You remember Return of the King, don’t you? How Frodo and Sam are laying there on Mount Doom when (SPOILER ALERT) the eagles, Tolkien’s favorite deus ex machina, sweep down from the sky and carry them away to safety, and after Frodo wakes up to have Merry and Pippin jump into bed with him, the screen fades to black only to fade in again? Remember how that happened a couple of times, leaving you feeling like the movie had three or four endings?
Those are epilogues. They’re portions of the story at the end that, to some, may seem vestigial. Could the aforementioned film have ended without these additional bits of story? Probably. Would it have been improved? Absolutely not. Lord of the Rings, in prose or motion, is focused on its characters, and these epilogues expand even further on those characters, showing what becomes of some of them in the aftermath of this epic confrontation.
While a good ending doesn’t always include an epilogue, an epilogue should always be part of a good ending. Chuck gives great advice on endings which I won’t repeat since he said it first & better, but a good epilogue that’s part of a good ending should fit a lot of his criteria: it should be unexpected, satisfying, and leave the audience hungry for more.
Basically when you hit the last line of the last numbered chapter, the feeling the reader should have is to want to keep turning pages, to see what happens next, how people respond to that line of dialog, etc. Turning the page to find it full of more delicious words instead of just mocking you by being blank is a great feeling for a reader, even if the epilogue begins with a little exposition of what happened after. An epilogue is, by and large, a wrap-up. It’s an opportunity for the author to tie up a loose end or two, get the characters where they need to go after the action concludes, and capitalizes on the reader wanting more. “If there were more,” one might say, “it’d go in this direction.”
You don’t want to leave too many things dangling. That’s sloppy and unprofessional work. You don’t want to drag it out or leave too many things unresolved. If the reader is asking a couple of questions when they do reach that blank page after the words are done, that’s good. The reader asking so many questions it frustrates the hell out of them isn’t.
That’s my goal tonight and into tomorrow, as I pen the epilogue for Citizen in the Wilds. The plot’s pretty much wrapped up, the world has been established and one of its continents explored. Now, without too much faffing about, I need to resolve the situation facing our heroes and show the conclusion of Asherian’s arc. It will end where it began, but the young man’s very different now than he was almost 100,000 words ago. He’s going to keep growing, as I keep writing, and I hope his growth will be as interesting to read as it is to chronicle.
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