Epilogues and prologues are the bookends of novels, often a flashback at the beginning (prologue) and glance into the future or a quick summary at the end (epilogue).
Though they’re used in films and TV shows too, in this article we’ll be focusing on the role of epilogues in books. We’ll be discussing what they are, how to write them, what to include, and whether they are even needed in your story.
In order to discuss the last few pages of your story, we must start at the beginning…
What Is The Epilogue Of A Book?
‘Epilogue’ comes from the Greek epilogos, which means “conclusion word.” Along with prologues, chapters, sections, and POV headings, epilogues are a useful way for the reader to place themselves in the right context. These structural novel features make the plot clear for the reader, which is especially helpful if a book goes back and forth in time.
An epilogue is always at the end of a novel – a separate, yet essential, part of a novel’s main plot. It almost always features a time jump (sometimes a few days later, sometimes decades later), shows the reader where the characters end up, and may resolve any unanswered questions. If the book is part of a series, the epilogue often links to the sequel and may foreshadow things to come.
Epilogues sometimes intentionally leave the reader feeling on edge, as they may hint that the conflict of the book hasn’t truly been dealt with, and in crime fiction/thrillers this may mean that the murderer has escaped, and the protagonist is no longer safe.
In classic literature (think Shakespeare and Grecian works) epilogues tie together the main lessons of the story with a clear and cohesive moral, and often feature a marriage or the birth of a child. Whether they help the book end neatly and provide closure, or make you want to read the next one, epilogues influence the reader’s perception of the book and what they take away from it.
One important thing to note is that an epilogue is not the same as an afterword. The two are often confused because they both appear after the main body of the book. An epilogue acts as the final chapter and is part of the larger story. Whereas the afterword details the inspiration for a book, how it came to be, and promotes the writer and their other works. It isn’t part of the story itself. Afterwords are used in fiction, but they’re more common in non-fiction, especially in newly revised editions published a while after their initial release.
Pros And Cons Of Epilogues
Like prologues (found at the beginning of a book), epilogues evoke much discussion regarding their usefulness and purpose. So, what’s great about them? And what are their limitations?
Here’s a handy pro/con list to help you find out more:
One of the main ways in which epilogues are great, is that they provide writers with an opportunity to highlight a character’s growth and development. Readers become invested in well-written characters and are eager to know of their fates. Epilogues are a nice way to reassure readers that characters are safe or provide greater insight into an ambiguous ending. This doesn’t necessarily mean that an epilogue should show your character’s happily-ever-after, but if your book has a particularly tense finale, a calmer epilogue provides the reader with a cathartic release. Epilogues may also resolve a character’s personal story arc by showing that they are as content several years down the line as they were at the novel’s initial closing.
As aforementioned, epilogues can also hint at future events which will appear in a sequel, which is a nice way to tie a series together. Especially if an epilogue is included in book one, as this hints to the reader that there will be more to follow, and that this won’t be the last they see of the characters they’ve become attached to. Epilogues may simply hint at this next instalment, or they could feature a major plot twist or cliffhanger, leaving the reader desperate to know what happens next. But plot twists must be applied with care, utilising the concealed clues placed throughout the main book, or the reader will feel baited and tricked.
Additionally, a good epilogue will give readers one final thing to contemplate. Maybe it acknowledges one of the key themes but from a different perspective due to a shift in point of view or time, suggesting that the lessons the characters learned weren’t as clear cut as they initially thought. It’s important to be consistent with the tone and pacing of the book, so as not to pull so far away from it that it seems like the start of an entirely new book. Think of the epilogue as a nice bonus included in the novel. But it still needs to do something slightly different from the main body of the book, otherwise it’s not adding anything of value to the story. Ultimately, you want the reader to feel satisfied after reading the epilogue, not confused, so be careful not to overcomplicate it.
If you’re still struggling to think of a good epilogue, think of what Marvel do at the end of the credits of every one of their movies. It may only be for a minute or two, but they love to show us all tantalising clips of what’s to come in future movies and it serves as a great hook!
Like everything, epilogues in books have their upsides and downsides. One such downside, is that sometimes epilogues underestimate the reader’s intellect. Some people think that the use of an epilogue suggests that a writer doesn’t trust their readership or the strength of their narrative, and thus, are using the epilogue to lay things out explicitly. If an epilogue over-emphasises the key themes of a novel, this can feel patronising. Readers are more than capable of inference, so if you’re writing an epilogue, it’s important to hint and not explicate your book on the reader’s behalf.
Sometimes epilogues include a plot twist which is implemented to hint at a sequel. When used in this way, epilogues can sometimes be disingenuous to the main body of your story, or overwhelm the reader with too much new information. You want to intrigue and excite your reader without making the epilogue intrusive and unnatural, as it could overshadow the main part of the book. Any plot twists used should make sense and be plausible given the context of the rest of the narrative.
The greatest limitation of epilogues is simply that not all books need an epilogue. Often, the enticing open ending of a book is most powerful when left as it is, or the story ends on a high note which needs no additions. The last chapter or section of a book should be strong and compelling enough to tie the story together and bring things to a natural conclusion without any further elaboration or embellishment. That being said, epilogues can be great if they are done well and complete the story by adding something meaningful to it.
Examples Of Epilogues
Epilogues can vary greatly in terms of tone, content, and what they aim to achieve. So it can be helpful to look at a few epilogue examples to see how they work. As epilogues are somewhat divisive, these examples have mixed reactions among their readership, so evaluate them yourself and see what you think.
The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood
This epilogue is told from the perspective of an historian, and set 200 years after the main story. The historian finds June’s collection of tapes detailing her experience as ’Offred’, and discusses them at a conference with his colleagues. The epilogue is set after the main narrative and from a different point of view, which means that the emphasis of the key themes resonates without being too explicit and overbearing as they are applied in a different context. It invites the reader to contemplate how these themes fit into their own lives and dwell on the repercussions of the novel’s events. June’s disappearance and the details of her live after the main story’s conclusion are left open ended, allowing the reader to imagine different endings for her.
Neapolitan Novels: The Story Of The Lost Child By Elena Ferrante
In the epilogue of The Story Of The Lost Child Elena receives the dolls that belonged to herself and her childhood friend Lila that they thought they had lost as children. This is a bittersweet ending, as their friendship became more complicated over time. This epilogue ties in the themes of friendship and love which are key to the book. It is also cyclical, as the two girls play with the same dolls at the beginning of the first novel in the series. It’s a hopeful addition to the book, and prompts the reader to contemplate their own childhood, friendships, and once treasured items.
Jane Eyre By Charlotte Bronte
The epilogue of Jane Eyre is well known and is frequently discussed by scholars. Some consider it too saccharine and discordant in relation to Jane’s experiences and values in the main parts of the novel, while others view it as a woman’s reclamation of her own joy and desires. After Rochester’s house has burned down, he is left blind and disfigured. When he and Jane reunite, Jane feels that, due to the death of his estranged wife, they can now marry without her putting her morals into question, and so they wed. Jane is now financially independent due to the money she inherited, and it is now Rochester who depends on her. She now has the stability and peace she has always wanted, and the power balance between them is more even (and perhaps tilted slightly in her favour). This epilogue highlights Jane’s growth as a character and shows the reader that she is content. And it also echoes the book’s themes of morality and independence (or the lack of it).
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay By Suzanne Collins
In the concluding book of The Hunger Games series lies a much-debated epilogue. Time has passed, and Katniss and Peeta are still together and have children. This reassures the reader that the characters they care about are well and happy, while also emphasising the themes of power and privilege. The trauma from what the pair endured lingers, and the reader is subtly invited to reflect upon history and the long-lasting effects of horrific events.
Bel Canto By Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto has an epilogue which raises more questions than answers, which is a common occurrence among epilogues. The marriage between Roxane and Gen is unexpected, and many feel that it is an odd way to conclude the story. Their exact reasons for marrying are somewhat unclear, and this ambiguous ending prompts the reader to question all that came before and ponder upon each of the character’s intentions. It serves as a reminder that nothing is ever truly clear cut.
How To Write An Epilogue
Now you know what an epilogue is, it’s time to learn how to write one.
What Is The Purpose Of An Epilogue?
When you’re trying to decide whether to write an epilogue, this is the first question you should ask yourself. If there’s nothing interesting an epilogue would add to your writing, you don’t need one. Consider the purpose of your epilogue. It may be that you have a sequel which you want to link to, that there’s a way you can elaborate on the book’s main themes, or that you want to reassure your reader of your protagonist’s wellbeing in the future. An epilogue should benefit the reader in some way. Don’t be tempted to add an epilogue if you don’t have anything more to say, as it will dilute your overall message. If you think an epilogue would be the right fit for your book, then read on.
Tips For Writing An Epilogue
Here are our best tips for writing an epilogue which perfectly complements your book:
- Set it in the future. Whether it’s a few weeks later or several decades later, it’s best to set your epilogue in the future so that the reader can get an idea of the aftermath of the concluding events of the novel. This passing of time means that you can return to your story without things being stagnant and find slightly different areas of interest to explore.
- Reveal information which was previously withheld from the reader. Perhaps one of the characters was involved in one of the climatic events of the novel but the reader didn’t know about it. Present a wider picture of the situation to deepen your reader’s understanding of the book.
- Create a new narrative for an upcoming sequel (if applicable). If your book is one of many, you may want to include some new information which both adds intricacy to this book, and seamlessly leads it into the next one. This will both help you set up the sequel and leave the reader full of intrigue.
- Highlight your protagonist’s progress/development. Readers become attached to the main characters of a book and like to know more about their fates. As time will have passed from the book’s ending to the epilogue, this is an opportunity to give your readers some closure and indicate that the protagonist was able to overcome their strife and is somewhat content. This is especially useful if you ended the main body of the book shortly after a big fight scene or moment of tension, as it provides the reader with a cathartic release.
- Provide a point of view which isn’t featured in the main narrative. If there’s a side character who you enjoyed writing about, it may be that you write the epilogue from their point of view. This adds a different perspective, and can give the reader some insight into events which the protagonist wasn’t directly involved in.
- Implicitly reference the themes of the main novel. This one can be a little difficult to get right. Make sure that the references to themes are subtle, and included in a new way, so that the reader is still engaged and doesn’t feel as though they are being told things which they can easily be implied.
Deciding whether to include an epilogue in your book can be difficult. Epilogues are particularly useful if you’re writing a series, as they form a kind of liminal space between books. If your book is a standalone, and you’re uncertain, then it’s probably best to strengthen the ending of your novel and go without an epilogue. Hopefully, this article will help you make the best choice for you and your book.
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