August 1, 2012 by jcfarnham
Even after all these years my partner is still reeling over Jo Rowling’s epilogue to the Harry Potter franchise. You may be thinking “Now come on Jc, that stuff’s old hat” and yes it is, but seriously. Think about it. If it were a successful epilogue would you necessarily remember it so clearly after all these years?
Now, there’s no shame in admitting that all through out the publishing schedule of the Potter books I was part of her target audience. I grew up with those books and could probably attribute half my love of the fantasy genre to Rowling (with the other half going to Tolkien and Lewis, naturally) – so I’m bound to feel a bit more strongly about it than those who where either too old or too young. First there was the middle grade era, then there was the YA era. Potter didn’t exactly shy away from its fair share of “hopping targets”.
I don’t want to make this entire post about the infamous Harry Potter epilogue, but I do want to use it as a jumping off point on the epilogue as a legitimate writing technique.
What are they good for?
To me, a epilogue suggests a section in a book intended to close out a novel. Yet this instantly brings an important question to mind. What kind of ending truly warrants an entire chapter after the book is over? The most common reason writers cite for including prologues, to use a comparison, is that they needed to include something that “couldn’t possibly” be part of the novel proper. While that’s almost certainly the wrong way to go about it, perhaps presenting a framing device, or introducing a theme is what they mean to do.
Should an epilogue work like this, as the “opposite book end” then? Closing a book in the same way that a prologue might open it? This is probably the better use for an epilogue (concluding themes, closing framing devices, and “much, much mooooore!”)
The boffins at Wikipedia state; “An epilogue is a final chapter at the end of a story that often serves to reveal the fates of the characters. Some epilogues may feature scenes only tangentially related to the subject of the story. They can be used to hint at a sequel or wrap up all the loose ends. They can occur at a significant period of time after the main plot has ended. In some cases, the epilogue has been used to allow the main character a chance to ‘speak freely.’ “
The bit that caught my eye about that definition however is “final chapter”. My biggest criticism of both epilogue and prologue is that often I don’t see them present anything that couldn’t have be said within the story itself.
What works (or “Why Potter‘s didn’t?“)
The Potter epilogue is, or should have been, the quintessential epilogue by the wiki definition. It occurs “a significant period of time after the main plot has ended”, it even “serves to reveal the fates of the characters”. It should have worked. To be honest with you I think it did it’s best for one reason. How on Earth does one end a series of that magnitude and satisfy everyone?
Well, my partner’s quibble was how damned cheesy it was. This to me translates into it did everything the fans expected it to and cliche. I’ll translate that futher if you didn’t catch my meaning the first time. It gave us nothing that couldn’t have been inferred. We expected a happily ever after. We expected certain characters to get together (probably even expected children from them… you know who you are 😉 ). We know all that stuff already. I suppose the only new information it presented us with was the names of their children (I’ll assume nearly every one on the planet has at least seen the movie by now… if not had the series thoroughly spoiled for them. So no spoiler tag needed)
From this and the stock definition, I think we can infer what makes a good epilogue. If it absolutely must be a “what happened next” epilogue then needs to present truly new information–something we don’t know, or couldn’t know, and not anything that tacks a happy ending onto a deeper more poignant one.
“Billy fell down a well and was paralysed from the neck down, but still finds time to volunteer at the local homeless shelter”.
Let us call it added value; something that isn’t required reading to understand the story, but something that gives a bit more, goes beyond the call of duty, so to speak.
What would really wow me with an epilogue is well-placed thematic closure. I’m a sucker for a good theme. A tangential short story perhaps that gives us the moral (to use an oversimplification). Then again this is what I’d enjoy in a good prologue as well. George R. R. Martin’s prologue to A Game of Thrones hit the spot. I have yet to read much further into the series, but I’m almost certain that what now seems to be tangential and frankly unnecessary will become very important in the conclusion. It may promise something it has yet to be fulfilled, sure, but if you dig deeper…
Anyway, that’s enough of my thoughts.
Too long, didn’t read? A good example of an epilogue can work miracles, but a bad example can often ruin a good thing. Sometimes we don’t even need to know if the protagonist recovers from his wound. He accomplished what he set out to do, closed the plot… why trivialise such sacrifice? If you are thinking, in any sense of the word, about using prologues and epilogues I want you to think long and hard about it, before you write it. Why do you think it’s necessary? Does it add what would be missing with out? If you’re not sure try and step back from the novel view the “whole forest”, rather than “a few trees”.