Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly discussion series hosted by Rukki @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion. This week’s topic was suggested by Fives @ Down the Rabbit Hole! Also, special shoutout to Wren @ Wings and Fables, whose lovely LTB posts encouraged me to start participating 🙂
Prologues, where it concerns fantasy and sci-fi, are a tactful approach to an arresting problem: if you want to promise readers a sweeping adventure, but your hero is an everyman going through the motions in a quiet village away from the wolves, your quickest fix is to cut to the action elsewhere.
This is why “Star Wars: A New Hope” begins the way it does––not with Luke kicking the dust on Tatooine, but with a thrilling chase through a spaceship under siege. In a prologue by any other name, the editing gives us a taste of what’s in store, and that inviting first glimpse is, even knowing that prologues aren’t beloved among all, pretty much why I still can’t quit them.
On epilogues, though, I’m much more divided––I sometimes feel robbed if a book jumps years into the future for its final word, making explicit what was otherwise delicately implied. Instead of lingering on a powerful image that says it all, the very worst offenders will put the breaks on a book and actually say it all, charting out in paragraphs lives that were just recently complex enough to span whole chapters.
My biggest complaint boils down to one word: this approach is reductive. (Unless, of course, we’re working off a framing device, like our narrator recounting the story from years afterward; one that gives our story a good reason to fast-forward at the end.)
An epilogue, in my opinion, functions much better if it falls in step with a good prologue, and depicts a dynamic mini-drama unfolding in the span of its pages. This is rather difficult for an epilogue to do, though, as a post-script to a story that has already ended. What can you do then but offer what the reader already has?
There’s a great example of these two devices in each of the books in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. The original trilogy, beginning with Shadow and Bone, has “before” and “after” chapters bookend-ing each installment, and later books, like Six of Crows, don’t mark what is effectively a prologue or epilogue as such, but hand the first and last numbered chapters off to characters whose perspectives aren’t shown elsewhere. (This allows me to see, however briefly, my beloved Joost.)
The “prologues” in the Shadow and Bone trilogy hold some of the most delicious writing in the series, allowing a stylistic departure into storybook-like prose against the more parsed, first-person style of the books proper.
What really works to Bardugo’s advantage, though, is the mechanical power the prologues hold. In all three books, that critical first chapter ends with a dilemma unsolved, or, put differently, a threat yet to be made. In Shadow and Bone, we linger on a young Mal’s face hardening into resolve away from the notice of the adults in the room; in Siege and Storm, a fugitive praying for shelter where she’s uncertain she’ll find it; in Ruin and Rising, a minor villain completely unaware of Alina inching nearer to the upper hand.
The “before” chapters do precisely what a good prologue does: in taking a new angle, they promise forward motion in a way our first chapter, stuck in our characters’ heads as they go through the motions of their daily lives, can’t.
Take them against the “after” chapters, and the latter comes up short. Rather than a detail, all three of these epilogues land with a statement. Even as Siege and Storm, the middle volume, ends with an explosive finale in the offing, and that last line is meant to gear us up for it, it’s still, in essence, the telling of what we already know.
All told, it makes sense, because it’s more fitting to begin a story with a question, and close it with an answer. But questions are unfailingly the more interesting of the two. A good prologue feels like being invited in. Even the best of epilogues, however, cannot help but feel like being escorted out.
What do you think? Am I too hard on epilogues? Have I convinced you to give prologues another chance? Tell me below!