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.

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.