Awhile ago, I talked about prologues, so let’s spend some time on epilogues, too!
I’m rarely a fan of prologues, but I usually don’t mind epilogues. In fact, the discussion around epilogues is small and rarely fiery (unlike prologues).
Epilogues can add a nice bit of closure for something the main resolution didn’t get to, or a glimpse into our protagonist’s life (or a side character’s life) after the story ends. They can even hint at the next story to come.
But do you really need an epilogue?
No. No you don’t. Unless you do. It’s a complicated business.
Function of an epilogue
According to the dictionary, an epilogue is:
“a section or speech at the end of a book or play that serves as a comment on or a conclusion to what has happened.”
Epilogues, like the prologue, take us back to the grand stage when, after the conclusion of the main story, someone would come out on stage and help the audience process what they’d just seen.
Epilogues are like that conversation you have with your friends after you see a movie except you don’t get to do any talking and it may or may not have anything relevant to say. Except an epilogue should offer new information, as well. All the questions have been answered, the plot is resolved, and the epilogue comes in with a little bit of value at the end.
But…the epilogue is not essential. If your story doesn’t close properly without the epilogue, that’s a last chapter, not an epilogue.
The favorite epilogue I can remember reading recently is the one from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. The author uses the prologue and epilogues to frame the story (it’s so meta, a frame around a frame story framing the actual story). There are lots of examples of other epilogues that people enjoyed.
And, of course, everyone knows the (in)famous Harry Potter epilogue.
Let’s look at a movie example to draw the distinction between resolution and epilogue.
Consider two Disney movies: The Lion King and Frozen.
The Lion King (Epilogue)
In The Lion King, we have that epic scene after Scar is defeated where Simba walks up Pride Rock and roars his triumph to the world, accepting his role as king and taking back the Pride Lands. You could say the subsequent scene, where Simba and his family present the new cub (bringing us full circle), is an epilogue. You could end the movie without that last scene and you would pretty much know that the Pride Lands will be okay and everything will be fine.
You can see both scenes here.
Frozen (No Epilogue)
In Frozen (Do I have to put a spoiler alert here? Who HASN’T seen this that would also still like to?), we almost have the same situation. There’s the whole scene on the ice/boat where Elsa realizes, for the first time EVER, that channeling love melts her ice (because I guess she never really felt love and accidentally melted something, putting 2 and 2 together). But THEN, after we have the satisfying punching of Hans into the water, we get a few closing scenes that serve to wrap up the rest of the story. Even though you could probably infer from Elsa’s sudden melting ability that everything will be okay and you could probably say that Anna punching Hans means he’s done for, I would argue that the question of whether or not the kingdom accepts Elsa for who she is has not been answered.
This scene on the boat is not the end.
This is the end. All questions have been answered and we’re ready to leave the story behind (or are we??? And no, this wasn’t just an excuse to add some more Frozen to my life (as I write this with a Frozen blanket on my lap and a “Let It Go” mug full of tea)).
Epilogues in My Work
I have not considered putting an epilogue in my work as far as I can recall. I’m working on the second draft of what I hope to be my debut novel now and, depending on which ending I use, there may be call for an epilogue. But, I’ve always figured that, if the story is meant to continue, I’ll get to write another book in that series. Otherwise, I prefer to wrap everything up in the story proper.
Writing exercise: Imagine the resolution to your current WIP (or a past WIP if your current work doesn’t have a defined resolution) and consider the epilogue for it. Would you have to take pieces out of the existing resolution or write new material? If your resolution can go without certain loops being closed, does that mean you actually should do an epilogue instead of bogging down the end of your story with unnecessary details? Let us know in the comments!