The Prompt: Prologues and Epilogues. Yes or no?
How do I answer that? Key Lime Pie or Lemon Meringue? Tell me sir, have you stopped beating your wife? There is no good answer.
So I figger it’s like them growed up diapers. Depends, don’t it?
Prologues are backstory or in-depth scene setting. Weave backstory into the piece or drop it in when you need it. Unless the prologue is by necessity of length and serves to define some point of “history” or “perspective” for the story. Or as writers, we find ourselves in need of ‘splaining. As my high school Great Books/English/Lit Studies teacher said, “If you must write prologues, study Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s prologues. Not Dryden’s.”
In that light not all prologues are bad. Will had reason enough to set a plain stage with words. Different stories have different set-up and detail requirements.
I thought I needed a prologue to set up book one of my “Whatever the Title” coming-of-age. Wrong. What I needed was the story of causal events for the essential characters, pre liminality. A true part of the story, not tidbits swept into a neat pile of “Before, and then this begat that and that begat those …” Most of that prologue is up – Deanna, with Two Ns, White Lies and Dirty Laundry. Here’s my favorite chunk –
From The Hot Girl – Part One
“Daddy?” Deanna watched her father pull another card from another vase of flowers, put it in a stack with others just like it before he tossed the flowers into a rolling trash can, dumped the vase in the sink and set it on a nurse’s cart. “Why are you keeping the cards?”
Doc Collings turned toward Deanna from the other side of what had been her Gramma Cora’s hospital bed. “So your mother can send them ‘thank you’ notes.”
“Mom hates cut flowers. What’s she going to say, ‘thanks so much for sending dying flowers to my dying mother’?” She hadn’t expected him to wince.
“Flowers are okay at our house, DeeDee. Twice a year.”
“I know. Valentine’s and your anniversary. But you buy mom plants.”
“Sometimes what your mother says is okay, and what she really thinks is okay, are entirely different. She pretends tolerance for flowers on days where flowers are the norm. And tolerance for your brother or you giving her flowers or something fattening is different from her fully accepting it as okay across the board. Like with me. I don’t gamble with your mom. If I know where the strike zone is I don’t get fancy and try to throw curveballs.” He held his hand out perfectly flat. “I go straight down the middle. Living plants, in pots, are in the strike zone every time.”
Doc Collings’ stood silent. His sports analogies worked with his super jock son, but here he was lost. Alone, attempting meaningful conversation with his daughter. Who, since she’d outgrown her Sting-Ray bike and Barbies lived on an intellectual diet of Romantic poetry, art books, Medieval versions of fables and fairy tales, and top-forty radio. And until his mother-in-law’s failing health had sent her to live with them a couple of years ago, there hadn’t been anyone else in their house who “got” the post grade school version of Deanna except their black lab, Hayden.
“DeeDee,” He tossed another handful of flowers. “Your grandmother knew you cared.” He spun a guest chair around and sat in front of her. “She had the nurses hang all the art book pictures, all your notes and poems and Polaroids you brought her. She was so sick the last week or so she didn’t open anything.”
“I looked for this card forever…” Deanna stared at the unopened envelope in her lap, a thumb and finger holding it on each side. “If she’d just opened it… Maybe… ”
“There was no magic in that card that would have saved her.” He ran his hand through his hair, left it at the back of his head. “I know how it hurts when you lose someone you love. In ways you can’t explain to anyone. My parents are both gone, my brother died in the war… If you live long enough you lose people… And the truth is there’s nothing anyone can say… or do… to make it easier. I wish I could, but…” He reached out, put his hand on top of hers, took the card and gave it a long look before he handed it back. “Deanna, when things like this happen? The old saying about how ‘it’s the thought that counts’ is true. She knew how you felt, card or no card. Believe me.”
She searched his face, registered the hurt and confusion. “It’s okay, Daddy. She told me before. About her heart and everything.” She glanced around the room, landing in turn on the stripped bed, dying flowers, empty vases and back to her lost father. “And how if I gave myself time, I’d realize the heart that doctors understand isn’t the most important one I have.”
I could have gone back in time from somewhere in the middle for all of those. Not. That’s an old trick for killing time or a transparent excuse to get a (very) slow story moving.
Regardless of “genre,” the story starts where the story starts. If you don’t have a body, at least be interesting or entertaining.
As regards epilogues, my opinion is if we told the story well enough, done. Judging by a lot of current “literature” I’ve read it seems to be okay even if there’s plot holes galore. Epilogue material should be handled in the denouement. If that can’t be done rewrite the last couple of chapters. The one exception would be a case of where, beyond the main characters, there’s an ensemble cast that contributed significantly to the whole. Like an American Graffiti epilogue. But that is far from mandatory. Elmore Leonard almost takes an epilogue approach at the end of Touch where he wraps up several main characters in the aftermath of chaos but it’s like American Graffiti, only part of the final chapter. The main players get a couple of lines and the two primaries ride off into the sunset. A “tidying up” denouement. Otherwise, as an editor once said to me, “Don’t cheat. Finish the damn story.”
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