Once upon a time there was an author who wrote an amazing story. The author was very pleased with his story, except that the ending didn’t quite give the audience all the information they wanted. He completed the story, and wrapped up the plot, but the audience wanted more. They wanted to know what happened to the characters after the final scene. Did they live happily ever after? Did they die in a fiery ball of white-hot misery? The author thought and thought about what to do. He didn’t have enough interest in continuing with a sequel, but the readers really, really wanted to know what happened AFTER THE END. So, to appease them, the author wrote a short aside at the end of the main story, and he called it THE EPILOGUE.
Who knows how the epilogue actually came to be (though I very much assume it went much like we’ve described above), but the point is that epilogues, like prologues, can be effective tools when used appropriately. Stories that leave the audience wanting more are great, unless you don’t plan on writing another novel to do it. Authors who plan to continue the story with more books in the series also find an epilogue can provide that bait to hook the reader and reel them into the rest of the series. At that point, your choice truly comes down to the “to epilogue or not to epilogue” question. Many stand-alone authors avoid epilogues, as they plan their endings with great panache and don’t want the reader to read on past the brilliance of the ending they’ve constructed to a possibly less exciting bit after. But some authors also believe that a good epilogue can provide the reader with a sense of completeness that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Writers should ask themselves the following questions when trying to decide whether or not to include an epilogue:
- Does the epilogue release tension that you built through the rest of the story, giving the reader a soft landing?
- Does your epilogue provide a set up for another story in this world? Does it set you up for a series (if that’s what you want to do with it?)
- Does the epilogue develop a character even further? Does it provide insight into a character that readers want/need?
- Is it just a ploy to cover up a weak ending or provide a Deus ex machina to get your characters out of a sticky corner you painted them into?
- Does it tie up every single loose end you left in the entire story? (That’s boring and ultimately useless in the long run, especially if you’re planning a series. Some loose ends can be addressed in subsequent books.)
- Is your epilogue simply extraneous details that the reader doesn’t need or want, providing an anticlimactic info-dump at the end of your book?
Writers should ponder these questions and examine how the epilogue adds to, or detracts from, their overall story. With planning and precise execution, an epilogue can be just the thing readers need to get them to come back for more. As with a prologue, writers should use the epilogue as a tool in their toolbox.