The Trouble with Epilogues

| Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Today's Tune: Bicycle Race

Obligatory disclaimer: the following is, of course, my personal opinion, and is not intended as a blanket no-room-for-debate statement.

Obligatory disclaimer over'd.

Epilogues are terrible. Or rather, epilogues that focus on telling us that "it all turned out (reasonably) okay sometime in the future" are terrible.

Don't get me wrong. I think sometimes, rarely, there exists an epilogue that serves a real purpose in tying up a narrative and isn't completely awful. But more often than not, particularly at the end of series, I feel like epilogues exist more for the author than they do the audience.

And you know, I can understand that. It's unbelievably difficult to send off characters that you've lived with and loved for the years it takes to finish a series. You want to make sure they're taken care of. That they get their happy (or "happy") ending wrapped up in a neat bow. And I imagine some readers who've also come to love the characters enjoy seeing that everything worked out in the end.

I am not one of those readers. I don't want complete ambiguity after I've invested a lot of time and emotion into a series, but I also don't want to be force-fed the author's idea of a perfect ending. As a reader, I like my endings to be somewhat in my hands. I want to know that things are okay for now, not for always. Knowing that everyone is happy and married with three kids and an awesome job doesn't make me feel warm and fuzzy. It makes me feel like I've been robbed of my "what if."

This is kind of what I mean when I say I feel that epilogues are more for the author than the audience. I'm one of those people who believe that once a book is out there in the world, once it's been read and consumed, it no longer belongs to the author. It belongs to the reader. Their imagination breathes life into it. Which is not to say that the author can't write with a certain intention in mind or that they lose ownership of their own creation, not at all. But once we release it into the wild, we can't control how other people react to it.

Part of letting go of that control is coming to terms with the fact that your characters no longer belong to only you. It doesn't necessarily matter how we think they end up 20 years down the road. What matters is that they live on in the mind of the reader.

This is difficult to balance. I don't think writers are some weird spirit medium that only serve as a conduit for transcribing stories from the void. We make conscious, personal choices when we put words to paper. We're trying to convey a specific scene, a specific emotion, a specific theme. We create worlds.

But in the end, we have to let our worlds go so that others might live in them.


{ anonymeet } at: September 7, 2011 at 8:50 AM said...

Interesting post!

I do think you're right. Sometimes epilogues are about maintaining authorly control so readers know what "really" happened to the characters.

However, the sentimental side of me, the one that gets invested in characters emotionally for many years (see e.g., Harry Potter) sometimes does feel a sense of completion when I know how (the author thinks) it all turned out.

{ We Heart YA } at: September 7, 2011 at 8:53 AM said...

Could not agree more! I have yet to read an epilogue (at least that I can recall) that was necessary or beneficial. And that includes Harry Potter and the Hunger Games.


{ kirstenlopresti } at: September 7, 2011 at 9:23 AM said...

I don't much like epilogues either. I think it has to do with the fact that they're generally done as a summary. Reading a summary, to me, feels like getting yanked out of a fictional dream. Although, sometimes I do wonder what happens to certain characters.

{ Charlotte } at: September 7, 2011 at 9:50 AM said...

I definitely agree. A lot of the time epilogues involve a completely different writing style to the rest of the book as well, so that rather than reading a last chapter, it feels like the author is tagging a Q and A session onto the end. It takes away the feeling of reading a story and I find that even if the ending is the one I wanted, I don't get the satisfaction I expected from it. I can't stand unhappy endings, or endings that don't end, but I'm perfectly happy with a bit of ambiguity after the main events have been wrapped up. So all in all, great post! And KH, those two examples are immediately where my mind went.

{ Shallee } at: September 7, 2011 at 12:12 PM said...

This is something I've thought about lot, because I considered putting an epilogue in my current WIP. Then the epilogue just became the last chapter, because it's not really an epilogue at all. It actually ties together the last threads of the story, and is necessary to the resolution.

I tend to think of epilogues just as you described them, and I'm usually not a fan of them either.

{ Stina Lindenblatt } at: September 7, 2011 at 4:35 PM said...

Even though my WIP has an epilogue (for good reason), I completely agree with you. In a YA novel, I don't care to read about the protagonist twenty years later with her teenage daughter. That kills the moment for me. Sometimes I'm fine with the epilogue, but for the most part I find most books don't need them (like the prologue).

I love the ones by Jenny Hans. But they are short and have an element of mystery to them, to tied you over until the sequel.

{ Matt Larkin } at: September 7, 2011 at 4:47 PM said...

I haven't seen a lot of epilogues that really go out twenty years in the future, but that would likely be tedious. On the other hand, in a long series, I would like to see resolutions of the all the major plot threads and most of the minor ones. And sometimes, unless threads were finished early, this means a bit of wrap up is nice. Whether it's an actual epilogue or simply the last chapter doesn't matter too much.

In all honesty, I think some very long series might need an epilogue.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: September 7, 2011 at 6:02 PM said...

yeah... i agree with the points you make. but for some reason i tend to enjoy epilogues. mostly, because i think they are doing the opposite of wrapping things up. i usually tell myself that the author is setting something up in a tricksy way. like HP. i've still deluded myself into believing that jkrowling was setting up the next series of potterverse novels. i could see a brand new beginning in that ending.

i guess those are the epilogues i like. the ones that are like shredder's hand popping up from the midst of a pile of rubbage or like the little top thingy in inception spinning in the last camera shot.

the epilogues that make you feel really, really uneasy... that ever after is NOT going to be lazy and content. that there is a WHOLE MESS more adventures waiting to unfurl. my imagination really has a hayday after that kind of epilogue. :) but that's just me.

but... i gotta say, though i understand the conclusion that suzanne collins came to in mockingjay, it would probably have been better without the epilogue. (man, it hurts me to admit it, because i love those books soooooo much!) you are TOTALLY right! 20 years in the future they're normal people. blech. save the paper and don't bother writing that.

{ Elanor Lawrence } at: October 3, 2011 at 11:06 AM said...

I completely agree with everything you've said here, but I personally like epilogues (as long as they serve some point to the actual plot, and not just to the utopian happy ending for the characters). I find it's nice when the author gives some idea what's going to happen to the characters, and I find it can give a nice sense of closure. Then again, they can be absolutely terrible and just for the author, like you said. So, I'm kind of torn on the issue,

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