Note: As previously stated elsewhere, this series came about because it was noted, from various comments and observations, principally in social media discussions, there appears to be a lot of confusion about the differences between some elements of book front and back matter. The confusion primarily related to prefaces and prologues however, some comments etc. imply the confusion also extends to other elements. Epilogues are one.
‘A concluding section that rounds out the design of a literary work.’ (Merriam-Webster)
‘Short concluding section of a book etc.’ (Oxford English Dictionary)
‘A speech or piece of text that is added to the end of a play or book, often giving a short statement about what happens to the characters after the play or book finishes.’ (Cambridge Dictionary)
‘A section or speech at the end of a book or play that serves as a comment or a conclusion to what has happened.’ (Unknown)
The primary aim for an epilogue is to bring closure to a tale where it could not be meaningfully achieved within the main text or alternatively to show what happened after the story has concluded. There are those who will say, if relevant to the story, such information should always be included in the main text. However, this is not always practicable and can lead to the overall, concluding effect of the read being diminished. The following are some suggestions of what could be included in an epilogue:
- Provide rounded end: Though the ending to a tale may be appropriate and as it should be, it sometimes leaves the reader with unresolved issues and questions. Not providing a resolution or an answer can occasionally spoil the ultimate impact and effect and deter the reader from choosing another book by the same author.
- Clarify discovery process: This may apply to how a protagonist reached conclusions that resolve a situation or how a detective determined who the culprit is, etc. For example, though interesting, many of the Poirot stories do not really require his detailed explanations at the end. His resume is in effect an epilogue. On initial inspection it may appear odd not to automatically include such information within a tale but, as already pointed out, it might not be necessary for the satisfactory conclusion of a story.
- Outline Culprit’s end: Again not always necessary to know but may provide a satisfying conclusion for the reader e.g. whether the culprit is punished or escapes through some error, loophole or mitigating circumstance.
- Complete protagonist’s story: Throughout most stories the protagonist will have faced challenges. How the events have impacted their emotional and phycological development may be outlined here. For example, have they overcome: a fear; self-doubt; a blockage; or have they grown in some way; or found success in their employment; etc. It may not always be appropriate or relevant to include such details within the body of the book.
- Tie up loose ends: All major issues should have been resolved within the main book however, it is possible other, less important ones, remain outstanding. These may not require clarification or resolution to end the story but it would provide reader satisfaction to do so.
- Defuse tension: Where the tale is one of excitement and action and it has been appropriate to end on such a note, the reader may feel left midair and exhausted. It would be wrong to spoil the book by inserting something nebulous at the end. Nevertheless, in care for their readers, authors may wish to help them steadily come down from their high. Adding some subsequent results, as suggested elsewhere in this list, may help.
- Continue the tale: This is where the book is part of a series or where a further book, even though it may be a standalone, continues the protagonist’s or family’s story or comprises historic accounts of related events.
Naturally, the above is by no means exhaustive. The intention has been to simply provide a framework of principles which will hopefully assist authors determine whether their tale requires an epilogue and if so what to put in it.
Bearing in mind an epilogue, in principle, is simply a clarifying addition to a book, there are some points an author should take into account before rushing to write it:
- Conciseness: Having hopefully enjoyed their read, that should have ended satisfactorily, readers do not wish to be presented with a further lengthy section to wade through.
- Unnecessary resolutions: Not all issues need resolving to complete a story. In fact, in some instances it may detract from the reader’s satisfaction to do so. After all in life not all situations find resolution.
- Reader imagination: Throughout the author should be doing their best to engage reader imaginations by hinting at or ‘showing’ events and situations but at the same time, and in unison, they should avoid blocking it by describing everything in minute detail. The best books engage reader imagination in some way. It should be no different for an epilogue.
- Value: Content must add something to the reader’s understanding of: the tale; the characters; the story’s world (real or imagined).
- Not an ending: An epilogue should never be utilised for the end of the tale. Only a lazy author would do that. The story should, rather must, reach a satisfactory conclusion within the main text. As explained above, an epilogue is simply a clarifying and/or defining addition.
Of course, yet again, this is by no means an all encompassing, comprehensive list. The aim is to help authors understand the principle requirements when it comes to writing an epilogue.
Reminder: An epilogue should only be included when there is truly something of value to add. Authors should never add one just for its own sake or because they think it will look good.
Authors should also be note, many readers admit to skipping front and back book matter. Another reason to ensure there is nothing vital to the story included in either.
‘Afterword’ is sometimes used as a synonym for epilogue and many readers accept it as simply an alternative term. However, it turns out some consider their purpose to be very different to that of an epilogue. These people tend to define the differences as:
Epilogue – Ties up loose ends and resolves situations. Fits what has been shared above.
Afterword – Outlines: how a book came into being; the inspiration; the author’s writing journey; etc. They also state it may be written by either the author or a third party. Many would argue with these premises because they consider much of the suggested content belongs in a preface. There is no intent to try and resolve the argument here but it is worth noting, even where a preface exists, afterwords can have their place.
Epilogues are very much out of fashion in modern publication, along with prologues and prefaces. This is especially true in the independent author realm. Nevertheless, authors should not abandon the concepts all together. All three may have their place and may, if correctly utilised, enhance the book and reader experience.
With each, epilogues in the current discussion, there are principles authors should take into account both as to content and constraints.
As stated at the beginning, this article is the third in a short series. In fact it is the last. However, it should be pointed out there are other sections an author may, and probably should, consider for inclusion in the front and/or back matter of their books: About the Author (Short biography of the author.); Also by the Author (Other books and published works.); Dedication (Where desired and not included elsewhere.); Copyright Statement (A legal requirement if the author wishes to protect their rights.); Social Media Connections (Website, Blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc.); An Appendix (Where there are technical issues that need explaining.).