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October 16, 2018

Your Story’s Promise: Do You Need an Epilogue?

Closed sign with text: What Does Our Genre Need for a Sense of Closure?

Last week, we talked about the pros and cons of including an epilogue with our story. In that post, I mentioned a few of the reasons why we might want to include an epilogue:

  • Genre Expectations
  • Sense of Closure
  • Additional Wrap Up
  • Emphasis of Change
  • Series or Sequel Set Up
  • Outside Perspective
  • Emphasis of Theme

Despite all those reasons, most stories don’t include epilogues. At the same time, there’s no shortage of reviews that complain about too-abrupt endings. So when it comes to story endings, there might be a disconnect between what readers want for a sense of closure and what authors deliver.

Why are authors so reluctant to include epilogues—or epilogue-like endings that wrap up the story beyond just the plot—even when having one might help the story or make readers happier? Let’s peek behind the scenes…

Do You Know What Your Story Is About? Do You Really?

When asked what our story is about, we might focus on the plot or other tangible aspects of the storytelling. That’s understandable. Those details are what make our story unique from others in our genre.

However, there are other aspects to our story that exist in the subtext:

  • our story’s theme
  • our high-level premise
  • how readers relate to our characters (as inspiration, aspiration, friend, warning, etc.)
  • the promise behind our genre’s theme, etc.

Being aware of the subtext of our story is important for wrapping up all those elements for our readers. If we don’t know the subtextual aspects of our story, we’re more likely to fall short in our attempt to bring them to a satisfying end.

So…Do We Need an Epilogue?

None of that is to say every story needs an epilogue. True epilogues usually include a time jump or a significant change of tone, circumstances, point of view, etc., and they’re titled as “Epilogue” to prepare readers for that jump. Many (if not most) stories don’t require that shift.

Does our story have enough sense of closure to make readers happy? Click To TweetHowever, epilogue-like endings—those that dwell a bit after the bad guy has been vanquished—provide an opportunity to wrap up the non-plot elements of our story without a jump or shift. So for a strong sense of closure, many stories might benefit from an epilogue-like ending as a final chapter.

In other words, if we usually consider our story “done” when the plot is wrapped up, we likely still have other elements that aren’t quite satisfying to readers yet. In that case, an epilogue-ish ending—whether a normal chapter or just a last scene or set of paragraphs in our final chapter—might help us think beyond just the plot.

But…Isn’t It Bad to Wrap Up Too Much?

We’ve probably heard advice to not make our ending too neat and tidy—and that’s good advice. But there’s a wide swath of gray between the extremes of too-abrupt endings and too-neat-and-tidy endings.

Some genres and stories will veer more toward an uncertain, vague, or bittersweet ending. Other genres—such as romance—often do expect a happily-ever-after wrapped in a big red bow. So how much attention we should pay to that usual advice greatly depends on our story and genre.

As a romance reader and editor, I can’t think of a single example where the author spent too much time delivering the happy ending in a romance. On the other hand, I’d say around a third of romance stories I’ve read without an epilogue feel too abrupt—and any conversation with other romance readers will reveal I’m not alone with that impression.

Whether we write romance or not, we don’t want to shortchange our story just because we’re taking the standard advice too far. So let’s figure out what our ending needs to include to provide a sense of closure.

What Does Our Ending Need to Accomplish?

Depending on our story’s needs, we might consider our story’s ending—the paragraphs, scenes, or chapters after our story’s Climax—to be a Resolution, Denouement, Epilogue-Like, or true Epilogue (titled as one to prepare readers for a shift). The names don’t really matter unless we’re cutting the needs and structure of our story short.

How can we ensure our story's ending creates a sense of closure? Click To TweetIf we can wrap up our story and provide a sense of closure in a standard resolution, we’re good. But if we can’t, we could draw out our story’s ending to include wrap ups in an epilogue or a second or extended denouement that can feel like an epilogue (but isn’t titled as one because there’s no jump warning needed).

Many of the romances that feel too abrupt fall down on the last element below: a genre’s promise to readers. But any of these subtextual elements can be overlooked in a normal Resolution.

Referring to our list above, we might need to expand our story’s ending to…

Emphasize Our Story’s Theme

We’ve probably heard advice before about echoing or highlighting our story’s theme in the ending. Essentially, if our story is about the power of love to overcome, we’d want to extend our ending long enough to convince readers that the obstacles have been fully overcome.

The same goes for whatever our story’s theme: justice can’t be denied, sacrifice is worth it, etc. Proving to readers that our theme is true might take a bit more showing in an ending that extends beyond the Resolution of the plot.

Fulfill Our Story’s High-Level Premise

Slightly less generic than our story’s theme, our story’s premise—an echo of what happens in the Climax—will often be plot related: get the girl, catch the bad guy, etc. However, some stories have a strong character focus, and that aspect of the premise might not be fulfilled by the time the external plot is wrapped up.

Our story's subtext makes promises to readers—are we delivering? Click To TweetFor example, if our story’s high-level premise is something along the lines of “heroine learns to trust her instincts,” the plot may require her to trust her instincts to survive. Great! So we’ve completed the character’s arc and fulfilled the premise, right?

But internal change is hard. A one-time decision to do something we usually wouldn’t is not proof of change.

To fulfill a character-focused premise, especially when involving change or growth, we need to make our case that the character has learned their lesson beyond just the circumstances of the plot Climax. Readers need to believe the lesson will stick.

Depending on where our story or genre falls on the neat-and-tidy spectrum, we can attempt anything between these extremes:

  • highlight the proof’s subtext a little more or
  • bring the proof completely out of the subtext, such as by having the character make a statement pointing out their change or the lesson they learned (while still not being too on-the-nose).

For some stories, we’ll be able to provide this proof during the Climax or as part of a normal Resolution. But if we haven’t yet proven—clearly and believably—that we’ve fulfilled the premise, we need to emphasize this element in a last-chapter, epilogue-ish scene or a true epilogue.

Cement the Character’s Purpose to Readers

Readers relate to characters in many different ways. The reader-character connection isn’t necessarily about a story’s theme or premise, but just about how readers are meant to think of the character.

Off the top of my head, I can think of how characters can be…:

  • an inspiration, showing us a better world
  • an aspiration, giving us goals to aspire to
  • a friend, allowing us to see them as peers
  • a warning, showing us what to avoid

Just as the previous section was about fulfilling an aspect of the story’s premise, this is about fulfilling an aspect of the reader-character relationship. If our character is meant to be a warning, our ending should underline that warning, highlighting what can go wrong, what we can be grateful for in our own less-messed-up life, or what we should avoid.

In other words, our story’s subtext includes messages that readers can take away from the story by looking at our characters, their behaviors, actions, consequences, goals, motivations, etc. Whatever readers take away from our characters, we should strengthen that message during the ending, whether that means in the Resolution or a more drawn-out ending, like an Epilogue-ish scene in the final chapter.

Fulfill Our Genre’s Promise to Readers

A couple of years ago, I pointed out how most genres imply a theme by default. A genre’s theme is the promise to the reader when they pick up a story in that genre.

That promise is often why readers pick up the story. Readers are in the mood for an X or Y type of story, so they choose from the genre they expect will deliver.

  • For thrillers, readers expect to find a story with a nail-biting race to a satisfying confrontation with the villain.
    Implicit Theme: Survival is possible.
  • For mysteries, readers expect to find a story with a crime that’s solved in a satisfying way.
    Implicit Theme: Justice is possible.
  • For romances, readers expect to find a story with a central love story building to a satisfying and happy relationship.
    Implicit Theme: Happiness is possible.

So to have a satisfying ending in those genres, we need to believe that survival, justice, or happiness really is possible. Convincing readers that we’ve fulfilled the promise inherent in the genre might require an extended ending.

Does our story's ending fulfill our promises to readers? Click To TweetHow do we “prove” justice is possible? We might stick around with the story and characters long enough to not just catch the bad guy but show how they’re going to be imprisoned, killed, or otherwise prevented from committing crimes again.

Catching criminals is just step one of getting justice. Depending on the story and its style or mood, punishment or consequences might need to be promised or delivered.

Similarly, other genres need to convince readers that their implicit theme is true and their promise has been delivered. Sometimes, that will require an ending that extends beyond just the initial “yay!” of success.

How Romance Endings Can Fall Short

As I mentioned above, a significant percentage of romance stories seem to have a too-abrupt ending. One book I recently read featured an ending that was essentially “That plot issue is no longer a problem. Let’s kiss.” (It was literally one paragraph after the story’s plot problem was resolved.)

That’s not a convincing happy ending. We know in the real world that relationships are hard and take work. Problems and issues will crop up in every relationship, so for a relationship to believably last through obstacles, we have to see them actually deal with and overcome complications—multiple times.

Also, an abrupt ending like that doesn’t create the warm fuzzies necessary for the genre. Readers want to close the book on a sigh, not feel rushed or suffer from a premature ending. *snicker*

To fulfill the genre’s promise to readers, romance stories have to “prove” happiness is possible. How do we do that?

We need to stick around long enough to convince readers that the relationship can be successful long-term (unless our story is meant to be a “happily for now” rather than a “happily ever after”).

For example, our ending might…

  • have the couple figure out how they’re going to overcome complications, such as a conversation about where they’ll live, work, or relocate or how they’ll deal with extended family, etc.
  • include statements of what they each learned, not just about how much they love the other person, but about how they’re not going to make the same mistakes again.
  • point out how the couple is perfect for each other in non-superficial ways—not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and personality, values, and morals wise.
  • show or give examples of how the couple will work out remaining or future issues, giving evidence of the strength of their relationship.
  • show or give examples of how they’re in a healthier mental place for having a relationship after dealing with their backstory wounds and false beliefs throughout the story.

Most beat sheets suggest the denouement should take up 1% or more of the total story word count—that’s about 3-4 pages for a novel. In my editor hat, I recommend romance stories spend at least a page after the plot-wrap-up to delve into their relationship and its future. That’s what will give readers the warm fuzzies expected for the genre.

What Does It Mean to Provide Closure?

For many stories, and especially for romances, we usually want to provide a sense of closure. That often means seeing proof beyond subtext—proof that our theme is true, that changes will stick, that characters are who we believe them to be, and that potential can come to fruition.

Yes, readers often want to imagine characters’ futures, so we don’t need (or want) to spell out every future detail. But just a “yay!” or a kiss isn’t enough to signify proof of—or commitment to—the potential we see in their future.

Readers want to see characters taking their first solid steps in their new life. In short, readers need more to believe that their imaginings for their favorite characters’ futures can come to pass. *smile*

Have you read stories with a too-abrupt ending? What made it too abrupt? How would you have fixed it? Do you disagree with my point about the importance of closure for readers? Can you think of other elements to add to our list of what a story’s ending should include for a sense of closure?

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Clare OBeara
Clare OBeara

Thanks!
My stories tend to be well woven so for some time before approaching the end I have been working out how to tie up the threads and sprinkle the fillips, or whatever one does with them. I like readers to say – “oh I didn’t see that coming but it’s perfect for that character!”

Sieran

Oh I’ve seen some rushed epilogues as well. One famous literary classic romance that I love, had a rushed epilogue where the author just tells us that the hero eventually got over his heartbreak with his ex, and finally falls in love with and marries the heroine. I’m glad that they can be together, but wow, I would have liked to see at least one or a few scenes of his love blossoming. I don’t just want a quick summary of what happens eventually!! (This is ironically my favorite book written by this author, but I was dissatisfied with how brisk the epilogue was.)

I recently read two romances with satisfying epilogues. In both of them, the author basically says that the heroes have big fights from time to time, but they always make up afterwards. This is reassuring to me, because I believe couples will fight from time to time, especially these hot-tempered couples!

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