We’ve talked before about whether a prologue would help or hurt our story. At the other end of a book, we might face a similar question about whether our story needs an epilogue or not.
Epilogues aren’t quite as reviled as prologues, but some people do fall into the “don’t like” camp. So let’s take a look at epilogues: how they differ from normal endings, what they can do, and what they shouldn’t do.
What Makes an Epilogue an Epilogue?
Before exploring epilogues, let’s first talk about a normal story ending, so we can understand the difference.
With a Non-Epilogue Ending…
In a book without an epilogue, the story reaches “The End” after the Climax is resolved, and the main story problem or core conflict, subplots, and story arcs are wrapped up. Depending on the story structure system we’re used to, we might call this post-Climax aspect of our story the Resolution, Falling Action, or Denouement.
Will an epilogue help or hurt our story? Check the pros and cons... Click To TweetThis part of the story is essential, in that the story’s arcs wouldn’t be complete without it. Therefore, it’s treated as a normal paragraph(s), scene(s), or chapter(s) of our story.
For example, if our story is a mystery, the Climax is the reveal or apprehension of the bad guy. However, there are often still story arcs to wrap up in the denouement:
- the protagonist might say how they knew or discovered the truth
- the authorities might discuss the next steps for the bad guy
- the protagonist’s internal/emotional arc is resolved (such as overcoming their self-doubt)
- subplots and/or external goals are resolved (such as the protagonist earning the promotion they wanted, etc.)
All together, those elements are meant to give readers a satisfying ending to a story that feels complete. Without those additional tidbits, the ending would feel abrupt and leave major arcs hanging.
Imagine a novel that ended with something like this:
Velma ripped the mask off the killer’s face. Gasps sounded from the gathered onlookers. It was Brett.
Unless our story was really short, that type of ending wouldn’t feel right. Even Scooby Doo’s cartoon episodes include more of a resolution than that. *smile* While we don’t need (or want) every story thread wrapped up in a perfect bow, we’d want to know more if faced with an ending like that, and that’s what the denouement is for: resolving the story.
With an Epilogue Ending…
In contrast, an epilogue comes after the denouement. Epilogues usually show how story events affect characters after some time has passed.
For example, going back to our mystery:
- Climax: The bad guy is caught
- Resolution/Denouement: Subplots and arcs are wrapped up.
- Epilogue: Months later, we revisit the protagonist to see her succeeding in her new promotion and happy with the love interest.
Is it necessary to show readers that she’s successful in her new position or that her relationship is happy? Usually not.
As authors, we might find it best to point our characters (and readers) in the direction to go next, but we don’t need to actually show them in that future. The epilogue is an opportunity to add a bit of a happy, perfect bow to story threads, but readers don’t need that glimpse.
In other words, the difference between a denouement and an epilogue might be:
- Denouement/Resolution (pointing to the future):
Velma’s shoulders relaxed with each step the cops forced Brett to move away from her. A wave of relief soon followed, emptying the worry that had been filling her brain with stress.
Maybe now, without a killer stalking her every move, she’d feel safe enough to re-enroll in night school and complete her degree like she’d planned. Maybe she had a future ahead of her after all.
- Epilogue (showing the future):
Velma waited on tiptoes, and then she heard it. The announcer called her name to cross the stage and pick up her diploma.
So many threats had stood in her way. So much self-doubt had delayed her even more. So many years of hard work and sacrifice. It all came down to this. She’d won.
Why an Epilogue Might Hurt Our Story
The example above exposes several of the risks of epilogues:
- We can make our story too tidy, too perfect. A too-perfect ending doesn’t feel realistic, which can hurt the overall impression of our story or kick readers out of being immersed in our story world.
- As seen in the difference between the denouement and the epilogue above, readers often want to imagine the characters taking the next steps in their life. The role of imagination can be important to keeping readers immersed, so spelling out too many future-details in an epilogue can make readers feel distant to the story.
- Epilogues can also hurt our story if they come across as weak writing, such as hinting that our resolution isn’t as strong as it should be.
- They’re also weak writing and feel like extraneous filler if they don’t add anything to readers’ understanding, such as if nothing new is revealed as far as character growth.
Why an Epilogue Might Help Our Story
Given those risks, why would we ever include an epilogue? It all depends on the story.
For some stories and genres, a neat, tidy ending would feel out of place or be too cheesy. Maybe the mood of the story deserves more uncertainty or bitter-sweetness. However, for other stories and genres, readers would benefit from an extra push to think of our characters’ futures a certain way.
We might want to include an epilogue for:
Some genres expect or encourage happy endings or a neat, tidy bow.
For example, epilogues are very common in historical romance—to the point that they’re almost a cliché—especially those involving weddings, pregnancy, or children. Or “based on real events” movies often include a text epilogue, catching the audience up on what happened to each of the characters after the dramatization ended.
Sense of Closure:
Some stories need an extra boost of closure, reassurance, or reflection, and there’s nothing wrong with extending readers’ warm fuzzy feelings. *grin*
For example, the original Star Wars movie included the medal recognition scene for Luke, Han, and Chewbacca. As a bonus, that scene showed us how the outsiders had been fully embraced by the Rebellion. Then the epilogue of Return of the Jedi, with the happy and serene force ghost of Anakin, allowed the audience to process the upheaval of emotions from Vader’s death into a semblance of peace.
Additional Wrap Up:
Sometimes we can’t logically wrap up all the minor threads we want to without a time jump.
For example, maybe the story ended with uncertainty of whether the heroine was pregnant. An epilogue could make that outcome clear. Or the end of Lord of the Rings shows the heroes adjusting their new selves to the saved world, but skipped all the travel time back to the Shire.
Emphasis of Change:
Sometimes we want to emphasize our character’s growth or give extra “proof” of their future path.
For example, if readers might not be convinced the character’s epiphany would “stick” or if it’s not clear how the Climax’s events will affect the character long-term, we could show more proof that they’d undergone permanent change. Or in a romance, if we left the denouement with a “happily for now,” we could show the couple still together some time later, making progress toward their “happily ever after.”
Series or Sequel Set Up:
On the other hand, sometimes our denouement naturally wraps up too tidily, and we want to add some uncertainty or open threads to carry over to the next book.
For example, one novella series I’ve read finishes the current book and then adds a cliffhanger-ish hint of the antagonist of the next book in an epilogue-ish ending. (Note, while some state a “rule” that epilogues can’t introduce new information, this usage proves there are always exceptions. *smile*) The risk of this method is that it can undo a bit of the warm fuzzies or happy ending we might have established. So we’d have to make sure we knew our goals with this method.
In stories where the protagonists don’t witness what comes next, an epilogue that allows for a switch to another point of view might work.
For example, if the protagonist was killed, an epilogue featuring a descendant, enemy, or friend could fill in the blanks of what happened as a result of their efforts. Or we might want to skip far into the future to give a “historical” perspective of the story’s world, such as with The Handmaid’s Tale.
Emphasis of Theme:
If our story wants to make a strong case for a certain message or moral, an epilogue can be used to underline our point.
For example, while many themes are expressed in the subtext of whatever lesson our protagonist learns, we could bring the moral out in other aspects of the story. A subtle reference to our message could come from a different style of “proof” or from the far-reaching consequences of failure to pay heed to the moral, such as in Atonement, where readers learn the prior ending was a lie.
While a prologue might prevent a reader from buying our book—as they flip through our opening pages—an epilogue isn’t likely to prevent our story’s purchase. However, given the saying that the ending of our story is what sells our next book, epilogues can be important to the success of our series and other books.
With a deeper understanding of what role epilogues are meant to fill, we’ll know better whether an epilogue might fit with our story. And with this list of pros and cons to watch out for, we’ll know better how to make any epilogue we write match our intentions. *smile*
Want to write faster? Or finish NaNoWriMo?
Join Jami in a workshop to learn how to do just enough story development to write faster, even if we write by the seat of our pants.
Click here to learn more!
Do you like epilogues as a reader? What types do you like or dislike? Have you written an epilogue for any of your stories before? Or have you debated adding an epilogue? Does this post help clarify what they’re good for and when we should avoid them?Pin It