After “The End” – The Epilogue

Ah, the epilogue.  Tons of e-ink has been spilled about it.  Writers have tried to define it; agents have clashed over representing books that contain it.  Editors read epilogues with red pencils at the ready.  Readers approach epilogues like candy corn: they either love them or hate them, and their feelings about a book can be made or destroyed based on their feelings about the epilogue.

Wait.  None of that is true.

Everyone debates the prologue, but hardly anyone discusses its little sister, the epilogue.  After all, no one decides whether to buy or keep reading a book based on the merits of its epilogue.

But don’t let the lack of writerly angst surrounding the epilogue fool you.  The conclusion of your book contains the last taste you will leave in the mouth of your reader.  Think about the flavors of your book.  Which one do you want to linger on the reader’s tongue when the cover is finally closed?

In truth, most books can and probably should stop at the end of their stories, which means the author can stop at the end of the final chapter.  If the contents of your epilogue are really just dénouement, showing resolution after the climax, then that epilogue isn’t necessary.  Like the prologue, the epilogue should only be used with purpose, to add something of value to the book that exists outside of the main story.

Let’s take a look at how this can work.

*Note: Spoilers ahead.  I’ll limit these as best I can, but read with caution!*

Sometimes authors want to show–and readers want to know–what will happen to characters after the story’s conclusion.  This can be especially true when the ending is not an altogether happy one; readers want reassurance that the character or characters to whom they’ve bonded ended up all right somewhere down the road.  The author can show this in a short epilogue.

In Jenna Blum’s The Stormchasers, for example, we see in the last chapter how the characters choose, finally, to take responsibility for a misdeed that occurred in their past.  The story is over; the story questions have been answered.  The characters have taken an action that will seal their fates.  We know, literally, where the characters are going, and we understand the morality and the immediate, real-world consequences of their actions.  Yet, having accompanied the protagonist through her struggle, we need reassurance that her sacrifice will result in something positive down the line; we need to know that eventually, she will be all right.  So Blum gives us a brief epilogue showing the protagonist’s life some months in the future.  The epilogue adds value, is consistent with the characters and story that precedes it and allows us to exhale and to close the cover of the book with a sense of satisfaction.

In another example, Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel, The Sandcastle Girls, frames a historical story of the Armenian Genocide with a present-day, first-person narrator-descendant, employing a prologue and an epilogue as bookends.  In the epilogue, this descendant comes across another contemporary with a tie to the story, and this encounter not only answers the “what happened later” question for the reader, but also serves, in the book’s final paragraphs, to enhance the considerable emotional impact of all that we have just read in the previous 286 pages.

Sometimes an epilogue can work outside the framework of the main story to alter the reader’s perception of it, with stunning results.  In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the reader follows the protagonist, Offred, through a dystopian journey of repression that ends with the unresolved possibility of Offred’s escape.  Instead of giving us a conventional “did she make it or didn’t she?” epilogue, however, Atwood’s epilogue brings us two hundred years into the future, to the transcript of a historical conference that has been considering, among other discovered artifacts, a set of cassette tapes containing the first-person account of the story they have dubbed “The Handmaid’s Tale”–in other words, Offred’s story.  This clinical, academic analysis following such a powerful, human story evoked such a visceral reaction in me that as I read the epilogue, I found myself protesting, “But it really happened!”  Because of that epilogue, my mind raced for days with thoughts of historical records found and lost, individual stories that become twisted and discarded and the question of whether we really can ever know the truth about the past.

Ian McEwan also takes the reader’s breath away–at least he did mine–with the epilogue in Atonement.  Here we learn that the ending to the lovers’ story is not, in fact, what we were led to believe in the main body of the story.  The epilogue tells us that that ending was the attempt at redemption by the main character, a fiction writer, and the lovers’ “true” end was indeed far more tragic.  Why does this work?  Why do we not feel betrayed and manipulated as readers?  Because McEwan has led us to this development; it’s a natural extension of all that came before it, even as he flips the ending on its head.  It was surprising, but consistent, and we could, after reclaiming our breath, believe it.

This consistency in character, plot and theme from main story to epilogue is key.  Epilogues fail when one or more of these is broken.

So what are some examples of epilogues that don’t work so well?

A moment, please, while I don my armor.

In her otherwise gorgeously written novel, Bel Canto, Ann Patchett uses an epilogue after a shattering, violent climax to let us know how the lives of a few of the characters turned out after the months-long terrorist and hostage crisis that is the setting for the rest of the book.  This is a valid and classic epilogue question; Patchett has guided us with her usual insight and literary skill through great trauma with these characters, and we wonder what their lives will be like after all they’ve experienced.  But little foundation is laid for the marital pairing that is the focus of the epilogue; the couple is introduced abruptly and with no explanation for their individual attraction other than the group hostage experience all the characters shared.  Everything else in Patchett’s novel is so carefully developed that this development feels out of place; I felt, reading it, that I’d missed a chapter or two in the story.

Finally, the most-debated epilogue in history may well be the conclusion of the Harry Potter series.  On the one hand, yes: Harry always wanted a family, and the epilogue shows us that he’s got one.  But the series was also very much about the battle between good and evil, and this theme is glaringly absent from the epilogue.  Even a couple of sentences alluding to Harry’s grown-up profession, the present state of a world that surely still contained some form of evil or a strange stirring in a far corner of Muggle England might have satisfied the need to acknowledge this theme amidst the who-married-whom scenario.  But as it was, after 4100 rich pages, the epilogue came off as shallow and missing the point.

I suspect most of us are tempted to write epilogues.  And perhaps we should write them, especially in our early drafts.  We often love our characters, after all, and it’s very difficult to stop following them around.  As their creators, we need to know what happens to them.

But after those early drafts, consider that epilogue carefully.  Does it add something of value to the story?  Is that something of value something that must exist outside of the narrative framework of the rest of your story?  Is it consistent in plot, character and theme?  Do you have an actual reason you can cite for leaving it in and not incorporating it into your final chapter?  Only if you can answer those questions in the affirmative should you include an epilogue in your novel.

And it doesn’t hurt if it adds something a bit brilliant to the plot, too.

Image courtesy DeviantART’s vashsunglasses.

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About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her sixth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for taking on the epilog issue, Tracy. I’ve tried it several times for what I considered at the time good and useful purpose only to be booed down by my prescient editor. On reflection, she was right. Better to end strong even if some issues are left hanging. Hanging is not always bad, is it?

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  2. says

    You’re right, although I’ve heard a lot of debates about the prologue, this is the first epilogue discussion I’ve read. In some books I’ve read they have served to leave me with that finished feeling. Others have felt superfluous. But I don’t think in either case it added much or detracted much from a well-written story. So I agree, better to end strong and leave it at that.

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  3. says

    Ahhh…epilogues. I confess I love them. I’m not sure that I’ve met a single epilogue I didn’t like, but I can definitely see your point. I don’t always write epilogues, myself. In my current manuscript, I’ve got one because the previous chapter ran a bit long without the luxury of containing enough things to “cut”. The epilogue, however, is a bit too short for a whole chapter. Sure, I could go out and inflate the epilogue to create a final chapter. Sure, I could go through and perform surgery on the previous chapter and include the epilogue in there. Those are definite options. Epilogues, though, have that mystical quality of being NOT the end, but the beginning of a new story (in my opinion). We may not learn where this new story goes, but it gives our imaginations enough to dream on. :-) Great article!

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  4. says

    I’m with L.M. (above), not sure I’ve met one I’ve disliked. I used them in all four of my finished manuscripts. But then again, I’m writing series books. Some might not like the ‘set up’ of the next book, but none of my beta-readers has complained, and quite a few have praised them. You raise excellent points here. I’ll have to take a look at them with these things in mind.

    Nice job, Tracy! I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a post on epilogues before. And they play a big role in my work.

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  5. says

    Tracy,
    I was never crazy about epilogues, so your well thought-out defense of them has given me something to think about. One of my favorites was the epilogue to the Stieg Larssen trilogy. It featured the same suspense and action as the three stories. The worst? Harry Potter. It read like a Hallmark greeting card. Ick! Thanks for a thoughtful post.

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  6. says

    We don’t talk much about epilogues. I love them. In most of the books I’ve read with epilogues the author does just what you’ve described above. Their readers have made an investment in the lives and interests of the characters. The epilogue assures us that things worked out well for them down the road. This always gives sense of finality to the story.

    I’ve used epilogues in two of my three finished manuscripts. I’m glad to see I’ve used them correctly. ;-)

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  7. says

    These are both good examples and good rules! Endings are tricky things, when the writer needs to pull the threads together and leave the reader with both an intellectually and emotionally satisfying finish. For myself, I don’t think of it as a decision–“to epilogue or not to epilogue.” Instead it’s a matter of how much space I need for the final scene and how much separation I give it from the time before.

    In three books I’ve used three solutions. In my first book I used a true epilogue–a journal entry from months later that felt very natural since I’d begun each chapter with an article excerpt, interview answer, or other piece of framing media-entry. In my second I ended with a very short final chapter that was more of a set-piece bringing the characters physically back to where the story began. In my third book I finished with a single scene, less than a page long, which gave the main character’s definitive answer to a question woven through the book.

    Each has the same conclusive feel but only one of them is, stylistically, a true epilogue–so, based on my experience, looking at your ending questions I would have to say that most of the time an epilogue isn’t necessary; if you can provide that ending in the body of the story, do it.

    But I’ll never turn up my nose at a good one, the one that makes you close the book with a satisfied “ah!”

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  8. says

    When I completed the first or second draft of my first novel, I’d intended to throw in an epilogue as a way of showing what direction the characters were headed next – because I myself was overwhelmed with the need to know what would happen to them. Immediately, I realized it stank, and diluted the beauty of the climax. I excised it immediately. I don’t have a problem with epilogues in general, but in this case, exercising restraint and trusting my instincts was the best decision. Now, my novel ends with the characters just after the climax, at the very beginning of the road to recovery. The sequel will answer questions the failed epilogue would have, and undoubtedly in a less hurried, less frenetic tangle of who-married-who information.

    I like the idea of focusing on what “flavor” to leave in the reader’s mouth. In this case, do I want a satisfied breath of relief or sugar heaped on top? Epilogues aren’t really the last chapter, are they? They’re just a touch of that flavor, and it is important not to go overboard.

    Thanks!

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  9. says

    Really great post, Tracy! I love epilogues, and we don’t talk about them nearly enough. I’m going to have to disagree with you on the HP epilogue, though. I may be one of the few readers out there who can say this, but I really loved it. I didn’t find it ‘shallow’ or ‘missing the point’ so much as a brief glimpse that’s supposed to leave us with a feeling of hope. We KNOW there’s evil in the world, we know there’s a cost for defeating it; we just spent thousands of pages and endured the deaths of how many favorite characters to learn that. What the epilogue did for me was leave me with a feeling even in the midst of that, there is always hope for the future. The moments of peace and family happiness may be soap-bubble fragile and fleeting, but no less beautiful or worthy of being treasured for that.

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  10. Ray Pace says

    Wisdom from Mickey Spillane: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.”

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  11. says

    Epilogues have always appealed to me! Thanks for using some actual examples for your discussion–thanks also for the SPOILER ALERT!
    When I taught English literature classes, I found it so interesting to read the material that would result from an epilogue writing assignment.
    Epilogues seem to give that added depth to a story that we, as readers, have followed for so many pages!

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  12. says

    Thank you for your comments, everyone, especially on what is a difficult day for a lot of people.

    How intriguing to see that people actually do have feelings about epilogues in general. For me, it’s like so many other elements in a book: if it’s done well, great. But if not, I’ll wish I could un-read it.

    Alex, leaving things hanging definitely is better sometimes. Tying everything up in nice, neat bows can be annoying. I think deciding how much to tie up v. how much to leave open depends on the genre and the individual book.

    Vaughn, I didn’t address the series question in my post, but you’re right: that’s another purpose the epilogue can serve. I still think it has to be consistent with what came before in the rest of the book, but in this case, it’s serving a distinct function and might look a little different from the epilogue in a stand-alone book.

    Anna, this is why I say HP may be “the most debated epilogue in history.” I’m glad you presented the opposite point of view, because I know a lot of people liked it. To each her own on this one. I will say that this debate shows the relevance of the epilogue: after 4100 beloved pages, people still debate the final seven.

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  13. says

    I don’t mind epilogues. In romance, where hero and heroine can be antagonistic to one another for so long and only resolve the conflict at the end, epilogues can serve as reassurance that the partnership will be enduring. That said, as you’ve noted, it must compliment what precedes it, rather than clash.

    Great post, Tracy. I’m sorry its thunder was stolen by storm-related events. Hope people will return when safe, warm, and dry to read it.

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  14. says

    As a reader I like epilogues IF they are a natural extension of something in the main story that can’t be dealt with in the finale. A loose thread that could never be woven in – (Or maybe it should have been?)

    Dealing with an epilogue for WIP that just finished second draft of. Main protagonist is a wannabe short story writer who uses main mystery as way to finish an SS. SS doesn’t fit as last chapter but I felt it fitted an epilogue. (Book also has a glossary as set in gaming world… IG chat FTW)

    Might have to do same with sequel starting for NaNoWriMo on Thursday.

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  15. Ronda Roaring says

    Tracy, I’ve never considered prologues and epilogues to be separate from the overall body of the work, but I can see, from your point of view, that you do. I judge any epilogue as I do any ending–does it work or doesn’t it. And no, I didn’t like the ending of Harry Potter. (It was, I think, the only part of the books, I didn’t like.)

    I think the ending of a book can be very difficult for some authors. There are many books I’ve enjoyed until the ending. I suspect that many authors either don’t work as hard on the ending of the book as they do on the body of the work, or perhaps they’re just happy the story is over and quit when they come to the end. But, in the long run, I approve of epilogues.

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  16. says

    Example of a good epilogue: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, last book in the Hunger Games series. It gives us a glimpse of a happier and more peaceful future for our main couple (thank heavens, after all that violence and suffering) but also shows that Katniss has come out of her ordeal with psychological scars, and that in her world, as in ours, moral challenges will always be present. The epilogue serves another role: to make it clear to the reader that the writer is saying goodbye to these particular protagonists (as does the HP epilogue.) Young adult readers aren’t going to want a story about Harry or Katniss as a 35 year old parent.

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  17. says

    Juliet, I just pulled out Mockingjay and reread the epilogue. I agree with your analysis. It answers that classic question of “what happened later?” It’s consistent in plot, character and theme, it lets us know where Katniss ends up emotionally (thus guiding the reader to a much needed emotional endpoint) and it does signal that we’re done with Katniss and Peeta (I hope). In short, it works.

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  18. says

    Really good defense here, Tracy. I think epilogues is one of those areas where students of writing and maybe even agents have opinions about whether they “work” with no connection to whether readers like them or not. I think the typical reader who has enjoyed a book and invested in the characters would be generally happy to hear what happens next or later.

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  19. says

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and well presented post. For the most part I enjoy an epilogue – your explanations helped to clarify why I didn’t care for the ones that just didn’t seem to flow with the plot. Also, loved the responses and counter points!

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  20. says

    The very best epilogues are the ones that keep you thinking about what happened and wondering about what could have happened. If a reader finishes a book with longing for more, then it is a success for the author. If that book happened to be part of a series, then it is a greater success.

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