InboxWednesday -Epilogues, Prologues, and Immediate Series

It’s Wednesday, so pull on your waders and let’s head out into the inbox and see what we can find. Today we’ve got 3 questions: 2 about writing technique, and 1 about a publishing concept. Remember, if you have a question about anything writing, publishing, story, or really anything, you can get it answered on InboxWednesday, you just need to ask it.

I’ve written a dystopic MG love story set fifteen years after the melting of the ice caps. It’s sort of like Castaway meets When Harry Met Sally, […] if there were cannibals and pontoons. It’s nearly complete at 190k, I’m just writing the ending now. Any thoughts on an epilogue? – Mark

Hi Mark. Thanks for writing in. Before we talk epilogue, I want to point out that you’ve written 190,000 words, and that’s before you’ve written an ending. It’s possible that your ending could take your MS over 200,000 words. There’s an older rule that says anything over 110,000 qualifies as an “epic” novel. Ulysses is 265,222 words. Order of the Phoenix is 257,045.

I’m calling your attention to it because you’ve identified your work as MG, and middle grade generally falls between the 22,000 – 55,000 word range because it’s aimed at tweens. Even upper middle grade fiction is about 40,000 – 55,000, so be careful that the size of your story doesn’t do you in.

But that wasn’t what you asked me.

An epilogue is “the final chapter at the end of the story that reveals the fate of the characters that may or may nor occur some time after the novel’s events and possibly hint at sequels or loose ends.” Now whether you interpret “final” to be the last chapter you write after you write the chapter where you resolve the plot or whether it’s just the last chapter in the book, that’s up to you. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to advance time after you resolve plot so you can Harry Potter-style fill us in on our now-older protagonists. You don’t.

It’s okay to have some stories just end with a satisfying conclusion. Yes, even with the loose ends from chapter 12 still untucked. Yes, even without hinting that you’re going to crank out 6 other books with this main character. Sometimes a book is a single book, and that’s okay.

I’m not a fan of epilogues just for the sake of adding a nice smile and sigh at the end of an already satisfying story. It’s always struck me as sort of indulgent, maybe even a little flash and smug to have the need to keep demonstrating how talented an author is by giving an extra portion of character and content when we’ve already been sated.

So, Mark, my answer to you is tread carefully. How much resolution do you think is necessary? How much would a reader think necessary? Get the MS out to a beta reader and see how they feel with the story’s conclusion. (And seriously take a look at the word count, please.)

John, I’ve got a 46,350 word fantasy novel that I’m about to query, but I’m thinking I need a prologue, because a lot of books I’ve read this month all had them. Do I need a prologue? – Elise

When I wrote the first draft of this answer, I was sort of in a mood, so I said, “Take some of Mark’s words and add them to your MS”, but that’s kind of a dick answer, so instead I’ll mention that 46k is on the lean side for fantasy novels (most in the genre range from 90k to 110k), but there are a lot of venues who want novellas, which range from 20k to 52k usually. Now I don’t know where you’re querying, but you might want to look at calling it a novella and finding novella specific resources if you’re not getting much novel traction.

The prologue you asked about is an opening to a story that “establishes setting and gives background details.” In fantasy and science fiction, the prologue doesn’t feature the characters we’ll follow for the other chapters. Time is a factor, some prologues take place prior to the main story (as in Lord of the Rings, when you learn about Isildur and Agent Smith in the war), or they involve lesser characters who are just around for a few pages to set up the fact that we’re on a distant planet in a remote solar system and today’s taco day.

There’s no reason why you can’t do that world building in the beginning of the story. And frankly, even with a prologue, you’ll often need to do more building and setup in addition to whatever’s in the prologue if you do write one. And no, you can’t fit all the worldbuilding and setting into the prologue and expect the reader to understand it all before you get into the substance of the story.

Like epilogues, I don’t think you need a prologue every time, and especially not every time you dive into the SF/F waters. Often I read an MS with a prologue that sets up there being a prophecy and a single character fated to create massive story upheaval. Sometimes prologues are a few pages where the nigh immortal badguy sets up his reign of terror that will span generations. What I’m saying Elise, is that prologues often cover the same well-walked ground, and they can be mighty dull.

The solution? If you’re going to prologue, go with the amuse-bouche approach. Give us a little world building so we see how you work your craft. You don’t necessarily have to tease the plot, you don’t have to tease the characters, but take a few pages to show your writing chops in the created world-space and vibe of your story. make it a place where you show your technique, giving us an appealing entry point to the more specific story.

Good luck Elise.

John, what’s an immediate series? I read about it on a message board and didn’t understand what it was. – Karen

Karen, an immediate series is an old idea made new, but it didn’t always have that name. A long time ago, a lot of publication was done serially, with monthly installments showing up in periodicals like Collier’s or Black Mask, depending on genre. This episodic breakdown was good for publishers since it meant readers had to buy issue after issue or subscribe to follow a story from start to finish. It was also good for writers, in that it called for stories to be divisible into publishable chunks, and that work on craft helped form the foundations for how we produce stories today.

Serialization often focused on chapters. The immediate series focuses on more than chapters, often looking at novellas or near-novellas in length, that can be quickly published with very little lag time (because they were already written, it’s just a matter of getting them out the door). For instance, you may write 3 novellas about anthropomorphic samurai appliances and then self-publish one every 21 days in the Spring.

It’s about taking a shotgun approach to the reader’s shelf – get a lot of material out there, so that there are a lot of purchasing options, which can build an audience and financial base.

Doing that is not bad or wrong Karen, it’s one of many perfectly feasible approaches to publishing and marketing. For some people, it works, thanks to the strength of the first book, or the series premise. For some, it’s just emetic, you deluge the reader maybe too hastily and the books aren’t as strong, so a reader can skip any of the 15 you throw out there and you don’t build that audience or base.

Hope that answered your question Karen, thanks for it.


Looking at the inbox today, I think Friday’s post might be about MS length, which is sort of a contentious topic, but it’s worth weighing in on. See you then.


Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus

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