Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Prologues and Epilogues, My Thoughts

Generally, I would be classified as a lazy reader. I always skip poems, snippets of musical lyrics, famous or imaginary quotes, or anything in italics that isn’t a place name or a date in front of “the good stuff,” i.e. the beginning of the action/meat of the first chapter.

In addition to being lazy, I also have a relatively low threshold for a science fiction fan for those things that might distract or confuse me. Thus, I’m leery of anything that smacks of a prologue that takes place hundreds or thousands of years before the main story, especially if it goes on for more than a couple of paragraphs. (I make the distinction “for a science fiction fan,” because I will actually give a book a fair amount of time before I expect things to make sense -- even as many as fifteen pages -- which I think long outlasts a lot of “mundane” readers who are unfamiliar with our genre.)

When I teach, I warn my students that there are plenty of readers out there exactly like me. You can’t count on your readers’ patience, particularly if that reader is an editor. My advice is always to work what you can into the story as backfill or flashbacks.

That being said, it was my editor who suggested that I (or rather my alter ego) highlight the main source of personal conflict (a face off with secret Vatican witch hunters that resulted in our heroine calling down the goddess Lilith for some serious smack down) in a *gasp* prologue. I fought it, but, in the end, I think she was right. It was a very concise way of getting out the information without having to continually interrupt the flow of the narrative to explain, ala “previously on ER.” I still worry that people may have skipped it. I did my best to make it short and action-packed, but… well; you never can tell just how lazy some readers will be. Keeping my own personal capacity for laziness in mind, however, I did repeat the information in smaller bits throughout the narrative where it was appropriate to do that.

Epilogues are something I’ve also only ever committed once. Well, okay, technically twice, but as the first time was on a trunk novel of mine, I don’t think it should count. In that case, too, it was a wrap-up scene in a stand-alone novel. It made sense to do that sort of “where are they now” scene to show, well, where everyone had ended up after the dust had settled.

I put an epilogue at the end of my third Garnet Lacey book for a couple of reasons. The main reason was that I wanted a quick way for the reader to see just how serious Garnet was about the personal transformation she’d gone through in the novel. The chapter ending was a crescendo on a mega-level; the epilogue was an ending on a micro one. And, this being a romance, it was also the more personal resolution. The second reason was that I really wanted to bring back a couple of characters that I’d thrown in for fun and have their earlier appearance gain more resonance (so I could possibly have them show up in future novels in the series, too.) Plus, I wanted to end on a funny note, which I couldn’t do in the resolution of the final battle, as it were.

The epilogue was also my attempt to come up with a solution for my previous problem with endings, which I wrote about here. I have a tendency to get to the end of the action and screech to a full stop, forgetting that the reader needs time to process everything that happened. E. B. White (in Charlotte’s Web) taught me about the benefits of the long goodbye. I suspect, had I had more to say, I simply would have made that last bit its own chapter, but as it came out only a few pages long, I decided to label it an epilogue.

As a reader, I have mixed feelings. As lazy as I am, I *always* read epilogues. But do I like them? I do when they provide this kind of secondary good-bye that I refer to above, and/or where there’s extra or tangential resolution that needs to be addressed that just didn’t fit in the big final showdown/reveal/whatever. As a set up for a next book or as a kind of a teaser, ala, in a horror book, a final image of the mummy peering down at our heroes? Not so much. I like to know that the ending is the ending, even if it’s in a series, and I’d feel cheated by an ending that seemed to only be there as a teaser for more to come or as a Lady and the Tiger ending.

Just a note about endings in general: take heed, gentle writer. If you end a book in a cliffhanger there are readers, like my partner, who, after tossing the book across the room with a strangled war cry, will write your name down on a list of “authors never to buy again.” (My partner lives and dies by her lists. If you’re lucky enough to be on the alphabetized one kept in her wallet, she will buy everything she finds by you.) Yes, this is even in a book clearly labeled Book One of the Such-and-Such Series, because my partner reads fast enough that leaving a character in a life and death situation is only acceptable if the next book is already sitting on her bedside. Making someone wait a year just to "turn the page" is cruel and unusual punishment in her mind.

I guess my final word about epilogues and prologues is as simple as something my mother once told me: everything in moderation.


Anonymous said...

I've always thought of epilogues as extraneous material which doesn't necessarily add to the story, and which could be excised without damaging the writer's intent, or the reader's understanding.

I think what you describe as Romancing the Dead's epilogue should more properly me called: the last chapter. The difference being that what you called the epilogue expands on what precedes it, gives it context and furthers the depth of meaning. Ain't that what a final chapter is for? And why did you call it an epilogue?

It's probably makes it an unfair argument on my part to define Epilogues as just a crappy bunch of words tacked on 'cause the writer couldn't let go, or didn't trust that s/he'd written well enough to allow the reader to let go, or a crass attempt to sell the next book, and then not allow the epilogue label for "good writing", but I think that's really the crux of the matter. In my world, epilogues suck, unless they're good, in which case they're not really epilogues, are they?

'Course I always read to stupid things.


lydamorehouse said...

I guess I ended up calling the last bit an epilogue because it felt too short to be a real chapter. Three manuscript pages is going to be about a page and a half when printed and that just seems lame (although, okay, you're right, I did once have a one sentence chapter.)

But, also for the Garnet books I always only have twelve chapters because I divide them astrologically (there are twelve houses, twelve signs, twelve planets [for astrologers], etc.) So, I called the last bit an epilogue because I'd run out of planets.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I think there are very good reasons to call something a prologue or an epilogue. They have to do with reader expectations.

If I see a prologue, I expect it to be outside the timeline and/or POV of the rest of the book. If I see a second chapter that is substantially different in either respect from the "first chapter," I expect to have to reorient myself with each subsequent chapter. Calling such a section of the book a prologue instead doesn't do that.

Similarly, if the action of a book has all taken place in a brief period (as, say, Kelly's books are wont to do) and I come to a final chapter that skips ahead by months, it will kick me out of the story. This isn't how I want to end a book. Calling it an epilogue tells me up front that I need to make the adjustment.

Neither of which is to say that I think every writer who uses the things uses them appropriately (or needs them). But if that's what they are, that's what I want them called.