I wrote this in response to a conversation started over at Wyrdsmiths:
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 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.