Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’re constantly updating our articles to bring you the best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing your book. This article was originally published on November 18th, 2013, and has been expanded by Robert Wood.
Sometimes, the end of your story needs a little something extra – a final section separate from the story proper and usually set after the narrative’s natural conclusion. This is an epilogue.
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 epilogues work and what they can do for you.
Let’s take a look at the five most common reasons for writing epilogues, exploring both the positives and negatives they can bring to your story.
1. Providing 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.
The epilogue to Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay (and the Hunger Games series as a whole) is only two pages long. It describes the protagonist’s life many years after the events of the story, painting a picture of someone who is safe but still struggling with her experiences.
I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.
But there are much worse games to play.
By sharing this extra information, Collins gives the reader closure on the story – a reassurance that the consequences of the narrative aren’t undone after its conclusion and that the protagonist’s adventures are truly over, even if the effects linger. By choosing to do so in an epilogue, she justifies taking a huge leap forward in time and only writing a small amount, as well as avoiding this ‘extra’ information having too much effect on the arc of the story.
The point of Collins’ story is not that her protagonist ultimately has a meaningful family life, so by relegating this assurance to the epilogue, she’s able to use the final chapter to focus on the key themes with which she wants to leave the reader.
So far, so good, but what’s the downside? First, not every story benefits from closure. If your story asks hard questions then it’s easy for your epilogue to read like an answer, robbing your reader of their own reflective process. Similarly, it will usually hurt your story if it depends on the epilogue for necessary closure. Epilogues are apart from the story, they’re extra, so if that’s where your story truly resolves, you’re likely to give the reader the sense that the story stopped before it was over and then you just gave them the bare facts of how things concluded.
Before using an epilogue for closure, be sure that your story will be elevated by a sense of closure and that it’s not better provided elsewhere.
2. Happily ever after
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, but it makes sense as an epilogue.
Despite the satisfaction that can be derived from ‘happily ever after’ epilogues, they do have their downsides, and fans of the Harry Potter series are split over whether the epilogue is a fitting ending or a terrible addendum to the series.
When you use an epilogue to tell your readers what happened to the characters, you’re stopping them from being able to truly invest in their own preferred version of what happened next. Where they might have preferred to imagine different professions, relationships, and fates for their favorite characters, you’re instead imposing your own future. It may be that your future is more satisfying or adds closure to your story (yes, epilogues can do more than one thing), but it’s worth considering if you’re going to satisfy more readers than you disappoint by taking a firm stance on your characters’ conclusive fates.
3. Further world-building
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 dehumanizing treatment of its citizens.
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. It’s worth noting here that Atwood’s epilogue allows her to completely change the perspective of her story – something that’s perfectly acceptable in an epilogue but which would feel strange in the story itself.
The drawback here is the same as in offering a happy ending: there are many readers who would prefer to imagine their own version of what comes next, especially if your explanation is a little too neat for their tastes. If you want to explore the future of your fictional world in an epilogue, have at it, but do it because you have something to say, not just out of an urge to wrap things up.
4. Underlining your theme or moral
When you have 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.
As with the other reasons for writing an epilogue, the potential negatives here are a mirror of the positives: summarizing your ultimate point in your epilogue makes a clear, impactful statement on what your story is ‘about,’ but some readers may feel like this is overkill, especially if it’s the sentiment with which the book leaves them.
This is a potential issue where the epilogue’s nature as ‘extra’ content helps – even those readers who think you’re being too explicit will be more likely to simply brush away their irritation, since the bit they dislike isn’t truly in the story – but as with closure and world-building, only underline your moral if you actually feel it strengthens the story, and don’t use a flashy epilogue to justify a lack of clarity elsewhere in your story.
5. Setting 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.
This is probably the least risky form of epilogue, as long as you do eventually deliver a sequel. The main risk is undermining the story you just finished by instantly shifting the reader’s attention to what’s going to happen next, so be sure that you don’t rush through the story’s actual conclusion on your way to the sequel hook.
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’re still unsure whether to add an epilogue to your story (or whether the details you want to include should go in an epilogue or your final chapter), then think of the story as a fun party and the epilogue as a gift bag you’ll hand out as people are leaving. If the gift bag is essential to your guests having a good time, then the party you’re planning just isn’t good enough yet. Likewise, if the items in the bag are things that it just wouldn’t make sense to include in the party, then they should definitely be given out afterwards.
As in all art, exceptions exist, but epilogues belong in satisfying, complete stories that can benefit from a little something extra without needing it to stick the landing. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, go ahead and add an epilogue. If not, then it’s time to put some more work into the actual end of your story. I recommend checking out Here’s How To Write A Killer Climax That Leaves Readers Breathless and Scared Of The Anticlimactic Ending? Here’s How To Kick It To The Curb to help you get started.
What’s your favorite epilogue in fiction, and how do you use epilogues in your own work? Let me know in the comments.