How to Write an Epilogue (and When You Shouldn’t)
What happens after “the end”?
What happens in the shadowy, unexplored region of your protagonist’s life… in the months and years after they’ve endured the greatest challenge they’ll ever face and changed in ways they never expected?
It’s a pretty fun question and one you can easily answer for your reader in the form of an epilogue.
But should you? Or would an epilogue steal your reader’s opportunity to imagine the future for themselves?
What are the upsides of writing an epilogue? And how do you craft one that doesn’t let all the air out of the powerful ending you write for your main story?
If these questions are haunting your dreams—or even if you’re just casually wondering—you’ve come to the right place. We’re about to discuss the heck out of epilogues, including what they are, when you need them, and how to write them well.
Let’s get crackin’.
What is an Epilogue?
An epilogue is a section (usually a single scene) that follows the resolution of the story and gives the reader a glimpse of what happens to the characters in the future. The word epilogue comes from epilogos, which is Greek for “conclusion words.” Go figure.
Like a prologue, an epilogue should enhance the narrative without containing crucial information. While readers tend to embrace epilogues more readily than prologues, there’s always a risk that a portion of your audience will skip your “conclusion words” altogether.
That’s why it’s so important to write a strong final chapter even if you plan to follow it with an epilogue.
Epilogue vs. Final Chapter vs. Afterword
So what makes your epilogue different from your last chapter? And is an epilogue the same as an afterword?
All three of these sections do different jobs.
The final chapter wraps up the main story. More specifically, it’s a fairly immediate conclusion of the primary narrative. Your main character endures a lot of stressful rising action, they make a bold decision that leads to the big climax, the climax leads to an outcome, and it all resolves with your characters setting into their new normal. That’s your final chapter.
The epilogue is like a bonus update that shows your reader what’s going on with your characters months or years after your story’s conclusion. The epilogue is a great place to show how your characters or world have changed because of the events of your story.
An afterword appears at the end of a book, but that’s where its similarity to an epilogue ends. Rather than being part of the story, the afterword is about the novel itself. It might explain how the book came together or offer an interpretation of the story. In many cases, an afterword isn’t even written by the author.
What Does an Epilogue Do for Your Story?
There’s a lot an epilogue can do to enhance your story, such as:
Provide closure - Maybe your main character commits to sobriety at the end of your story. Or you’ve just written the final book in a heart-pounding fantasy trilogy about a rebellion against a tyrannical government.
With an epilogue, you can reassure your readers that everything goes exactly as they hope in the long term. No backsliding, no more oppressive forces.
Answer lingering questions - “Will they get married someday?” “Will he ever see a therapist?” “What will this world look like when it rebuilds?” That kind of thing.
Follow up on major characters - How does your main character’s transformation change their life in the long term? What becomes of the villain? An epilogue can reveal these details.
Tease the next book in a series - For example, while showing what your protagonist’s Happily Ever After looks like, you might drop a hint about her sister’s new dating dilemma.
How Do You Know If You Need an Epilogue?
Will your reader need an epilogue to feel satisfied?
That’s the most important question to ask yourself.
Did you end your story on an ambiguous or vaguely optimistic note? If so, will your target readers enjoy ending the story with unknowns or would they prefer proof that your main characters are going to be okay?
Elements of a Great Epilogue
Let’s say you decide your novel needs an epilogue. What’s it gonna take to make it a good one?
As a general rule, great epilogues include:
- A vision of the characters’ lives in the not-too-near future
- A sense of closure and resolution
- A glimpse of how the characters’ lives are now different specifically because of your story’s events
- Some reflection on your novel’s theme or character arc(s)
You might also choose to include a little foreshadowing if you plan to continue the series and want to drop hints about the sequel’s central conflict.
Above all, keep it brief. You’re not starting a whole new story, just giving the reader a quick look at your characters’ new lives.
How to Write an Epilogue Well
Now that you’ve got the basic picture of what it is, let’s talk about how to write an epilogue successfully. Here are a few quick tips:
Consider Your Genre
If you write romance, you’ll probably want to give your characters an idyllic future. If you write dystopian sci-fi, you might deal your characters a more complicated hand as they move forward.
Stay Consistent, Probably
You usually want to write your epilogue using the same tone, style, and point of view you used for the rest of your novel. Sometimes authors get away with mixing it up, but there has to be a reason. In a bit, we’ll talk about the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which a switch in POV makes a powerful statement about who really controls the narrative.
Give It a Strong Ending
This is the tricky part about adding an epilogue to your novel. You have to write a strong ending twice: once in your final chapter and again in your epilogue. Here’s some good advice for bringing your story to a satisfying conclusion.
Put Yourself in the Reader’s Shoes
What questions will they still have? What do they most want to know about your characters’ future? How do they want to feel when they read the final paragraph and close the book? Let the answers guide your epilogue.
Avoiding Common Pitfalls
Those are the secrets to writing a good epilogue. Now let’s talk about how to avoid writing a bad one. Here are some common epilogue errors to avoid:
Introducing new plot lines - Unless you’re teasing a sequel, there’s no reason to introduce new drama in an epilogue.
Letting it go on too long - Paint a picture of the future for your reader, then move on while everyone’s still riding high on a well-told story. That’s what epilogues are for.
Going to all the effort to write an epilogue and still leaving loose ends - If you don’t resolve your big plot threads in the last chapter and your readers see that there’s an epilogue coming, they will be 99% certain the resolution is in there and 100% frustrated if it’s not.
Famous Epilogues Worth Studying
You know the rule by now. Writers learn best by reading. So let’s take a look at some excellent epilogues and why they work.
If you hate spoilers, maybe skip this section.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The chilling epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale is actually a transcript of a speech in which a male historian discusses Offred’s recorded story, unable to even guess her identity. Even now that her story has been made public, she remains nameless, her experiences minimized and put into “context” by men who control her message.
“As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come, and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
“Are there any questions?”
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
If you want to write an epilogue that offers optimism without pretending the past never happened, I highly recommend studying the final words of The Hunger Games trilogy.
Even as Collins paints a lovely picture of Katniss’s future with her little family, she’s real about the protagonist’s trauma. It’s a hopeful but grounded epilogue that ends with an explanation of how the heroine confronts her PTSD:
“...I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.
“But there are much worse games to play.”
Seven Days in June by Tia Williams
Most romances give you the HEA (Happily Ever After) in the last chapter. This one concludes the main narrative with the hero deciding he needs time alone to work on himself. It’s an ending that feels decisive, appropriate, and devastating.
The epilogue then takes place after a time of separation. They reconnect slowly and cautiously before declaring their eternal love. This accomplishes something that’s tough to pull off: an electric love story that simultaneously celebrates made-for-each-other attraction and individual growth.
“They kissed, and they restarted, right where they stood.”
A Glimpse of Your Own Future
Six months have passed. Everything you learned about epilogues has been marinating in your mind. You’ve planned and plotted a brilliant novel (possibly with a little help from this free ebook and the myriad articles in DabbleU). You’ve almost completed your first draft.
All you have left to do is add the epilogue. You’re ready. You know exactly what you need to do to make it enlightening, engaging, unforgettable, and brief.
Oh! And you’re writing in Dabble.
Or maybe not. Different writers prefer different tools, but if you like all-in-one writing programs that give you a lot of structure while still allowing you to customize the way you plan, plot, draft, and revise, then you should probably check out Dabble.
In fact, try it for free for 14 days! You don’t even have to enter credit card information—just click this link and get immediate access to every single feature.
There's no avoiding it: critical feedback is an essential for becoming a great writer. Here's how to navigate the process with grace, create excellent work as a result, and get through it all with your self-confidence intact.
While it's not for every story, tragic irony can be a great way to mess with both your characters and your readers... in a fun way, of course. Learn all about it in this article.
Sensitivity writers are more prevalent than ever before, and for many authors, they're an essential part of the editing process. But what do they do exactly? And how do you know if you need one? We've got those answers right here.