Sunday, May 31, 2009

Epilogues

Epilogues are almost always a sign that you don't think you proved your case.

That's my categorical judgment. What do you all think?

I'm talking about the sort of epilogue that is not a twist (like the ironic epilogue in Indiana Jones, where we see that the Ark that Indy and the Nazis were fighting to the death over is going to lie forever forgotten in some government warehouse) or a poignant bittersweet moment of completion (like in the final Prison Break, where the conspirators all gather, and only Michael is missing, and we realize it's for the dedication of his tombstone, and he has died). I'm talking about an epilogue that is really about reassuring the reader that yes, this couple ended up married and pregnant, so of course they love each other; or the one the detective outed as the murderer is convicted, so see, he must have really done it! That is, it's giving the reassurance that the story question was answered appropriately... however, it indicates that you think the reader NEEDS that reassurance. Why? Because you don't think your actual story events and resolution scene did the job.

Now, see, I think prologues often have their uses, but I think epilogues are seldom necessary (except maybe to provide a final twist), and if the epilogue IS necessary, I would take another look at the final scene before that-- what was insufficient about that, and can that be fixed?

So what do you think? What do you think would be an effective epilogue, and when do you think an epilogue should be extraneous? What works and what doesn't? Have you ever written an epilogue, and why?
Alicia

24 comments:

beth said...

Huh.

Maybe because I read more fantasy, but I hate prologues WAY more than I hate epilogues. Often, I find an epilogue to be a short, harmless way to end the book on a positive note. But prologues drive me crazy (especially in fantasy) because it's always a prophecy, or a child being saved from something (because that child will be the Chosen One), or some other such crap.

Edittorrent said...

But why does the book need a positive note (or any note) tacked on? Why doesn't the book end the right way?

I don't particularly like prologues, and I think they are more often misused than used well, but I can see some plot purposes occasionally. Except for the ironic twist, I'm not sure epilogues should have a plot purpose, and usually they don't.

I love your description of the Chosen One prologue. :) You know, I think I always dislike stories that present a pre-fated destiny, like nothing the child can do will avoid causing this to happen.
Alicia

beth said...

I like the epilogues with the positive note a bit more when it's been a long series, especially one that was very dramatic. Take Harry Potter, for instance. The last book has a super-sticky-sweet happy ending prologue...but I've been with those characters for years, and it was almost a relief that the story had that sense of happy finality.

If it's one book, and especially if it's already a pretty predictable ending (i.e. a stand alone romance novel, where you know the boy will get the girl), then I think the epilogue is worthless, as you say.

But in a longer, dramatic series, it's just a relief!

Redleg said...

I am writing an epilogue that, along with the prologue, serves as a framing device for the story. The epilogue and prologue take place at a high school reunion, about 5 years after the action of the story which is during high school. I always thought it was kind of a clever conceit but recently I've been rethinking it precisely because there is some massive prejudice against epilogues and prologues out in publishing land. I wonder if anyone would object as much though if you just called them the first and last chapter?

Edittorrent said...

That's what I'd do, Red, if I thought that they were necessary but might push the "anti" button. They might seem more integrated too into the story.

But you're right-- a frame story might be a good reason to have an epilogue.
A

JewelTones said...

I've never been a fan of epilogues. I usually have that ending spot for the last chapter and that's it. I'm done. I always have people come back and ask me if I'll add an epilogue and when I ask why (thinking I've missed something or dropped a story thread or left an issue unresolved) they tell me they just want to share more time with the characters and see them "in some point in the future" together, happy, fuzzy, etc. I'm not a fuzzy gal. So usually no epilogue gets added.

I think epilogues might be handy if the characters have both changed so much from who they were in the beginning of the story vs. where they are at the end (new path/direction). An Epilogue might show where they finally ended up, how they've settled into the life, what they're doing with it, how they decided to embrace that new direction/path.

For example, if you have a hero who is a loner and a wanderer and never thought he could settle down and fit in but decides to stick around and marry the heroine, then an epilogue might serve to show a year or so later how that worked out, what he's doing now, how he found "peace" in one place, etc.

This is a funny/timely question because I just had an editor request I add an epilogue to my book because she wanted to see where all the secondary characters ended up and see where the hero and heroine stand "now" that they've embarked down that new path/direction in their lives.

JT

Edittorrent said...

JT, tell the editor that you're glad to sell her a sequel that will go into depth on all that. :)

A

MeganRebekah said...

For me, a lot depends on the genre. If I'm reading a mystery or thriller, I think an epilogue is pointless because the plot should have been wrapped up. In a romance, an epilogue can be cute because it usually fast forwards a couple years and its cute to see the characters in their new lives together (especially because so often the book ends just as they truly get together).

Elizabeth said...

I am so with you. I HATED the Harry Potter epilogue -- in part, because I felt like the implication was that the romantic relationships between the teenagers were validated because they were still together so many years later.

Which
1) I don't agree with -- I don't feel like my own former relationships were unimportant or unreal because we didn't stay together our whole lives! (and ditto, actually, some crucial former friendships), and
2) kind of cheapened the relationships to me for that reason.

Thanks for articulating a complaint I've felt.

Edittorrent said...

Elizabeth, yeah, to me, often epilogues are treacly-- they present a world with all conflict removed.

Then again, a lot of readers do like the "comfort read," where everything is wrapped up and all is well.
A

JewelTones said...

JT, tell the editor that you're glad to sell her a sequel that will go into depth on all that. :)

A
Bwha! *G* Well, she did say she liked the secondary characters a lot. So who knows? Stranger things have happened. *snicker* I'll be happy just to have them want this book. {fingers crossed}

JT

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

(I've been a lurker for weeks, now-- can't remember if I've commented before, hi.)

So what I'm getting here is "don't epilogue it, make it the last chapter."

I have a story that could end with or without (what I've been calling) the epilogue. That is, if this is a "character-based" story, I think it could end slightly unresolved but the husband and wife back together, but if it is an "event-based" story, I need to show the end of the remaining baddie.

///

Mine is fantasy, but the "based on a folktale" type, not the prophesy/destiny type.

Just say that to explain why it would be event-based, and how eliminating someone could be part of setting the world right.

Edittorrent said...

hi, Amy--

Well, you know, there should probably be a denouement or resolution scene after the climax. Usually the external conflict is resolved in the climax, and the internal plot is resolved in the resolution. So maybe the colonists overcome the storm and make landfall in the second-to-last scene, and then the hero and heroine confess their love in the last scene, maybe.

So while I'm open to an epilogue, I just seldom see one that adds anything-- usually it just cheerily insists, "See! It all worked out! The colonist built this village and it's a year later and they're still alive and the heroine is pregnant!"

But the reader usally doesn't need the reassurance-- if the writer has done the job during the book, the reader would have seen that the colonists have learned how to cooperate and innovate during the voyage, and can assume that the colonists aren't going to fall apart after that. And with an internal or romantic plot, if the reader isn't persuaded they're going to be happy, an epilogue insisting on that won't help.

However, as one commenter said, a frame story (the daughter discovers her mother's diary and sits down to read it, and in the last scene, gets up and calls mom and makes peace with her, say) might be a good reason to have an epilogue... but that might just as easily be the last scene.

What I object to is the smiley-face epilogue, whose only purpose is to insist loudly that everyone is happy now! And pregnant! (So often, someone is pregnant in the epilogue, and I want to protest-- as a parent-- that in fact, their troubles are just beginning.)

But as always, as long as the epilogue works, it works. I would just caution that it will not save a book that fails to convince-- so wanting to write an epilogue is a signal that maybe you should go back and make sure that your book works to prove whatever your case is.

Alicia

Gwen said...

I don't think epilogues are always necessary, but sometimes they can be nice. In Bujold's latest Sharing Knife book there is an epilogue that kind of winds up like 'what happens after.' I think that's the best use for them. It's not so much that the book ending was insufficient, it's that there's something more. I think my series might have an epilogue, because I have a character who dies who is evil and I'm going to show the (surprising) thing that happens to him, possibly. But I do agree, most of the time they're unnecessary or silly.

Mystery Robin said...

I see your point, but as a reader I'm always happy when I see an epilogue coming. I think it's because I really like a framed story. I also read a lot of middle grade (b/c I have a middle grader) and I think it's used more there.

I agree with the previous poster that I find prologues more insulting as a reader. I can't stand them!

Genella deGrey said...

Many romance readers love epilogues. They adore hearing about how the H & H are doing. Some books need them, and some don't. I've written ones where the story calls for an epilogue, but not all my stories have one.

The same goes for prologues. I would never throw a book against the wall for the miniscule infraction of a pro or an epi.

:)
G.

Edittorrent said...

Okay, but I say it again: If you feel like you need to add an epilogue to show that everything ends up well, I would suggest that you go back and read your book and ask yourself why you think you and the reader will still have that as an open question. Just because you do or do not like epilogues or prologues actually doesn't obviate my warning-- you should REALLY consider that your actual story didn't make the case, because -- and I know this is annoying-- but I think an epilogue could very well be a message from your subconscious saying, "You didn't bring it home."

Most epilogues I have written and read are in that category-- they demonstrate a subconscious fear that the story can't stand on it own. You are all very welcome to ignore this warning, but I sure don't see the harm in reading your book without the epilogue to ask yourself specifically-- "Do I make my case? Will the reader end with the feeling I want her to end with? What does this epilogue add? And if what it adds is a reassurance that the genre expectation is fulfilled, why doesn't the resolution scene of my book accomplish that?"

As for romance, which I know best, epilogues are quite common in "comfort read" books, where the reader might want some additional reassurance that the world has been restored to order. I find that sort of redundant, but at least it's a justification of sorts. But here's one romance reader who gags when I read yet another treacly epilogue where the pregnant heroine and happy hero are sitting together in utter bliss. Groan. What a way to ruin a good book. :)

Alicia

Gwen said...

I see your point, but what if, for example in my series I have a big overarching plot that spans three books, and a variety of smaller plots and characters. The destinies of the main characters are wound up and sort of understood in the last few scenes, but I have a character who is not a focus, but whose story is important, and he dies. There's not really any way to tie up an afterlife thing within the chapter because I would have to change perspective entirely. I suppose I could just leave it out--he's a bad guy, he just dies. But I feel like his is a tragic story and the epilogue I'm thinking about adds a certain dimension to what I'm trying to say about life/faith/death. I think the story does and will stand entirely on its own, but the epilogue will be bringing one of the main themes (death, specifically what happens after) full circle. I see what you're saying about everything getting wrapped up in the actual chapter, but I feel like epilogues provide the opportunity to tie up things that make a point but don't fit into the main plot. I can't very well stop the action after this character dies to find out what happens to him since it wouldn't interrupt the entire pace of the story. It sounds more like you're opposed to 'and they had 10 babies and lived happily ever after' types of epilogues, so I wonder what you think of this.

Iapetus999 said...

My epilog occurs after a few months to tie up loose ends. It's also a memorial for a main character who died (just like Prison Break). The last we see of our heroes, they're on their way to be saved, but they're not out of danger yet. I think it really just says, "yes reader, there are no more twists, and their plan pretty much worked. But here are a couple small facts that might interest you into looking for the sequel" ;)

Iapetus999 said...

And someone's pregnant.
Dang, I need to read all the comments before replying.

Edittorrent said...

I'll fore-blog this, because it's gotten so long!! And it means Theresa owes me another drink if I do another post. )

Edittorrent said...

So, lapetus, why is it an epilogue rather than just the last scene?
A

Iapetus999 said...

Well I don't call it an Epilogue in the book, but I could write a novel with what happens between the previous scene and the last one, except it doesn't really involve my main characters. It still feels like an epilogue to me. To me, the "last scene" is when the villain is defeated and the heroes prevail. This is just an add-on after everything's been decided. An "everything worked out" bit and maybe a teaser. The previous scene ends on a mixed note, but I wanted to end the book on a note of hope.

Genella deGrey said...

But Alicia, don't you want to know if it was a boy or a girl or a multiple birth?
LOL!!!
;)
G.