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Happily Ever After

July 21, 2009

pencils_downep·i·logue (also ep·i·log) \ˈe-pə-ˌlȯg, -ˌläg\
noun, Middle English, 15th century

1: a concluding section that rounds out the design of a literary work
2 a: a speech often in verse addressed to the audience by an actor at the end of a play ; also : the actor speaking such an epilogue b: the final scene of a play that comments on or summarizes the main action
3: the concluding section of a musical composition

source: Miriam Webster’s Online Dictionary

From the earliest stories told to us, we are introduced to the epilogue–And they lived happily ever after. But the longer I write stories—and more importantly, read them—the more epilogues annoy me.

Just this past weekend, I took my family to see the new installment of Harry Potter. When we got back, my eldest ran to the bookshelf and picked up the final book…and immediately turned to and read the last chapter. The final chapter reveals what happens to the main characters by visiting them nineteen years later and revealing all the important answers about how their lives unfolded.

Now as writers, most of us have been introduced to the term in media res—roughly, in the middle of things. In it’s most literal interpretation it means that the narrative of a story should start while the action is already moving, and not at the very beginning of the story. But in it’s more common application teachers use it to encourage students to start the story when things get interesting.

An example: The story of Harry Potter starts far before his birth, but if Rowling had told he story from that point we would have had to endure long passages of his life where nothing interesting happens. Instead she starts the trilogy when Harry’s past upsets his normal life—even though Harry doesn’t know it, the story is already happening.

Publishers are notoriously hard on authors with this point. When a reader has no emotional investment in the book, you have to grab them quickly. There is no time for a slow buildup.

But authors can make the same mistake with the other end of the story—not knowing precisely when to stop writing the story. What happens to the characters after the story ends is, to put it bluntly, not part of the story—and an author has no reason to write it down.

What happens to Harry after his ordeal is over should be left to the imagination of the reader. Happily ever after, will mean something different for every reader. If Rowling tells us who Harry marries, there will be readers who are disappointed, because they thought he should marry someone else. If she tells us his job, there will be readers who thought he should do something else. Because their happily ever after differs from Rowling’s.

As an author we shouldn’t be in the business of telling about our characters outside the scope of the story, because the story is what we’re telling. We’re not telling a biography of our characters. Of course, there are exceptions—epilogues that do conclude the action of the story—but most of the epilogues I read these days are nothing more than a biography of the dramatis personae.

So why do so many authors conclude with epilogues? In part I think it’s an unwillingness to release their characters fate to the imaginations of their readers—in other words, it’s an act of conceit. But I think the most common reason hearkens back to those first stories we were told, with the simple but satisfying happily ever after.

However the mistake writers make here is confusing a story with a parable. Those ancient fairy tales were not meant exclusively as entertainment—they were also important lessons. The parables evolved to teach children that if they followed a certain set of mores that they would live happily ever after—so the prologue, while brief, is important to the story.

But today, in the age of sequels, there may be another reason for the prologue—it ends the story, generally precluding the idea of continuing the story. There has been some speculation that Rowling specifically wrote the Nineteen Years Later chapter, to avoid the temptation to write more books in a few years.

Which can put an author in a strange position should they change their mind. A pet peeve of my better half—one that’s quite funny as an observer—is Disney’s recent habit of creating sequels to one of their library of happily ever after movies. “How,” she’ll scream at the TV, “can there be a Cinderella II? We already know the ending! HAPPILY…EVER…AFTER!”

And frankly that sums up the problem with unnecessary epilogues. The story is over. Class, it’s time to put your pencils down.

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Dale writes sci-fi, fantasy and humor and has always had trouble with his own endings. Even though he’s never stumbled his way into an epilogue, the Happily Ever After pull is a strong one.
5 Comments
  1. July 21, 2009 2:54 am

    Great article – really witty and fresh look at how to write good content. It’s so useful to be reminded of how crucial it is when writing anything to end on a high point, having included all the right information, and not just fizzle out.

  2. July 21, 2009 8:24 am

    Epilogues in general bother me, much as they seem to bother you. If the information in the epilogue was important enough to be included, it should have been included in the main body of the story, not just stuck in as an afterthought!

    Endings are always a struggle for me in terms of how much to put in and how much to leave out. In one of my recent Fiction Friday pieces I left the character in a vague state, not explaining whether he lived or died or even accomplished his mission (though I had in my mind what would be the next chapter if I were to write it). It was very interesting to read the comments from readers and see how they interpreted the ending. If I had put a more definitive ending in place, the discussion (offline and online) would not have been as lively because there would have been far less room for debate.

    I always assumed that the epilogue in HP Book 7 was meant to make it really difficult or awkward for Ms. Rowling to go back on her statement that she would not write anything more and with that assumption I was alright with it.

  3. July 21, 2009 12:17 pm

    So what about the happily ever after story that didn’t end happily ever after. I’m referring to the epilogue of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. With the lovers dead, the prologue tells us, their death at least brought an end to hostilities between their two families. So it seems their families, at least, did live happily ever after.

  4. July 21, 2009 7:41 pm

    I like your reference Dale to the original myth, fairy tales and fables which were meant to impart learning to those who listened as kids. The interesting thing about many of the original fairy tales is they don’t live happily ever after – many of them – such as the Red Shoes – have truly gruesome endings (she begs a woodsman to chop her feet off and he does!)

    I recently read a book called “The Girl in the 5th” – where the book by rights should have ended about 30 pages before it did. While not necessarily an epilogue – it took the story places it didn’t need to go for the satisfaction of the reader. I actually got annoyed when the story went on and on and on.

    Granted finding the ending place is often hard but I like
    Rob’s comment about how an open ended story can evoke lots of discussion about the story.

    I haven’t read the Harry Potter books – but I wonder if Ms Rowlings decision for this epilogue was more to do with NOT being pressured into writing more books by her publisher – than withstraining herself. If so, a savvy move.

  5. July 22, 2009 6:06 am

    Another thing is that a lot of more literary type stories now hardly have an ending at all, let alone an epilogue, whilst this can be annoying to the other degree, but not explaining the crux of the story, at times it can be a little more natural. Life isn’t such a neat and nice story arc.

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