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Is It Really Over? To Epilogue or Not to Epilogue

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

An epilogue is a speech or scene added to the end of a play, story, or novel that offers more information about the characters. The story is over, satisfactorily concluded, but now we are going to show the reader the consequences or results of that ending.

The tradition of epilogues goes back to the very roots of fiction itself. It’s the moral-of-the-story ending of Aesop’s Fables that explains the lesson being taught by the metaphoric story. It was also prevalent in drama—a final word or thought to send the audience home with. Take, for example, the ending of Shakespeare’s Henry V:

EPILOGUE
Chorus:
Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world’s best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.
Exit

Drawing upon the examples of classic literature, novelists of the nineteenth century developed the epilogue into a story device at the end of novels to wrap up any loose ends still dangling—to let the reader know that the wrong should fail and the right prevail in every circumstance brought forward in the book. One of the most familiar examples is the last chapter of Pride & Prejudice:

CHAPTER SIXTY-ONE
HAPPY for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters. . . .
          Mr. Bennet missed his second daughter exceedingly . . .
          Mr. Bingley and Jane remained at Netherfield only a twelvemonth. . . .
          Kitty, to her very material advantage, spent the chief of her time with her two elder sisters. . . .
          Mary was the only daughter who remained at home . . . it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance.
          As for Wickham and Lydia, their characters suffered no revolution from the marriage of her sisters. . . . They were always moving from place to place in quest of a cheap situation, and always spending more than they ought. His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; hers lasted a little longer . . .
          Miss Bingley was very deeply mortified by Darcy’s marriage . . .
          Pemberley was now Georgiana’s home; and the attachment of the sisters was exactly what Darcy had hoped to see. They were able to love each other even as well as they intended. . . .
          Lady Catherine was extremely indignant on the marriage of her nephew . . .
          With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.

In the last decade or so, sequels and spinoffs of Pride & Prejudice have proliferated—something that Austen herself apparently never considered doing. For her, the summary she wrote at the end of the novel was enough to satisfy her of the happily-ever-after of those who deserved it in the novel.

In romance novels, the epilogue is as common as heaving bosoms and . . . well descriptions of other body parts(!). It’s the author’s chance to show the hero and heroine’s wedding. Or, if they’re married in the course of the story, to show the birth of their first child. Something that goes beyond the promise of a happily-ever-after ending given in the ending by showing these two characters are still blissfully happy (and still together) at a later time. For me, as I knew I would be writing a spinoff novel to follow up my contemporary romance Happy Endings Inc., writing an epilogue to show the wedding-planner heroine’s wedding never entered my mind—mainly because I knew the event would play an important role in the next book. Had I not planned a spinoff series, I would have wanted to write the wedding scene simply for my own gratification. But, it wouldn’t truly be necessary to give the book its satisfying ending.

Is the epilogue necessary or is it an extra cherry on top of the sundae? I emphasize extra, because the true metaphoric cherry-on-top should be the satisfying ending that your novel has without an epilogue.

When I finish reading a book I’ve enjoyed, my mind automatically starts formulating ideas of what happens to the characters next. If it’s a series book, I might not have to wait long to find out if my ideas are right or not. I mentioned the upcoming final book in the Harry Potter series in the last post. While I expect it will have a satisfying ending, I fear that it will take some unexpected twists and turns and not everything will turn out the way I hope. A greater fear than that is that I won’t like the way she chooses to end her story, which will taint my enjoyment of the books I’ve liked reading and re-reading over the past several years—and that I’ll feel like I’ve wasted all that time.

This is a danger you could run into with an epilogue. While it’s a wonderful indulgence for us as writers to spend just a little more time with our characters, if it’s not well done, or if the characters do something silly or uncharacteristic, it could ruin the whole book for the reader. Epilogues extend the lives of the characters beyond the magic of the resolution of the plot and could possibly diminish them by pulling them into a mundane or ordinary experience which makes them, to some, no longer special. Epilogues can also make readers (and potential editors/agents) feel that you aren’t confident in the ending of your book and felt you had to include additional information just to make sure everyone understood the final scene.

But, you may ask, what if the information in the epilogue is necessary for readers to truly “get” the ending?

By the time your reader gets to the last chapter of your novel, they want a complete and satisfying ending. If the epilogue contains necessary information, what you have is an unresolved ending, and you should revisit whether or not you’ve written the strongest ending possible. Your reader should be able to close your book at the end of the last chapter and have read a complete ending—to have closure without reading further. Just like some people don’t read prologues, some don’t read epilogues, as they would rather imagine what comes next for themselves.

Ultimately, there is no hard-and-fast rule on whether or not to use an epilogue (though if you’re writing a series, general consensus is don’t). But there are some things to consider:
–Keep it short and simple. No new characters, no new conflicts. (Just think, again, about Lord of the Rings and its multiple “epilogue” endings—both the movie and the book.)

–Don’t be repetitive. If your character has learned a lesson in the denouement of the novel, don’t repeat the character learning the lesson (or telling someone of the lesson he’s learned) in an epilogue.

–Separate the epilogue from the last chapter. Set it weeks, months, or years in the future, and if you can, set it in a different location to differentiate it from the actual ending of the book and not make it feel like just a continuation of the last chapter.

–Add insight and perspective to the epilogue (the moral of the story is . . .). Show the continuing consequences of a decision, the sentencing of the villain after the case is won in the final chapter, the wedding, the birth of a child, or the brighter future world created by the results of the ending of your story.

–Most of all, question its very existence. Is the story stronger with it or without it?

What are some of your favorite epilogues in books you’ve read? What books have you read that made you wish for an epilogue?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, April 26, 2007 2:05 am

    Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted and Fairest both make reasonable use of their epilogues.

    Though, somehow, they seem to carry more weight/significance than I expect of an ep.

    It’s a wrap-up, but instead of a quick sketch, it is an oil painting.

    Like

  2. Thursday, April 26, 2007 8:05 am

    Argh…I’ve got an epilogue on Drums…you’ll have to let me know if you think it works. LOL

    Like

  3. Thursday, April 26, 2007 12:28 pm

    You know I can’t think of a SINGLE book I love that has an epilogue…or a prologue for that matter.

    I think the prologue is a bit more frowned upon than the epilogue. The only books that I can remember reading epilogues for are Romance books. And they always gave me that ‘extra’ happily-ever-after feeling. The story definitely could have ended without the epilogue.

    In early stories I used to always write epilogues, but I’ve since grown out of them…I’ve come to see them more as a crutch rather than a necessary piece of the puzzle.

    Like

  4. Thursday, April 26, 2007 12:49 pm

    I never considered whether or not I liked the epilogue. I read it if it’s there. I do like the feeling of a story being completely wrapped up, without anything dangling in the wind for me to imagine. I think I don’t want to have to imagine it because what if I do it wrong? What if I imagine it differently than it’s supposed to be? Kind of sounds paranoid, but there you have it.

    Like

  5. sariona griffin permalink
    Tuesday, September 4, 2007 8:08 pm

    I LOVE THIS WEBSITE!!!
    YA’LL JUST NEED TO SHOW EXAMPLES OF AN EPILOGUE! TO HELP ME OUT IN MY CLASS THAT I AM TAKING RIGHT NOW!

    Like

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  2. Writer-Talk Wednesday: Beginnings, Middles, and Endings | #amwriting #2017WritingGoals | KayeDacus.com

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