Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Epilogues can be useful, but only if they enrich your story or add some value that exists beyond the main storyline. Does your story need an epilogue? That’s a tough question and to answer it, you need to understand how an epilogue works and what it can do for you.
Let’s have a look at the 5 most common reasons for writing an epilogue.
1. Providing some closure
After your story has reached its conclusion, you may want to provide a bit of detail about what happens later. If you’re concerned that adding this information to your ending will dilute the climax, then you can add it in an epilogue.
Although not actually entitled “Epilogue”, the final chapter of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye very much takes the form of one: it’s shorter than a single page in length, and even opens with the line “That’s all I’m going to tell about…” so we know that what is about to follow is something extra.
Salinger’s epilogue doesn’t tell us how everything works out, but it does tell us that Holden Caulfield has not run away from his old life, and is getting some help:
…this one psychoanalyst they have here, keeps asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September.
This information is useful to the reader as it adds more context to the book’s conclusion. So, while it doesn’t really belong in the main body of the novel, it sits perfectly well in an epilogue.
Side thought: If you are planning to write an epilogue, make sure that it is written in the same voice and style as the rest of your novel. Doing this ensures consistency which your reader will appreciate. In the case of the Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is the first person narrator throughout the book as well as in the epilogue.
2. Happily ever after: the details
By the end of your book, your readers should feel they have come to know your characters, so they may be interested to know how their lives turn out after your story draws to a close. Possibly many years after.
You may have had soldiers swapping stories about settling down after the war, or a detective who has plans for his retirement. Wars ending or cases closing form distinct endings though, so this is where the readers naturally part company with the characters.
An epilogue, in this case, is like bumping into these people years later and hearing what they’ve been up to. In J.K. Rowling’s epilogue to the Harry Potter series, we meet the characters as adults with children who are heading off to school themselves.
Set nineteen years after the conclusion of the series, this would have been very awkward to include as part of the main storyline.
3. What happened to the world of the novel?
If the situation you’ve created for your characters is the real driving force behind your book, readers may want to know what happens after the characters cease to be involved.
In Margaret Atwood’s bleakly dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, it is the cruel setting which draws us in: we are appalled by the Republic of Gilead’s dehumanising treatment of women and minority groups.
The ending is ambiguous but, rather than giving any resolution for the characters, Atwood uses her unusual epilogue to hint at the future of the regime: two hundred years in the future, a symposium convenes to discuss the now defunct Republic of Gilead.
Talking about what became of the regime obviously needs a historical perspective but, because the book follows a life lived at the inception of the regime, this perspective had to come from outside the main story.
4. Underline your theme or moral
When you have something of a point to make as well as a story to tell, then of course you can have your ‘good’ characters championing that point during the book. A well thought out epilogue, separate from the main narrative, can then be used to sum up what you’ve been driving at.
Christopher Brookmyre’s Not the End of the World sees murderous zealots attempting to fake a natural disaster, killing millions to ‘prove’ they should take the Bible seriously. Though this already indicates a pretty unequivocal stance against fundamentalist religious dogma, Brookmyre adds an epilogue to underline it:
A new century got under way, and despite the efforts of certain parties, it continued to witness unchecked the sins of godlessness, blasphemy, fornication, homosexuality, miscegenation, pornography and cheesy B-movies.
Amen to that.
He rounds it off with a translation of an ancient text (a device from earlier in the novel); an eyewitness account which rationally explains the parting of the Red Sea. In it, the historic chronicler ponders “could it be that there are no Gods?”
Granted, some of this could have been included in the narrative, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact. Standing alone as an epilogue though, it’s clear that this is a point being made, not a device to advance the plot.
5. You could set up a sequel
Have you got another book’s worth of ideas for your characters? If you’re writing a series, you may want to draw your readers into the next book as this one closes. Don’t just leave the plot wide open, give your story a proper ending and use an epilogue to pique their interest in the next episode.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams has a short final chapter which, to all intents and purposes, is an epilogue to introduce the next book in the series. The action has all concluded in the previous chapter and the characters are relaxing on their ship, when lunch is suggested:
OK, baby, hold tight, said Zaphod. “We’ll take in a quick bite at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.”
Thus the final words of the first book form the premise, and indeed the title, of the second.
The epilogue conundrum
So, should you write an epilogue? The short and simple answer is no, but that’s only because no book really needs an epilogue. If it’s crucial to the story, it shouldn’t be an epilogue. It should be the final chapter.
However, if you want to tell the reader something about what happens after your story finishes, or really drive home a point you’ve been making, an epilogue is the place to do it. If you already have a sequel in mind and want to mention the idea, that belongs in your epilogue too.
If you need to do any of those things for your book to feel complete, then yes, go ahead and write an epilogue.