The epilogue is a literary device almost as old as written storytelling itself. Publishing service Reedsy defines the epilogue as "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."
From the Greek classics to Harry Potter, authors have used epilogues to follow up on characters after the dramatic climax of the story. In a romance, the epilogue may show the two protagonists living happily ever after. A thriller epilogue may show the protagonist healing from almost mortal wounds and uniting with a love interest.
The epilogue is not the end of the story. It is an addition after your dramatic climax and then the conclusion. The epilogue comes after your story is resolved.
When to Use an Epilogue
You can use an epilogue in your novel strategically if you remember to stay with the story you just told. Don't go off the deep end introducing new characters and situations. The epilogue should bring a feeling of completion and satisfaction to the reader.
PRO TIP: Do not introduce new characters in the epilogue. Stay within the story.
When your reader has an emotional connection with your character because you’ve written a great story, they want to know how the character eventually fares. Show them the emotional impact the events in the story have on the character. Reveal how the story events impacted the character – a final personal revelation, a healing over time, or, conversely, an emotional wound. Reveal the character’s destiny within the scope of the story.
Set Up (or Continue) a Series
Use an epilogue to lead readers toward the next book in your series. You’ll need finesse to make this epilogue work. Focus on raising questions rather than creating a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger can make readers feel cheated – “Wait! This isn’t the whole story!” Instead, use your epilogue to create questions about what happens next in your character’s life. And make that a twist. Something unexpected and new in the protagonist’s life.
The series epilogue takes pre-planning. Set up the characters and/or events that lead to this twist early in the story so it feels to the reader like part of the story, not a tacked-on piece. Weave tiny bits into the overall structure. The epilogue can be as simple as creating questions about the protagonist’s relationship with another character.
All’s well that ends well. An epilogue for a high-impact story conclusion gives the reader a soft landing. The excitement is over. The villain got her just desserts. Invite your reader into your hero’s world in an aftermath of restoration and calm. No need to make it Happily Ever After, just a visit with the protagonist changed in their new everyday world.
How Not To Use an Epilogue
When the story is over, it’s over. Not every story needs an epilogue. As an author, discernment is your guideline for creating an epilogue. Avoid epilogues that detract from the story. If you are considering adding an epilogue to your story, here are cautions on what to avoid.
Cover Up a Weak Ending
An epilogue is not a tool to make up for a weak ending by adding more material. Instead of writing an epilogue to explain the ending, go back into your story and rewrite. Make the climax dramatic and bring story resolution in the conclusion. If you still think you need an epilogue, look at the choices above.
Tie Up Every Single Thread
Readers us their imagination to live with your characters. Give your reader the freedom of their imagination to let the characters live on after the story ends. You don’t need to use an epilogue to tell readers what happened to the mousy librarian who appears once in Chapter 3. Let your readers imagine.
Extraneous Anticlimactic Details
The story is over. Don’t use the epilogue to add details about characters after the story has ended. Use the rule of thumb about adding to the story. Readers don’t need details from your character background work about how they are living five years from now. Details like these leave the reader with an unsatisfied feeling on ending the book. Let the story be. It should come to a natural conclusion so your readers enjoy a sense of completion at the end.
The Epilogue Choice is Yours
The main guideline to use when deciding whether to use an epilogue is the satisfaction your readers will feel. Review the pros and cons. Before you decide, re-read the last quarter of your book to make sure your climax is strong and your conclusion is a satisfied-reader win.
Author Jami Gold nails the fiber of the epilogue.
True epilogues usually include a time jump or a significant change of tone, circumstances, point of view, etc., and they’re titled as “Epilogue” to prepare readers for that jump. Many (if not most) stories don’t require that shift.
In the end, the choice is up to you. Climax, resolution, denouement, and epilogue... or not.
However you end your story, use ProWritingAid for the crucial next step of refining your written words.