How to Write an Epilogue - And Should Your Novel Have One?
Have you ever gotten to the end of your draft and felt as if there was something missing— or that the story wasn’t quite complete? If so, you might consider writing an epilogue for your book!
What is an epilogue? It’s an extra scene set in the future of the story world after the main events of the plot have come to a close. Epilogues are used to tie up loose ends, follow up with characters that readers have grown to care about, provide closure, or sometimes to drop a tantalizing cliffhanger, which can be especially useful to set up a sequel.
Do stories need epilogues in order to wrap up? No! Like prologues, epilogues are not a necessary part of a book. However, many authors feel that epilogues enrich their audience’s experiences with the story and characters and leave their readers satisfied.
If you are wondering whether or not an epilogue is the right way for you to finish your novel, read on for some tips that will help you write the perfect ending!
Set your epilogue in the future
Epilogues typically take place after the story has already ended. Adding this space between the ending of the main narrative and the information provided in the epilogue allows you to show more deeply how the events of the story impacted the characters or give necessary context to the narrative by showing its place within the story’s world.
Take, for example, the epilogue in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is titled Historical Notes, and begins:
Being a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held as part of the International Historical Association Convention, which took place at the University of Denay, Nunavit, on June 25, 2195.
Readers know instantly that this epilogue is set 200 years in the future, after the events of the narrative and that the dystopia of Gilead no longer exists. The epilogue plays with the reader’s expectations of dystopian fiction— while we may imagine Gilead as our own world’s dystopian future, the “historical notes” force us to examine the story and our own time period as if they were occurring in the distant past.
Use your epilogue to give readers closure— or not
In Mockingjay, the epilogue Suzanne Collins writes allows us to see Katniss living a peaceful life, with Peeta and their children, in a world free of the Capitol’s corruption. However, the epilogue suggests that Katniss is still struggling with the trauma of what she’s gone through:
The questions are just beginning. The arenas have been completely destroyed, the memorials built, and there are no more Hunger Games. But they teach about them at school, and the girl knows we played a role in them. The boy will know in a few years. How can I tell them about that world without frightening them to death?
While it may be satisfying for the readers to see Katniss and Peeta alive, together, and raising a family in a more peaceful world, it would be unrealistic to expect Katniss to be living “happily ever after” after the events of the series. Collins offers a bittersweet note to the ending of her Hunger Games trilogy by showing us that while Katniss may have survived, she is forever changed by what she endured.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood leaves Offred’s fate unresolved, leaving the reader to speculate what may have happened to her once she escaped. The fictional historians who are discussing her narrative in the epilogue go so far as to point out that they aren’t even able to verify the story’s accuracy or the identity of the characters. The epilogue serves as a framing device that challenges the entire novel we just read, leaving us as readers to decide which story carries more weight. Do we believe the male historians’ academic analysis over Offred’s firsthand account? In this way, not giving the reader closure creates a more impactful ending.
Consider your audience’s expectations
Because your epilogue is going to be the last thing your audience reads, you want to make sure it leaves a fitting and memorable emotional impact. What do you want readers to feel as they shut your book? Intrigued? Devastated? Heartened? What message are you hoping they’ll walk away with—that good always wins? That truth isn’t black and white? Whatever the answer, be mindful of this final impression that will either enrich or tarnish your readers’ experience, especially if you’re trying to tease another book in the series!
If you’re thinking about including an epilogue because it’s a common trope in your genre, and therefore something you know your readers will value, then give your readers what they want! For example, romance readers often enjoy seeing how the lovely couple turns out. Do they get married? Buy a house? Start a family? If you know that this “after shot” of your characters’ relationship is going to delight your audience, then by all means, don’t hesitate to write that heartwarming, extra scene showing a happily ever after!
Keep it concise
If your epilogue starts turning into pages upon pages of new material, you may need to take another look at your story structure. Why is there still so much that needs to be said? Could you revise this material into the actual book? Or maybe you have the beginnings of a sequel?
Remember that your story should already be complete without the epilogue. When done right, your post-credits scene will delight readers who want to see where your characters end up, or what kind of adventure awaits them in the next book.
Think of it this way: your book should already make your readers feel as if they’ve eaten a satisfying meal, but the epilogue is a delightful midnight snack they weren’t expecting!
Should you write an epilogue?
If you’re writing a series, it can be helpful to reveal new information at the end of your novel that teases a continuation of the story. Perhaps you can broadcast the fact that the antagonist actually survived their fight with the hero—or that another villain took their place! For many authors who write series, epilogues are a great tool for generating intrigue, making them a staple of the genre.
If, however, your book is a standalone story, and you are satisfied with the ending, don’t feel pressured to include an epilogue, as writing one may only take away from your ending’s power. Remember, epilogues are not essential!
Sometimes authors are tempted to include an epilogue because they feel as if there’s something they still need to reveal or reiterate at the end of their book. If you’re in this boat, consider the fact that this sense of incompleteness may be a sign that the message or plot of your main story needs to be strengthened throughout the rest of the book. Once that is done, if you still feel the need to tack on a final scene, it’s probably safe to say that your story would benefit from an epilogue!
In short, if you think your book may need an epilogue, ask yourself the following questions:
- Will this epilogue add something that I can’t write into the story itself?
- Is this the most impactful way to end my book?
- Is a snapshot, or “after picture” of my characters a common expectation of my genre?
- Is teasing the next book in the series something only an epilogue can achieve?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then adding an epilogue to your story may be a good idea!
There are so many possibilities when it comes to epilogues, and so many ways to get yours just right. If you’re curious about how other authors are creating effective postscripts that strengthen their endings, go read some examples—then get out there and give your readers an enticing extra scene that will make your ending unforgettable!