Epilogues are similar in fashion to prologues – the closing scene to the story’s opening scene. As with prologues, you are not necessarily going to employ an epilogue. Often, what new writers consider an epilogue is merely their last chapter.
So, when do you know that an epilogue is right for you? For me, it is an answer to that feeling of unfinished business. A final tie for those loose ends, or a springboard for an upcoming sequel. More importantly, it is an event that happens well after the story should end. An epilogue saves you a dreary extra chapter full of nothing but your attempt at filler between when the climax happened and when you know the unfinished business happened.
For me, an epilogue is all about cause and effect, and centers on how much story time should pass from “cause” to the final “effect”. If this length of time is great enough to jar the reader, and I can’t come up with anything worth spanning that time in a way the reader would find reasonably entertaining, then it’s time for an epilogue.
In my first book Blade Dancer, I saw no need for an epilogue. The final scene said it all.
In Waiting Weapon, however, the climax (cause) took care of an immediate global threat, but left unfinished both some negotiations and the final disposition of the characters. These things required several months of story time to logically be expected to happen. It would have taken me at least another chapter full of talking heads and little real drama to arrive at a final resolution. Enter an epilogue to tidy things up.
Rogue Dancer, my sequel to Blade Dancer, ended up with a completely satisfactory end scene, however there was no forward movement into the third planned book in the series. Here, where the primary plot was quite finished, the greater story representing the span of the entire series is still very much in motion. This is the “springboard” reason for an epilogue – so one was provided.
Once I have established the need for an epilogue, I follow a loose set of goals:
1. It must be removed in time and/or space from the rest of the story, but be part of it.
2. It is restricted to one scene.
3. It must not be a lot of narrative. Very much showing through dialogue and action.
4. It firmly ties loose ends to leave the reader satisfied.
5. It introduces a scene to intrigue the reader if a sequel is in the works.
Differences from a prologue are few, but important. An epilogue does not have to contain a dramatic scene or “hook” – usually you’re after a warm glow. Sure, you can pull off a “twist” if you want, but such a thing might be more genre-specific. I could see any horror story aiming to leave the reader with anything but a warm glow, for instance.
How far can you extend an epilogue? As far as you want, assuming you are still relating it to a story. A quick scene from the perspective of your main character’s children...or grand children, is quite permissible. Or someone looking up at a monument ages later. It really has to do with what unfinished business you are trying to close. What you want to do is ensure that the actions, dialogue, and thoughts of the characters in this scene adequately cover the jump in time in such a way to keep things connected and believable. What you want to avoid is narrative staring out at the reader such as “Five months passed, and this and that happened.”