Appearing at the very end of a novel, an effective epilogue can leave a lasting impression on your audience.
Written in similar fashion to the prologue, this short section is situated directly after the final chapter. Writers typically employ an epilogue for a variety of reasons, ranging from a narrative resolution to a detour or continuation of the story.
An epilogue can take many forms, remaining in the same narrative style as the rest of the novel or in the form of a letter, speech, a single character’s revelation... Anything goes.
If you've finally reached the stage of writing your novel where an epilogue is under consideration, then congratulations! You're almost at the finish line.
But before you sit down to construct an epilogue, it is vital that you consider its purpose and determine whether this section is needed – or whether it should be left out.
Below is a guide to where, when and why you should and should not add an epilogue at the end of your novel.
When to use an epilogue
To release tension and create context
The end of a novel is often a rollercoaster ride of emotion. An explosive ending can be offset by the addition of a more relaxed, even 'calming' epilogue.
Once the villain has been caught, the main protagonist has succeeded and the nerve-wracking, nail-biting climax has occurred, you can now explore the events that take place after the dust settles.
This does not mean, however, that all epilogues should be happy-go-lucky – just that an epilogue can be written in a less tension- or action-focused tone and style.
As a reward to your reader, this approach serves to ease the tension generated through the main story, and generate a positive reaction as they reach the very end of the novel.
This is particularly pertinent in the case of crime, thriller, war, adventure and fantasy novels, in which the narrative typically culminates in a whirlwind of tense action and conflict.
Your epilogue can also serve as a chance to give greater context to the events that have just taken place, attaching a more significant meaning to all that has come before.
To further character development
Each character you introduce comes equipped with their own distinctive place within the narrative.
Throughout your novel, only so much character development can take place. There is not always the time or space to explain every action or the underlying motivation behind their behaviour.
Therein lies the perfect opportunity to subtly expand upon your character or characters with the use of an epilogue.
Whether you seek to explore a character's reaction to the story's final events, or follow up on them in the future, it's a great way to leave readers with a lasting impression.
This could be achieved through a first-person recount, a character speaking to another character, or a snapshot of a moment in time.
A well-known example is the epilogue of the final Harry Potter novel. Set 19 years in the future, this epilogue satisfies the reader’s curiosity about what was to come for their beloved young wizards and witches.
To set up a series
One of the most popular motivations behind the epilogue is its ability to continue or create new storylines within a the world of a series.
Widespread throughout both literature and film, this technique can be applied to lay the core groundwork for your next novel.
A captivating epilogue will spark a reader's curiosity and leave them eagerly awaiting more – which is exactly what you want when you're writing a series!
While you might think this only applies to novels in the action, adventure and fantasy genres, it can actually be utilised in practically any genre.
As long as it's written with the purpose of continuing, expanding or creating a new storyline in your narrative world, you will be well on your way to the foundation of a long-running series.
An effective way to achieve this is to include an occurrence that lies outside of the logical path of the first novel, yet still relates to one or more of its characters – just enough to create a new mystery or problem.
When to avoid an epilogue
When it offers unnecessary details
A trap many writers fall into is the epilogue that seeks to explain every detail of the narrative, without considering one of the fundamental elements of the storytelling dynamic: a reader’s imagination.
Stimulating the reader’s imagination enough to allow them to create their own unique mental picture is vital. An overly detail-driven and explanatory epilogue can potentially ruin this process and impede the reader's enjoyment.
Remember that not every single detail requires explanation. Sometimes nuance is equally important!
If there are details that do not seem to fit the flow of the main narrative, they may be warranted in an epilogue. However, if this is the only reason to include an epilogue, you may be better off finding another way to incorporate them.
It may also be tempting to show off exactly how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. But this can also hinder the reader’s ability to analyse, interpret and revel in their own understanding of the story.
Remember that readers enjoy the process of determining their own perspective on a story and its meaning.
When its purpose is to fill a plot hole
By the time you finally reach the end of your novel, not every plot point may be airtight.
At this point it can become tempting to fill any remaining plot holes with a retrospective epilogue in an attempt to add what's required for readers to make sense of the story.
While a little explanation can be effective and appreciated by the reader, the primary goal should not be to make sense of everything all in one fell swoop.
Perhaps the motivation of a character has been unclear throughout.
Rather than providing an all-encompassing explanation within the epilogue, consider adding key information earlier in the story, even if it's subtle. Then allow the reader to form the connection.
If you know in your gut that something does not make sense, or an editor or beta reader has raised the very same issue, attack the heart of the problem rather than adding an unnecessary epilogue.
When it's only for smoke and mirrors
Another reason you may consider the inclusion of an epilogue is an attempt to compensate for an unsatisfactory ending.
While crafting the perfect ending to your story is certainly a very difficult task, an epilogue will not atone for a lacklustre or convoluted finish.
If your idea for an epilogue does not match one of the categories listed above, it may be worth revisiting and reworking your actual ending.
Whether it's the story's main ending or the epilogue, the final impression you leave on your audience is the one that lasts longest.
Unfortunately, no matter how engaging your novel has been from the outset, a subpar ending can undo all the good work you have put in to that point.
Revisiting your story to refine the ending can have a multitude of benefits, so before you begin to compensate through epilogue, ensure you've made your ending the best it can be!
Epilogue or no epilogue? The ultimate decision is up to you, but be sure to take the above aspects into consideration.
Remember that an epilogue should make sense within the context of your novel or the world you have created. It should serve further character development and/or relieve the tension of the final chapter.
On the opposing side, an epilogue should not simply be added because you feel the need to. In fact, if it's full of unnecessary detail or a means to fill plot holes, it could detract from the excellent story you have created.
If you're on the fence, write the epilogue, seek feedback about how it fits in with the overall novel, and then make the ultimate call to include or remove.