Epilogues have been around for a very long time. They were often used by ancient Greek playwrights to round out the story or show the characters years later. In fact, the word comes from the Greek epilogos, meaning “conclusion word.” Although this is a succinct definition, let's explore the question: What is an epilogue? (Hint: It's different from an epigraph.)
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- What an epilogue is
- How to use an epilogue in your book
- Some great examples of epilogues
- How to write an epilogue yourself
Table of contents
- What is an Epilogue?
- Do You Have to Write a Prologue to Have an Epilogue?
- Does an Epilogue Count as a Chapter?
- Can an Epilogue Have a Title?
- Great Epilogue Examples
- How to Write an Epilogue
What is an Epilogue?
An epilogue is a supplemental wrapping-up of the story, a tying up of loose ends after the climax of a literary work.
Epilogues are mainly used in literature, but they’re also used in memoirs on occasion. They're also a common occurrence in film.
In Shakespeare's day, an epilogue was a short poem or speech, but in modern literature, an epilogue is a concluding scene that serves to wrap up the story.
Epilogue vs. Afterword
For many new writers, an epilogue and an afterword are easily confused. An afterword is a reflection of the entire work and how it came to be. An epilogue is part of the narrative, serving as a final ending to the story events.
Characteristics of a Good Epilogue
- An epilogue is generally shorter than any of the chapters of the novel, but this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
- They’re usually set after the climax or the falling action. They're a great place to reflect on the characters' lives in one concluding scene.
- They’re often written from a different point of view, giving an additional take on the story.
- They can also have a slightly different tone from the rest of the narrative.
We've already defined the latin epilogus above, but let's dive a little deeper and look at the main uses for an epilogue. If you do decide to write one, an epilogue should:
- Visit the protagonist(s) down the line to show readers what has become of them.
- Give additional character development, but only after the major character arc has been completed in the main body of the work.
- Set up the sequel, although doing so with a huge cliffhanger is never advised.
- Provide the reader a way to release the tension that has been built up through the climax.
- To tie up minor loose ends and address the reader’s curiosity about the fate of major characters.
If you don’t have at least one of these in your epilogue, along with one of the characteristics from above, you may not need an epilogue to top off your story. But more on that later. First, let’s address a few common epilogue questions.
Do You Have to Write a Prologue to Have an Epilogue?
You do not have to write a prologue to have an epilogue. There are plenty of great pieces of literature that have a prologue and no epilogue, and vice versa. But, you can have both if it works for your story. Ultimately, the use of both an epilogue and a prologue is up to the writer.
Not familiar with all the different parts of a book and what they’re called? Check out this article on the parts of a book!
Does an Epilogue Count as a Chapter?
Technically, the epilogue is counted as a chapter. It shows up in the table of contents (in those books that have them) and, when present, is considered a part of the narrative.
Unlike an afterword, which the reader is free to skip without worry of missing some important factor in the lives of the characters, the epilogue is read as a final ending to the book. The last word, so to speak.
Can an Epilogue Have a Title?
There’s no set rule for epilogues and titles. Some epilogues do have chapter titles (and numbers) while others are defined simply and succinctly as “Epilogue.” Including a title for an epilogue is up to the author.
Great Epilogue Examples
Now let’s take a look at a few epilogues from popular books.
Caution: Spoilers ahead.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The brilliant sci-fi epic by the great author Joe Haldeman includes a great epilogue to tell the reader how the main character, William Mandela, is faring after surviving years of interstellar war with an alien species.
The epilogue is a short passage in the form of a news item that gives the reader a nice little glimpse into the future. It indicates that Mandela has settled down and is starting a family, living a peaceful life on a garden planet, finally free of war.
Leviathan Wakes (Book 1 of The Expanse) by James S.A. Corey
The epilogue of Leviathan Wakes takes place after a disaster has been averted and humanity saved. It is quite a bit longer than that of The Forever War, which works in this case.
The epilogue is written from Fred Johnson’s point of view, whereas the rest of the book alternates between James Holden and Joe Miller. Fred is an important character in the book, but the reader doesn’t get inside his head until the epilogue.
It sets up the next book in the series by reflecting on the continued political struggle between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. It tells the reader that things have calmed down, but hints at more conflict to come. So it's not quite the happy ending common to a standalone novel. But, it's also a great conclusion to a grand adventure.
Other Epilogue Examples
Remember the post-credit scenes at the end of every Marvel film? These could be considered the film equivalent of epilogues. For a wide range of epilogue styles, check out the video below.
Here are some other books with epilogues you may be familiar with:
- Moby Dick, Herman Melville
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
- Animal Farm, George Orwell
How to Write an Epilogue
Before you start writing an epilogue, it’s best to decide if you need one or not. And in order to determine this, you should already have the rest of your book fully written.
To further help you decide, I’ve included a few questions to ask about your book before you start writing your epilogue:
- Are there any (minor) loose ends you need to tie up after the conclusion?
- Are epilogues normal in your genre? (Books with “The End” typically don't have an epilogue.)
- Does it feel like there’s more that needs to be said after the final chapter of your story?
- Do you need to set up a sequel or the next book in the series?
Keep in mind while you're writing that your epilogue has to serve some purpose. If you don’t know what that purpose is, you probably don’t need an epilogue. If you’re not sure, you can ask your beta readers how they felt at the end of the story. If they are wondering about secondary characters or storylines, you may need to write one.
Tips for Writing an Epilogue
Here are a few tips to get you started on writing your epilogue.
- Decide on POV. Who will be the point of view character? What type of POV will you use when writing the epilogue?
- Decide what information you wish to convey. Like the rest of a novel, this is no place for an info dump. Use all your skills as an author to avoid a clunky epilogue.
- Keep it as short as possible.
- Carefully set up the next book. If you’re writing a sequel, the epilogue can be a good place to set up the next book in the series by piquing the audience's curiosity (but not with a big cliffhanger).
If it serves your genre and your story to write an epilogue, then you should. Use your gut feeling as a writer, along with the tips above. Think about them when writing the meat of your story.
An epilogue is a literary device that is well within the bounds of “normal” practices for any writer.