Here’s an easy question to tell if your nonfiction book needs an epilogue or afterword:
1. Do you have anything left to say?
If the answer is yes, congratulations. You can write an epilogue.
If the answer is no, you should not write an epilogue.
An epilogue should be short. For nonfiction, keep it to one or two pages. You can use it to do the things we discussed last week for milking the ending, to provide additional resources, or just to restate the purpose of your book.
Do not use an epilogue to repeat everything from the last chapter of your book.
Do not use an epilogue to bloviate. About anything.
Do not use an epilogue to promote your next book. You can definitely do this kind of self-promotion, but label it “Excerpt from [Insert Next Book’s Title].” The epilogue should relate to the book the reader just read.
Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be on your way to drafting a useful and succinct epilogue.
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
So you’ve finished your book, and your characters are walking off into the sunset.
Do you need an epilogue?
In my opinion, any epilogue worth writing must fulfill two criteria, or it’s a waste of page space.
1. It leaves the reader feeling more of the emotion you left them with at the end of the last chapter.
2. It provides the reader with more information about the characters/story/setting than they had before.
Let’s unpack this.
The last chapter of your book will leave your reader in a particular mood. Thoughtful, happy, depressed, liberated, inspired, whatever, your book will put your reader into a particular frame of mind.
Your epilogue needs to enhance that frame of mind, not change it. If you want to leave your reader with a different frame of mind, write another chapter. The epilogue should follow naturally from the last chapter and serve to build more of the same feeling, like a final dash of salt on an otherwise perfect meal.
I’ll give you an example.
I love the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. She is a better writer than I will ever be, and I respect her immensely.
I hate the epilogue to the seventh book.
The last chapter of the book left me feeling a mix of emotions. Sad for the loss of the characters who died, thrilled by the successful resolution to the plot, and deeply contemplative about the nature of life and destiny. It was a thought-provoking resolution that was positive, but a touch sad, much like the series as a whole.
The epilogue came straight out of a romantic comedy. Everybody married their high school sweethearts, had tons of babies, and sent them off to school to form their own romances.
Goodness gracious, what happened to the mature, think-about-your-life feel of the real ending? Why are we suddenly off in happy la-la land talking about who’s in love with who? Did we really need to show that the romances worked out? I think we can decipher that for ourselves.
The reason this epilogue didn’t work, in my opinion, is because it threw a completely new set of emotional parameters at the readers. It forced us to switch gears in our brains and abandon the feelings we’d had from the book as a whole in order to go along with the new paradigm. We did it, because we loved these characters and wanted to read the entirety of their story, but it felt a little weird and didn’t seem to fit.
So if you’re going to write an epilogue, stick to the same vein as the regular ending to your book. Build on what you’ve already constructed.
The second criteria is that a worthwhile epilogue must provide the reader more information about the characters, story, or setting. This seems kind of obvious since that’s a rule of thumb for all writing, but for some reason we tend to forget about it when it comes to epilogues.
Your epilogue should not be a poetic waxation on the nature of life or some other theme in your book. Even if you do that really, really well and it enhances the feeling you left in the last chapter, that’s not why the reader read your book. If you’re going to keep talking, you need to talk about the story.
You don’t have to drop earth-shattering information or reveal major character backstory (in fact, that’s a bad idea), but the reader should leave the epilogue feeling as if they understand something about the book a little better. Maybe it’s a bit of motivation. Maybe it’s a bit of what happens to the protagonist later in life. Maybe it’s a bit of political fallout from the book’s storyline. Whatever it is, it needs to be there.
These two guidelines will help you write an epilogue that is useful and interesting, and that actually belongs as an epilogue.
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling