Reference books agree that a prologue is a separate introductory section of a work of literature, and an epilogue is a separate section at the end of a literary work.[1] A writer may use both a prologue and an epilogue in a book, one of them on its own, or neither. Their historical use is often associated with plays, but the most famous prologue in English literature is the 23-page introduction of The Canterbury Tales, ca. 1386.[2] Chaucer added a brief epilogue, and some of the Tales have their own prologues.

A woodcut from William Caxton’s second edition of the Canterbury Tales printed in 1483.

Students who are acquainted with the prologue and the epilogue only through the study of The Canterbury Tales may, as a consequence, avoid using them. But the prologue and the epilogue are valuable tools employed by all kinds of writers in a variety of ways, many of which enhance the novel. Understanding how writers have used them may encourage others to incorporate prologues and epilogues in their work.

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 first type is 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 the character saw, why it troubled him, or why he was killed.

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. Tartt’s 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. A first prologue in Sahara, 1992, by thriller writer Clive Cussler, is set in 1865 in Richmond, VA. A second prologue takes place in 1931 in the Southwest Sahara. The book proper 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 his 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 Thursday.

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 survive him.

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 The Bonfire of the Vanities, 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, and 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 Old English.

[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.