Prologue, Denouement and Epilogue
First let me quote from the Oxford Dictionary before we discuss usages.
Prologue: 1) A separate introductory part of a play, book or piece of music. 2) An event that leads to another.
Denouement: The final part of a film, play or narration, in which matters are explained or resolved.
Epilogue: A section at the end of a book or play which comments on what has happened.
A Prologue can set up the rest of a story. That is, it can relate a brief occurrence that led to the present action of the story that we then jump into the middle of in Chapter One. Used this way, a prologue becomes a bit of back story, should not take up any more than a few paragraphs, and definitely should not be as long as a full chapter. Too, anything that isn’t foreshadowing for the rest of the story should be cut.
The longer the Prologue, the more it seems the writer is, again, quoting back story when, in reality, back story should be incorporated into the present of the telling. This is done through conversations between characters or brief remembrances of the main character. Providing too much life story in the prologue, keeps the reader bogged down in the past when you really want them immersed in the action of the now that starts with the first word, sentence and paragraph of Chapter One.
Completely opposite of that, the Prologue can also be used to show the outcome of the entire story up front before Chapter One begins. In other words, your story has a problem the main character needs to resolve. The story goes on to show the character resolved those issues and then shows the climax and denouement, which led to the information first presented in the Prologue.
My preference is not to read a book where I know up front that all ends well. I want to feel all the indecision, fright and other emotions that the characters may endure. Then I want the relief of learning how their situation is resolved. If I read up front that their lives went back to normal after something drastic had happened to them, I won’t feel their emotions as I read.
Part of reading is to experience what the characters endure. First reading that everything came out okay seems, in my opinion, to diminish the thrill of suffering with these story people. So what? I ask. I already knew these people would prevail.
The Denouement tells how the characters are affected once the climax of the action is made apparent. If a mystery, the climax happens when the perpetrator is caught or gets his or her comeuppance. You cannot end the story at that point. You must tell how this climactic revelation affected all the other characters. That portion after the climax is the denouement.
The denouement need not be lengthy. It can be a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs. It can also be one or more brief chapters.
In my thriller, River Bones, after the perpetrator is caught and people realize just who the serial killer is, many more additional clues are found to cement his guilt. Too, a few subplots needed to be wrapped up that did not really affect catching the perpetrator, but which followed through and fed into the action of the entire story. That wrap-up, my denouement, took two additional brief exciting chapters. But that wasn’t all….
An Epilogue is best used to show how the story resolution affected the characters after a period of time has passed. Yes, it’s enough to catch a perpetrator and everyone return to their normal lives in the denouement. However, in River Bones, I used an Epilogue to not only wrap up the strongest subplot, but to create a situation where it leaves the story open for a sequel.
Another example might be a romance. After the lovers settle their differences and end up together in the denouement, the Epilogue might be used to show that a year later they parted. What caused them to part must be something already written into the story beforehand. The Epilogue is not a place to introduce new information – ever. Whatever happens in the Epilogue is a result of some action already dealt with in the story.
Between prologue, denouement and epilogue, the denouement is the only part necessary to any story. Think hard about using Prologues and Epilogues and have good reason for doing so.
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