This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. Yesterday I ran a post about three/four-act structure. Today it’s a great point about how you tie up the end.
Tying up the ends at The End – should you write an epilogue?
One student in the class had written a major climax scene, then another scene to tie up the subplot ends, then an epilogue so we could see what the characters did next. She asked, how many climax scenes could you have? How long should you go on after that? She also felt she didn’t know when to let go and allow the book to end.
Deciding the order of the end events is tricky. You need a main climax, which obviously is the major plot thread. Other threads can be solved in less prominent positions, and often work well in the post-climax scene, as the dust is settling, as a leave-taking for the whole book.
But then what? Do you need an epilogue to show life going on? At what point do you pull the plug and send the reader away?
This is very much a gut decision, but I’ve seen a lot of writers who can’t leave their characters behind. They embark on epic epilogues which dilute the ending, water down its poignance or sweetness, or delay the final punch for too long.
But I know why we write them. I did it myself with My Memories of a Future Life. I wrote several more chapters after the end, page after page, but I recognised that this was so that I could let go. It was an act of exorcism, just for me. I never intended those chapters to be in the book.
Of course, in your mind and in the reader’s there’s always more to tell. So answer this – what will an epilogue add? And who are you adding it for – the reader or yourself?
Tomorrow: two difficult types of characters
Do you have trouble tying up the end of a novel? Have you ever written extra chapters so you could ‘let go’? Have you ever had feedback that suggested you’d paced these ending chapters wrong, either too abruptly or too slowly?
#1 by Carolyn Mahony on July 28, 2014 - 9:47 am
A timely reminder! I’m in the final process of editing my novel and I’m on the last chapter. The climax has happened, mystery solved and now I want a happy ending for my heroine who’s been through rather a lot. I’ve decided I can’t make it too long (only one chapter) as otherwise it would be in danger of turning a mystery drama into too much of a romance. It’s too easy to do overkill!
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 28, 2014 - 2:30 pm
Hi Carolyn! Yes, you’ve identified the danger perfectly. It’s tricky for us writers because we’re so invested in the relationships. We’re probably dying to let the characters enact the turmoil in their hearts, especially as we’ve been storing up the tension for so long (much longer than the reader takes to go through it, BTW, so we feel the pressure far more). It sounds as though you made the right decision.
#3 by Carolyn Mahony on July 28, 2014 - 8:04 pm
I agree with the last reviewer. I don’t particularly need to know what happens to characters in the future. I think a good ending can point you in the right direction and the rest we leave to our imaginations!
#4 by DRMarvello on July 28, 2014 - 1:12 pm
I just finished the third novel of my fantasy trilogy. I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how I would wrap up 300K words in a way that would be satisfying to my readers. My solution was to write a final chapter that took place several weeks after the climax. It showed how everyone fared at the end, but didn’t say anything about what would happen in the future. I may revisit those characters and that story world at some point. For now, I need to work on something else. 🙂
For my next few novels, I’m writing stand-alone stories that have “series potential.” If readers respond well to any of them, I’ll develop the series with follow-on novels. I’m calling this the Russel Blake Method, since he was the one to suggest “putting many lines into the water.” Each of the initial stand-alone novels will have a satisfying denouement, but it will leave the future open to additional development of a series story arc. That’s the theory, anyway.
#5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 28, 2014 - 2:33 pm
Hi Daniel! Your theory with the sequels seems very sound. And I like your solution of winding time forwards so that you drop in at a more settled stage. That adds the perspective of distance and the sense that it’s time for the reader to leave.
#6 by Lesley O. Rice on July 28, 2014 - 2:40 pm
Quite often I find myself wondering what happened to the characters after the end of a or story, so I’m all for adding at least a little so we can see what happened next. Some stories, like Cinderella fiction end when one obstacle has been overcome, but you just know there are going to be lots, lots more.
#7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 28, 2014 - 3:07 pm
Hi Lesley! You’re right that there will probably be questions remaining afterwards. But we have to judge which questions we need to answer and which to leave.
#8 by Alexander Charalambides on July 28, 2014 - 2:43 pm
I was taught that the best way to deal with the end was have the climax resolve both the main plot and the subplot conflict if at all possible. Is that not correct?
#9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 28, 2014 - 3:08 pm
Good point, Alexander. A solution that would deal with all conflicts and threads would certainly be the most elegant. But it’s not always possible and if you pushed for it every time you might get into some rather contrived knots. But you’re right to consider whether it can be done.
#10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 29, 2014 - 8:41 am
I forgot to ask – do you have any examples where this is done well? It would be interesting to know.
#11 by mrdisvan on July 28, 2014 - 6:25 pm
I must be unique in never wanting to know what happened to Lizzie and Mr Darcy after the novel ended. Luckily for publishers, most readers these days like a beginning and an infinity of middles.
#12 by writerchick on July 29, 2014 - 3:48 pm
I don’t know, I’m okay with letting go. There is an old adage in show business: Always leave them wanting more. And I think that’s a good datum to apply to your novel. Maybe leaving a couple of loose ends for the readers to play out in their own imaginations isn’t a bad idea. When you create memorable characters, they stay with readers. We all hate to see those novels end because it feels like we’re saying good bye to friends. Life never ties itself up in a neat little bow, why should fiction?
#13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 30, 2014 - 7:54 am
‘Leave them wanting more’ – precisely! And some loose ends can be rewarding. We want to make sure we haven’t cheated the reader or made promises we didn’t keep, but we certainly don’t want to outstay our welcome.
#14 by Cate Russell-Cole on August 19, 2014 - 3:28 am
I used my epilogue as an introduction to the next book in the series… but I had all the issues of the that book tied up by the end of the book. If the reader wants to read more in the series, they are invited in, but not cheated by loose ends which can only be resolved by buying the next book.
#15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 19, 2014 - 6:22 am
Interesting point here about writing a series. There’s a marketing trend now to chop stories off suddenly, but that’s very frustrating for the reader. And although they might read on in the next book, they’re also suspecting you’ll pull the same trick again. I like your method better.
#16 by Cate Russell-Cole on August 20, 2014 - 4:29 am
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t loathe that nasty chop. It’s inhumane to the characters… not to mention the poor reader. 🙂