Both the prologue and epilogue are devices that help explain a complicated story.
A prologue appears at the beginning of a novel, and serves as an introduction to tell what has gone on before. An epilogue appears at the end of the novel and tells what happened years after the story has ended.
It is not necessary to have both a prologue and an epilogue. Many books have a prologue with no epilogue. Others have both. However, an epilogue is seldom used without a prologue.
A prologue is an introduction that is not quite a chapter. It is set apart from the rest of the book either in time or in viewpoint. Its purpose is to provide necessary backstory for the novel which cannot be told in any other way.
A prologue may be used for dramatic effect. A common use of the prologue in a thriller is to have the prologue either be in the villain’s viewpoint, or to start the story with a murder scene or crime in progress, an evil face peering into a window, or someone hearing the footsteps of a stalker. Then the novel begins with the detective or main character’s viewpoint.
The Epilogue-“And they Lived Happily Ever After…
An epilogue is a short piece tagged on to the ending that is usually not quite as long as a chapter. Its purpose is to tell what happened long after the story has ended. Often, it will tell whether the main characters married, had children, moved to a farm in the country.
An epilogue is not necessary unless you have a novel that spans a long period of time or have an event such as a birth or a wedding that is not covered by the ending. Often, in a historical romance, the book will end with a kiss, and the epilogue might start seven year after and tell that the couple married and had three or four children and lived to ripe old ages. Facts the reader might want to know, but that take place far after the ending of the story.
Use of a Prologue and Epilogue to Indicate a Span of Time not Covered in the Novel
In Mary Higgins Clark’s I Heard that Song Before, the prologue introduces the main character as a little girl who overhears a cryptic conversation in a hidden chapel on the Carrington Estates, of which her father is landscaper. The first chapter begins with the same character as a grown woman. She returns and falls in love with Peter Carrington, but what she overheard that night might be a clue to the murders her new husband has been accused of. An epilogue tells the state of affairs a year later.
Use of a Prologue and Epilogue to Span Years of History
In a novel that spans years or decades, a prologue might serve the purpose of explaining events pertinent to the plot that went on before the novel begins. For example, Robert Goddard’s historical suspense novel Name to a Face has both a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue begin at an earlier time than the story takes place Godfrey Schillingstone has discovered a mysterious secret he is about to reveal to the world, one that will bring him great academic fame. But before he can show what his discovery, he is murdered.
The actual first chapter begins with another character, Tim Harding, who in modern times finds Schillingstone’s discovery has some bearing on a mysery in the present.
Here is a sampling of books with prologues and epilogues.
Dead Souls Ian Rankin (prologue)
The Associate Philip Margolin (prologue)
I Heard that Song Before Mary Higgins Clark (prologue and epilogue)
Name to a Face Robert Goddard (prologue and epilogue)
Cruel and Unusual Patricia Cornwell (prologue and epilogue)