely better to frame the story with it. Should we talk about epilogues a little bit? [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, I think we’re at the end. Let’s do this.
Chris: Should we- or we could just continue talking about prologues and do epilogues another episode.
Oren: I mean, there’s not as much to talk about with epilogues, I think. They’re a lot more standard and straightforward.
Chris: That’s true.
Wes: Have either of you read Dune?
Oren: Yes, but a long time ago.
Wes: Okay, I’m going to start with Dune; and I think I mentioned this on our podcast about long series, Oren, but I’ve only read Dune, the first book. I’ve only read that. And I did that because I got the advice to not read the other books. And so, I took the Dune principle and I applied it.
And that book ends right after a bloody battle. It’s just like, a culminating event, and boom! Dark. And that’s it. And I wrestled with that for a while, but then I actually came away thinking that I had liked it that way. I didn’t feel- like, I enjoyed the plot so much that I didn’t want to know how it all got wrapped up or tidied up, like what happens with so many epilogues.
So, I’m just curious, like, do you guys feel that you get to the end of a story- is an epilogue simply a matter of how satisfied you want to leave your readers? Or like, how unsure you are of ending at a certain point?
Chris: I would definitely say an epilogue is there to kind of create the feeling that you want to end- you want readers to end with. Sometimes, you might want to leave them with a feeling that something’s hanging. Usually you wouldn’t do that, unless there’s going to be a sequel, I would say. It depends; some stories are based about a dilemma, right, like The Lady and the Tiger.
The whole purpose of The Lady and the Tiger is to leave you with a lingering question, and yes, it is unsatisfying. That story has driven countless people up the wall. [laughs] But that’s the purpose. That’s the experience that it exists to create.
So, I would say that similarly, if you have- again, a short story often has no epilogue at all, but that’s because the amount of emotional investment that goes into a short story is much less, cause you’ve spent less time with it. But for something like a novel, to just cut off the end there, I would ask, ‘okay, what does this give the reader to offset that feeling of dissatisfaction of not knowing what happens? And is the rest of the story actually supporting that?’
Like, in The Lady and the Tiger, the entire story- The Lady and the Tiger is actually just missing a resolution, period. It’s not just missing an epilogue, okay? [laughs] That’s a very extreme example. So, that’s what I would say about that, whereas other times, people use epilogues to set up for the next book sometimes, or to create a feeling of satisfaction.
Lord of the Rings is one that has a really long epilogue, but Lord of the Rings is a really long book, so that’s kind of appropriate.
Wes: When we pitched this proposal, I was thinking about books with epilogues, and then long books that don’t have one, and the one that came to mind was, A Tale of Two Cities? Has no epilogue. It just ends. Spoilers, I guess.
It just ends with these two characters- Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay look almost identical, but one’s French and one’s English. And it ends with Sydney Carton swapping places with Charles Darnay, and then- swapping his place to be beheaded at the guillotine. And it ends with him walking up with that ending speech of ‘tis a far, far better thing that I do.’
And that’s it. That’s the close, after like, 300-400 pages, and Dickens doesn’t wrap it up with an epilogue as to what happens to Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay. It’s just- it’s a satisfying end, and he didn’t need to say, ‘five years later, they had kids and named it Sydney.’ [Chris laughs] I like satisfying ends where the plot makes sense, and Dickens was notoriously long-winded.
But that’s a good example of, even the most verbose of writers who serialize things knew when to call it quits at times.
Oren: Well- I haven’t read Tale of Two Cities, but my understanding is that that sounds like a sad ending, yes? Because a character is being guillotined. Was that a character we hated? Are we okay with them dying?
Wes: Actually, it’s fairly sympathetic. Sydney Carton spends- is kind of just a drunken wastrel, he’s a lawyer, but he’s very much just kind of a down-on-his-luck guy, and he chooses to swap places with Charles Darnay as a self-sacrifice for Darnay and Lucie Manette’s future happiness. And he believes that this act will maybe allow him to be almost resurrected into like, a better life for himself, by self-sacrifice.
Oren: Okay. Again, I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like, in that situation, an epilogue would be misplaced, because one of the main points of an epilogue is to kind of wean your audience off of characters that they’ve gotten really attached to that they really like, and off of a story that they really enjoy and are not ready for it to be over yet.
And if the story ends too abruptly, that can leave people feeling kind of anxious, like they wanted more. And the epilogue just weans them off of that. If a story ends unhappily, then an epilogue would just be dragging that out. It would be like, ‘yep. That guy’s still dead. [Wes laughs] He still got guillotined. [Chris laughs] He did not get unguillotined.’
Wes: I did like how you said that, though; like, ‘the epilogue kind of weans people off of the characters that they’ve really enjoyed so far.’
Oren: Right. Which is why- I mean, it’s not like a story needs one of those. Like, I read The Martian, and The Martian doesn’t have any epilogue, even though I get really attached to Mark Watney and even the other characters on his ship. And I didn’t really notice that I was missing one until I watched the movie, which does have an epilogue, and it’s like, ‘oh, that’s nice.’
It’s nice to see that Watney is teaching at NASA and that they’re fine, they made it back to Earth okay. Everything’s fine. And I think I would have liked the book a little more if it had had that. I think it would have felt a little better at the end.
Chris: So, I read The Martian, and I definitely felt cheated at the end, because it has no epilogue. Cause you’ve just spent so long- an intense period of time with Watney as he struggles to survive. And at the end, it has a resolution; you know he survives. But like, what for? Right? [laughs]
You want to see him have a good life, you know him really well, you want to see what he’s gotten out of this experience. And so- and the movies gives you that, but the book is just done so abruptly. I was not a fan.
And it was a really good book, and that seemed to be one of the biggest weaknesses of an otherwise excellent novel.
Oren: Well, speaking of endings, we are about out of time for this week. So, we will not have an epilogue. [Wes laughs] We are just going to cut it right off at the end.
Chris: Are you sure this isn’t the epilogue, Oren?
Oren: This is- I don’t know if this is really an epilogue, so much. This feels more like the back text, like, the dedications and such. [Wes and Chris laugh] So, those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week. [closing song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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