What is an Epilogue — and How To Write One Readers Won't Forget
The epilogue comes after the story has ended and acts as a finishing touch. It’s one of those literary devices whose necessity is often debated — along with its predecessor, the prologue. If you write a strong ending to a story, should there really be anything left to say? Well, like a good digestif, an epilogue can serve as a satisfying close to a story — one that gives you a moment to reflect on everything you just consumed. It shouldn’t replace dessert the ending of the novel, but merely provide a grace note for the story to close on.
To help you decide if your story needs an epilogue and, if so, how to write a strong one, we’ve asked our editors to give us their top epilogue advice. But first, let’s make sure we’re all clear on what an epilogue really is...
- What is an epilogue?
- When to use an epilogue
- How to write an epilogue: tips from our editors
- Infographic: Checklist for writing a strong epilogue
What is an epilogue?
Classic Greek and Elizabethan plays often included epilogues to explain the later fates of the characters. An actor would step forward and speak directly to the audience, offering commentary on the story and dispensing morals, if any were to be found in the tale.
Since then, the epilogue has naturally evolved. Today, this kind of wrap-up is very rarely used in novels. It's seen as "spoon-feeding" the reader and it implies a lack of trust — either between the novelist and the reader, or between the writer and their own ending.
Before we get to tips on how a contemporary novel should utilize an epilogue, let’s quickly discuss the difference between the epilogue and the afterword — both elements that can appear at the end of a book’s body matter.
- An epilogue ties up loose ends that require resolving and which could not be tidied up within the actual story itself.
- An afterword addresses how the book came to be, the inspiration for the story, the journey of its development, etc. Sometimes it’s written by the author, and sometimes it’s written by a public figure with some connection to the story or subject matter.
When to use an epilogue
A story’s vital questions and loose ends should be resolved during the ending of a story, not an epilogue. That being said, an epilogue shouldn’t be superfluous; it should contain information that offers readers a more well-rounded grasp of the story.
An epilogue can also offer readers a firmer sense of resolution, emphasize character development, and allow the author to choose what note to end the story on. Lastly, it can also be a vehicle by which the author can tie up loose ends (whatever happened that librarian who disappeared in chapter 12?).
Now onto tips from our editors on how to write an effective epilogue.
How to write an epilogue: tips from our editors
Freelance editor Lisa Howard suggests that most epilogues can be grouped into two categories: those that ends on a note of resolution and those that don’t. “While not the most common of literary devices, some authors make excellent use of epilogues to either leave us at peace or wondering what still might be out there.” This can also depend on your genre — for instance, romance novels demand a firm “Happily Ever After.”
They key is to not go overboard: don’t answer everything but also don’t leave a gaping hole at the end of your book. Read on for tips from our editors on striking that right balance.
Do write an epilogue that…
Contributes to character development
If protagonists are well-written, readers will invest in them. And if readers invest in your characters, they want to know that they’re okay in the end. Or even if they’re not okay in the end, we just want to understand their fate within the scope of the story.
Epilogues often do this by providing a later glimpse into the characters’ lives. However, a powerful epilogue won't just tell us where the characters are working ten years later, and whether they got married in the end, it should also show us how the story has impacted that character and the resulting development they’ve gone through.
Recommended read: The final installment of the Hunger Games series features an epilogue that reveals how the following years have affected Katniss. It shows that while time heals wounds, sometimes they heal very slowly and in a non-linear manner. While we see that Katniss still struggles with persistent terror that her life is about to be upheaved, the epilogue ends on a hopeful note that suggests she will continue to heal.
Sets up a series
After the climax, the falling action, and the denouement have come and gone, authors will sometimes add an epilogue that provides a little nudge-nudge, wink-wink towards upcoming events in the characters’ lives — letting us know there is more to come. This kind of epilogue is a great way to keep readers on the hook for a series, and will often involve a gasp-inducing plot twist. However, heed the warning of freelance editor Allister Thompson, and “don’t get carried away with your cliffhangers.”
The trick to setting up a sequel with an plot-twisting epilogue is to sow the seeds earlier. You need to weave enough information into the body of the story so that when the cliffhanger appears, readers have a foundation upon which they can speculate in anticipation of the next novel. If your cliffhanger arrives totally out of left-field, with absolutely zero lead-up or foreshadowing, it’s more likely to leave people wondering what on earth they just read as opposed to wanting to read more.
Recommended read: By the end of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the central mystery has been firmly tied up and squared away. In the epilogue, the relationship between the protagonists, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, is pointedly left on an unresolved, hanging note — and this lingering question about the future of their relationship propels us towards book two.
Releases the tension
If the ending of your story is especially suspenseful, an epilogue that alludes to the aftermath of these events can give readers a satisfying break in tension — especially, as editor Lourdes Venard advises, “if the characters have faced dangers or an upheaval to their life.” This doesn’t mean you have to wrap the story up with a Happily Ever After bow — just give the reader a chance to let go of the breath they were holding during your high-stakes finale.
Recommended read: The chaotic end of Moby Dick involves the long-awaited encounter of Captain Ahab and the whale, and the sinking of a ship, to boot! In the epilogue, Ishmael survives by floating on a coffin, and he reminds us that it is this providential yet ironic buoy that has allowed him to carry on the story we are currently reading.
Gives one last — subtle! — nod to the theme of the novel
This is a tricky one. You don’t want to hit your readers over the head with your novel’s theme. However, sometimes an epilogue can provide one last perspective on your novel’s theme, whether that be from another time, setting, or point of view. Be careful not to break the tone or pacing of the novel too much or the epilogue will end up sounding like the intro of a new story rather than the closing of the current one. Just give your readers one final note to chew on.
Recommended read: The epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale is a transcript of a symposium recorded 200 years after the story has ended, which is being held to discuss the story of Offred — the protagonist and narrator. It frames the fictional events of the novel into a discussion of moral relativism and ends with the line, “Are there any questions?” — turning the end of the epilogue into an invitation for discussion.
Don’t write an epilogue that…
Compensates for a weak ending
Your epilogue can have many purposes: it can tie something up, hint at a sequel, or provide additional development a theme or character. But it should not take the place of your story’s ending or supplement a weak denouement. Just think of the word epilogue itself to remember this point, advises Oxford University Press editor, Hannah Hirst-Dunton: “The prefix 'epi-' means 'added' or 'next to,' and text labelled as an epilogue should definitely bear that in mind!”
Leaves nothing to the imagination
“The End” is a closing line that might work in fairytales, but in a full-length novel, putting such a firm note of finality on your story can be an unpleasant break in the fourth wall. The best sense a writer can give a reader at the end of a book is that the story lives on — that the characters and their lives are so rich, you can’t help but imagine what paths they take after the last page is finished. So don’t use an epilogue to to tie a knot on every single thread of your story; leave a few loose so that we can come back to them and continue to imagine where they lead later.
Provides extraneous details
We like the way Allister Thompson puts it: “If there’s nothing else to say, don’t be tempted to say it!” Perhaps another way to put it is that if there’s nothing important to say, don’t say it. Sure, you could go on explaining where your characters are 10 years into the future, but if this doesn’t significantly contribute to the reader’s understanding of the story, characters, or their world — leave it be. Tacking an epilogue onto an already substantial ending can set your readers up for an anticlimactic letdown.
Infographic: Checklist for writing a strong epilogue
Is there anything more satisfying than checking off a little box? Remember our editors tips for crafting a well-written epilogue with this handy checklist!
Whether you’re writing a “Happily Ever After” or a “to be continued…” epilogue, just be sure to go forward with confidence. If you doubt its necessity, it’s a strong sign it doesn’t need to be there. Either way, don’t overwrite, trust your readers, and you’ll surely have them sighing when they flip the final page and remember that “parting is such sweet sorrow.”
What are some of your favorite epilogues? How do you feel they contributed to your understanding or enjoyment of the story? Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!