Prologue or Epilogue?

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70Over the weekend I re-read Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows for a discussion with my Monday afternoon book group.  One of the elements that came up as we talked was the author’s use of a prologue, a device which appears to be increasingly common in modern novels.  I come across them most often it seems in crime fiction where they tend to serve as a way of filling the reader in on an occurrence that has happened before the primary event line begins.  This might be the actual crime whose investigation is going to form the main body of the story or possibly an event that occurred many years previously but which acted as a trigger for what is about to take place.  Either way it helps to place the reader in a superior position to that of the investigating officers because initially, at least, we have more information then they do about what is going on.

I have to say that I am ambiguous about these prologues.  What is not to like about feeling superior you might ask, but sometimes I simply don’t want to engage with the information they give me.  This is probably because many of those that you come across in crime fiction are particularly brutal providing, as they do, details of some poor individual’s last moments. However, I don’t think I have the animosity to them on principle that one friend of mine does. She flatly refuses to read them and has been known to go as far as striking repeat offenders of her reading list.  As far as she is concerned they are a sign of lazy writing.  She wants the details they contain woven into the main story rather than having them presented flat out at the beginning.

I have to admit to having a more than passing interest in this topic at the moment as I have the beginnings of an idea for what might become a major project to do with both prologues and epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays. So I was more than usually interested in what Shamsie does in Burnt Shadows because, although the passage is announced as, and appears where you would expect to find, a prologue, the material which it contains actually serves as an epilogue.  As a result you read the book in anticipation of finding out how one of the main characters ends up in the situation you now know is going to be his fate after the book concludes.  I am not someone who reads the last page first so that I know in advance where a story is going, although I have friends who habitually do read that way, so I am even less certain how I feel about this than I am about how I feel about prologues in general.  What I do know is that in this modern prose incarnation they are performing a very different role to that which they fulfil in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and it would be interesting to trace the line of development.

How do you feel about being presented with a prologue at the beginning of a novel?  Do you know of any interesting examples?  And what about a prologue that reveals all?  Does it stop you in your tracks or make you want to read on on the grounds that the journey is more important than the destination?


13 thoughts on “Prologue or Epilogue?

  1. I think it depends what’s in the prologue for me – occasionally they can seem completely pointless and you’re left puzzling as to why the author chose to include one. I do know of a book in which the epilogue is the opening section while the prologue finishes the novel: Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-year House is a backward history of a family home.

    Your Shakespearean project sounds interesting, Alex.

    1. That sounds as though it would be interesting, Susan. I must search it out because I would be intrigued as to how the structure of the overall narrative worked.

  2. I agree with Susan – I think it depends on the book. For example, I just read Perutz’s Master of the Day of Judgement which was what’s called a prologue in place of an epilogue and that’s very clever and effectively used as it hints at enough to get the reader pulled in but still leaves plenty of things enigmatic – works very well!

  3. Hmm, I have no feelings one way or the other about prologues. I can’t say that I have noticed them happening more frequently in fiction these days. If it works with the whole book, then great, if it feels tacked on somehow because the writer is being lazy as your friend suggests then not so ok. I don;t mind learning the ending at the beginning as in you Burnt Shadows book. With those kinds of stories it isn’t the conclusion that matters most but the getting there. I’m sure, however, your study should you undertake it, will turn up all sorts of fascinating things!

    1. I’m more interested in how prologues and epilogues link what is in the play to what is on either side of it, Stefanie, but I’m sure you’re right, lots of interesting and indeed unexpected things turn up when you start looking closely at texts.

  4. I’m with your friend as regards prologues in mystery stories. I do not care for them, and I tend to think it’s laziness on the part of the author. Certainly there are exceptions, but mystery novels IN PARTICULAR tend to default to grabbing the reader by gory prologue, and I don’t care for it.

    1. Yes, Jenny, I’m sure you’re right about wanting to grab the reader with something spectacular at the beginning of the book. I wonder how much of this has come about because of the way in which television drama tries to do the same?

  5. I am tempted to agree with the prologues as a lazy device view… and their prevalence in crime fiction. However, as with many things, when it is done well, it can really add to the book. I’m struggling to come up with some real examples of it being done well, though…

  6. Yes, it’s hard isn’t it? Although it is the prologue at the beginning of a play that I’m interested in, I shall have to start to take greater notice of what occurs in prose.

  7. I’m not that fussed about prologues either, sometimes they do well as in the the example you provide but sometimes it does seem a rather unimaginative story device.

    1. I think there is something in the idea that in modern fiction, at least, they are an attempt to replicate the instant hook that you often get before the opening credits on television. But, should a reader need that?

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