Writing

Writing 101: What Is an Epilogue?

Written by MasterClass

Feb 15, 2019 • 5 min read

Have you ever come to the end of a novel and thought there was something missing? A firmer resolution, perhaps, or a final thought to tie everything together? This is the purpose of an epilogue. An epilogue always comes at the end of a story but is separate from the final chapter. When done well, an epilogue can have a big impact on readers, providing a sense of closure in a way that a final chapter sometimes cannot, or does not, do.

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What Is an Epilogue?

In fiction writing, an epilogue is a literary device that functions as a supplemental, but separate, part of the main story. It is often used to reveal the fates of the characters in a story and wrap up any loose ends. An epilogue is always set at some point in the future, after the main events of the story have taken place. Sometimes, particularly in genre fiction, it is also used to hint at the next installment in a series of works.

What Is the Definition of Epilogue?

The word epilogue comes from the Greek epilogos, which means “conclusion word.” It always comes at the end of a literary work and is therefore the opposite of a prologue, which always comes at the beginning.

What Is an Epilogue in Literature?

As with the prologue, the epilogue originated with Greek playwrights and poets. It served both as a summary of the play’s moral lessons, as well as a wrap up of the characters’ fates. The tradition continued to Elizabethan times.

A well-known epilogue from this time is from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599). In the final scenes, Rosalind breaks character and tells the audience she is going to deliver the play’s epilogue. This was an old trick of Shakespeare’s—he often used epilogues in his plays to remind the audience that what they had just witnessed was a make-believe world and that it was time for everyone to get back to reality.

In modern literature, epilogues are sometimes used in crime fiction and horror novels and stories to hint that whatever evil plagued the main characters in the book—an evil the audience thought vanquished—is actually still out there somewhere.

What Does a Good Epilogue Do?

The necessity of an epilogue is the subject of much debate. The general advice is to only use it if you absolutely have to—in other words, don’t use it in place of a solid and satisfying ending. As with a prologue, the epilogue should only contain information that is absolutely vital to the main story. Furthermore, it should supplement a reader’s understanding of what has transpired and provide a strong resolution.

  1. Adds to the development of character by telling readers what happened to them after the story has ended. If you’ve written a compelling story, readers will be invested in your characters and their fates. An epilogue is a nice way to let your readers know what happened to your characters after the story has ended—particularly if the end of the book is ambiguous in any way. It can also be a chance for you to show how the events of the entire story impacted the characters—the lessons they learned, and how they have grown.
  2. Sets up the possibility of a sequel. If you’re planning a sequel or series of novels, an epilogue is a nice way to let readers know they haven’t heard the last of these characters. Some epilogues simply hint at the next installment; others can actually introduce a twist or cliffhanger to make readers instantly crave the next part of the story. However, cliffhangers are tricky to set up. They can’t simply come out of nowhere. A good cliffhanger epilogue will nod to things that readers already know about and have possibly even seen coming.
  3. Reiterates the importance of what the story is trying to say. An epilogue can be a good way to remind readers of the central themes and lessons of your story. Since an epilogue is its own standalone short section, you can play around with the structure to highlight some of the things you want readers to take away with them.

5 Examples of Famous Epilogues

1. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2009)

“The questions are just beginning. The arenas have been completely destroyed, the memorials built, there are no more Hunger Games. But they teach about them at school, and the girl knows we played a role in them. The boy will know in a few years. How can I tell them about that world without frightening them to death?”

Here, the epilogue plays a few roles. First, it lets readers know that the heroine of the novels, Katniss, is doing well. A few years have passed. She has children of her own. Secondly, it reminds readers of the novel’s central themes. While Katniss is fine, the trauma of her experience has been hard to process. She is struggling to be a good mother, and how to pass on to her children the legacy of a world they will never understand.

2. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)

This epilogue is a good example of how writers can use the literary device to release tension. The book’s frenetic end is countered here with an epilogue that soothes readers with the information that Ishmael has survived the wreck, and is collected by a passing ship. The fact that he survived by clinging to a floating coffin is an elegant touch.

3. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Atwood uses this epilogue to remind her readers of the book’s moral lessons. The epilogue is set 200 years after the story and takes place at a conference of university academics. The man speaking, a historian, reveals he has found Offred’s story, a collection of oral tapes, and has transcribed them into a document known as “The Handmaid’s Tale.” He also reveals he was unsure of how to fact-check Offred’s story, dropping a bombshell on readers who have become invested in Offred and the world of Gilead.

Atwood has said that although she has had some complaints over the years (about the ending), she believes that the open-endedness of June’s disappearance is true to history and how someone in her position would be able to disappear from the official record if she wanted.

4. George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

In his epilogue, Orwell talks about the situation at Manor Farm after many years have passed, describing the fate of the characters who participated in the revolution. But it is this line passage which is most chilling:

“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

5. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

Perhaps the most-read epilogue in modern literature, the final book in the Harry Potter series provides readers with a tidy end to a thrilling ride. Set 19 years after the events of the final book, readers get a glimpse of Harry Potter and his friends as adults—with children of their own. The epilogue serves as both a treat to readers who have stuck with Harry throughout his journey as well as a reassurance that his suffering was not in vain and that indeed, all is well.