8 Tips for Writing Your Story's Epilogue
Chapter 6 “Plot Points” – Section 12 “Epilogue”
“A true epilogue is removed from the story in time or space. That's the reason it is called an 'Epilogue'; the label serves to alert the reader that the story itself is over, but we are going to now see a distant result or consequence of that story.”
The most basic element of a story are the efforts of a protagonist to reach a goal, to fight the antagonistic forces that prevents him/her from reaching that goal, and to either achieve it or fail. By the end of the Climax, it should be clear whether your hero achieved what they needed to achieve. Once the Climax has concluded, the story is over. All that is left is the Epilogue—that plot-point that shows your audience the results of all that happened within the story. Here is your chance to see the effects that the efforts of your characters had on their world, their friends, their loved ones, and their own lives.
Tip 1: Know your three main options for an epilogue.
There are three key types of epilogue available for you to use: the short epilogue, the full epilogue, and the non-epilogue. Many brilliant stories have a very short epilogue. Star Wars – A New Hope concludes with Luke's destruction of the Death Star. We then see an epilogue where Luke, Han, and Chewy are given medals by the Rebel Alliance for their heroism. This short little scene give the audience a sense of satisfaction at the hero's efforts being recognized, and signifies a brief reprieve before the next conflict with the Empire. This short epilogue style says a lot and give the audience a feeling of closure, without spelling out the future and setting it in stone, which is perfect if you are planning a sequel. Other stories have very extensive Epilogues—going into detail as to what happened in the extended life of each and every character. We see this in stories like Stand By Me, where the narrator talks about the unfortunate fates of his friends in their later lives. This style can make the story and the entire experience seem more concluded and complete for the audience. The final option is the non-epilogue; remember that the story truly does end with the climax and that an epilogue should only be added if it contributes reflectively to the story, or serves some specific purpose. If it does not, then there is nothing wrong with ending the story at the Climax, particularly if you only have a single protagonist who has died. Using the non-epilogue will serve to strengthen the emotions felt at the very end by not providing any sort of catharsis, and creates an ending that may be fully interpreted and thought through by the audience as they speculate on what would have happened after. Even should you choose this final option, I do recommend writing an epilogue anyways, as you will never know for certain if your story would benefit from an Epilogue until you write one and run it past a test reader.
Tip 2: Establish the new norm for your world and characters.
When you begin a story, the world you create will have a sense of balance that is unique to the characters within. Then, in Act I, the balance of your world is lost and your protagonist is pushed by this unbalance to go on their quest for that which they desire or need. Once they reach that goal or fail, the world of your story should gain some new level of balance. Of course, if you are planning for sequels, the balance will not be regained completely but there should be a sense that the forward momentum propelling the protagonist has come to a rest like the rapids of a river that have opened to a gentle current. This resting point is important because it creates a new place of balance for the story, a new norm that the audience will see and subconsciously compare to the original balance in order to gain perspective of the scope of the journey and how much it changed the protagonist. For a sequel, this creates a balance from which the story can later be launched into a full new adventure. In A New Hope, we see Luke in his new balanced state as a hero to the rebel alliance and we are impressed that he has reached this place from his original balance as a lowly farm-boy. However, the balance still leaves room for Luke to begin a new adventure in The Empire Strikes Back—driven by new goals and a new momentum. Within your own story, make sure that your Epilogue gives the audience a sense of the new state of balance.
Tip 3: Answer the dire questions of 'what happened after' for your characters.
Especially in children's literature, young adult literature, and any novel with several volumes or where the audience becomes especially attached to the characters it becomes vital to show what happens to them after the story has ended. In these cases, your characters become more than that to your audience; they become friends, family, and people that your readers have genuinely fallen in love with as if they were physically embodied. As such, your audience will want to know what happened to their friends, particularly regarding the questions and issues that were important in their lives. Will the characters who loved one another but were kept apart by difficulty ever be together? Did the character who struggled with hatred for his family find forgiveness and make amends? Find those integral questions and core elements in each of your characters' lives and address them. Think of this as a final farewell between the readers and the characters that they fell in love with—and understand the depth of emotional importance in this event.
Tip 4: Consider the concept of catharsis.
In providing a farewell between the reader and the characters, as well as in the ending a Tragedy, it is critical to remember the role of catharsis. Catharsis is a feeling created by the story—usually in the Epilogue—when the raw emotions of the Climax and earlier plot-points of the story are given closure and the audience has a moment to breathe and process their emotions from a safe place in the story. We see Shakespeare accomplish this in “Romeo and Juliet” with a funeral scene, where the antagonists learned the error of their ways, giving the readers a way to mourn the loss of the heroes and to begin processing their own sense of loss from the character's death. In the Climax of Return of the Jedi, we feel sadness when Vader gives his life to save that of his son. In the Epilogue, where the story features celebration for the victory against the Empire and the appearance of Vader's ghost who has achieved inner peace and oneness with the Force, we get a chance to process our sadness and view the tragedy through the context of all the good that has been achieved. Now, some writers will argue that catharsis lessens the ability of a story to invoke an emotional reaction in readers that will cause them to act (as in literature with a political or social agenda). Opponents to this strategy would counter with the question of ethics—whether it is right to emotionally manipulate a reader like that (even for a good cause, like ending racism). Those are questions that you must answer for yourself and your particular story.
Tip 5: Remember that less is more.
In the epilogue, do not feel that you need to give each and every exact detail as to the characters' lives after the story is over. Not only would any possible explanation of an entire life be an oversimplification and very likely a boring segment, but giving exact detail will also make their future seem like much less than the audience expected. By nature, your audience will already have a mental picture of what happened to the heroes after the end of the story—a projection of their own desires, emotions, and fantasies. And this is a good thing. Create an epilogue with some concrete details, but allow for a future with the potential for those reader expectations to occur, unless you have a very specific reason for not doing so.
Tip 6: Avoid “happily ever after.”
Often readers will claim to want a perfect happily-ever-after, where everything turns out perfectly for the characters; however, there is a deep problem with such an ending. Deep down inside, we know that the idea of living happily forever is a lie; and to assert that such a thing occurs for your characters at end, will cheapen your story by stripping it from its foot in the reality your audience knows to be true. However, that is not to say that there is anything wrong with a realistically happy ending—like in Harry Potter. In the end of that series, many of Harry's loved ones are still dead, and it's obvious that there are still problems in the world, but Harry is realistically happy, married, with kids, and still in close contact with his remaining friends. A beautiful example of a realistically happy ending can be found in the final chapter of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book:
“There was a passport in his bag, money in his pocket. There was a smile dancing on his lips, although it was a wary smile, for the world is a bigger place than a little graveyard on a hill; and there would be dangers in it and mysteries, new friends to make, old friends to rediscover, mistakes to be made and many paths to be walked before he would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the Lady on the broad back of her great gray stallion. But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.”
Tip 7: Put the Story down and don't look at it for a good long time.
Once you have finished writing your Epilogue, the novel is complete! You did it; you have completed an entire novel. And though there is much left to do, that is a significant milestone. Now, the first thing that some writers might be tempted to do is to immediately begin the editing process. But if you have ever written an essay and tried to correct it immediately after, you will have discovered that you miss a lot of errors that you would have caught if you had slept on it; and trust me that is is much more difficult to edit something so large and so much more personal yo you than an essay. It is important that after the conclusion—while there is such an emotional attachment between you and the story—that you work on a separate novel in order to gain the emotional distance you need for later objective editing. This is, however, the perfect time to pass your story on to your Writing Partner.
Tip 8: Celebrate.
Writing a draft, even a first one, is a cause for celebration. Completing drafts is one of the most important steps for a writer—as there is such a great temptation to leave things unfinished and merely begin a new project when we get bored or discouraged. But you cannot become a writer by giving up on your stories—and so when you achieve this momentous accomplishment, go out and celebrate. Know that you have accomplished something wonderful—no matter how bad the draft—and completed the most difficult task in being a writer. Way to go!
Recommended Reading: The Graveyard Book (This novel is a quick and pleasant read. But, as with the example shown above, the epilogue truly shines as an example of how to give concrete details that allow room for the imaginations of your readers. Furthermore, it has the attribute of feeling like an ending while also feeling like a beginning place for the rest of the primary protagonist's life, and is neither a downer ending nor a happily ever after.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 6.12
Write your story's Second Turning Point, following the steps above. Click here to submit it to the gallery.
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For example, if the sequel involves the character finding a person that they are looking for, should the epilogue show the characters finding a map to that person?
The situation is that the only two people left in the group hate each other. Meaning, they pretty much LOATHE each other. And I really can't see them ever forgiving the other for what they both had done. (Both of what each of them had done resulted in a death of a loved one)
I hope this cleared everything up a little.