Back in 2007, I attended a workshop by Romance Queen Jennifer Crusie at the Romance Writers of Australia conference in Sydney. It was a marvelous session, full of wit and wisdom, as you would expect. And it included a blanket embargo on prologues and epilogues.
Ms. Crusie was adamant that you should be able to cover everything you need within the body of your story, and that both prologues and epilogues were unnecessary.
My first book CLAIMING THE COURTESAN had come out that year and UNTOUCHED had been accepted as my next release, but I was definitely still wet behind the ears when it comes to life as a published author. At that stage, Ms. Crusie was preaching to the choir on the no epilogues front (although I’ve always liked prologues, even if neither of those books featured one). I’d read too many epilogues that were just tacked onto the story without performing any plot function. All my questions had been answered by the end of the last chapter so the epilogue was just kissy-kissy, lovey-dovey stuff.
I was a bit of a purist back in 2007!
So my first four books, CTC, UNTOUCHED, TEMPT THE DEVIL and CAPTIVE OF SIN, have no epilogues. I was going to go wild with TEMPT THE DEVIL and include an epilogue where the heroine told the hero about her pregnancy. Unfortunately, one of the plot points in TTD is that she nearly died bearing her only child. Instead of a joyous moment on the French estate where Erith and Olivia have found lasting happiness, Erith went into a spin because he was scared stiff that he’d lose his beloved wife. OK, not exactly epilogue material. Delete.
The first time I wrote an epilogue was for my fifth book, MY RECKLESS SURRENDER. If any of you have read that, you’ll remember the fiendish plot that set the story in motion. Far too fiendish to bring to a satisfactory conclusion in the “I love you” chapter at the end. The hero and heroine of Reckless also have huge issues to resolve, so I thought it would be nice to show the readers that Diana and Vale are still happy a couple of years after the wedding.
That opened the epilogue flood gates. Since then, I’ve been addicted to epilogues. All of my full-length stories and one of my novellas have included them – often quite long and detailed too! Jenny Crusie would be ashamed of me.
And do you know what? If I was writing those first four books today, I’d give them epilogues too!
Why? Because romance readers ADORE epilogues.
They want to linger with the characters. They want to see that everything is OK. They want to know if there are babies or other major changes for the people they’ve come to love. Readers want one last happy glimpse of the world the author has created.
Does this mean I’m no longer a purist?
Not entirely. I still think epilogues need to perform some plot function. In all my epilogues, there remains some thread (or threads) to tie up to make the story complete. In the case of a couple of my books like MIDNIGHT’S WILD PASSION or A RAKE’S MIDNIGHT KISS, those threads are majorly important but not immediately related to the conflict between the couple. In Midnight, it’s the fate of Ranelaw’s lost sister. In Rake, it’s solving the mystery of Richard’s parentage. Both issues are too complicated to squeeze into a last chapter where the couple finally overcome the barriers to their romantic union. In both these cases, there is a significant time gap between the uniting of the hero and the heroine and the solving of this last plot element.
Epilogues are very useful when the heroine is pregnant at the end of the story. Readers want to know if it’s a boy or a girl and that everything’s all right. I’ve done a couple of those, although generally they’re shorter and less complex than the epilogues with a major plot point left outstanding. Of course, if you’re writing a continuing series, you can answer these questions in future books – but I’ve learned that romance readers still want their few pages of happily ever after, like dessert after the main course of the story.
Other reasons to have an epilogue include tying up the fate of a secondary character or two, describing the wedding or the first Christmas (I use Christmas as finale in both WHAT A DUKE DARES and my forthcoming A SCOUNDREL BY MOONLIGHT). When the couple has had a turbulent romance, the epilogue shows that all is well once they’ve settled into life together. In my recent novella, HER CHRISTMAS EARL, it’s too soon for the characters to declare their lifelong devotion immediately after the wedding so I included an epilogue set during Christmas the next year when those “I love yous” have more integrity. Personally in a romance, I like the epilogue to relate to the couple featured in the book rather than act as the launch pad for a new story, but I’ve also read effective epilogues that work as a teaser for the next installment in the series.
When I’m running workshops, people often ask me how long an epilogue should be. The answer is as long as it needs to be. If you’ve got a lot of ground to cover, an epilogue can be longer than most of your chapters – that’s the case in both Midnight and Rake. If it’s a glimpse of happily ever after, you can generally get away with a few pages. Like most things in writing, the answer’s like “How long is a ball of string?” If it works, it works.
So here is my personal list of dos for epilogues:
1. Include them if you possibly can. Readers like them.
2. Use them to tie up some plot point, even if only a minor one. They should still perform a function in the story.
3. Epilogues are a great way to cover a gap in timing – several months or even years after the events in the story, it’s a nice opportunity to revisit the characters and see what’s happened to them in the interim. If there’s no time gap, perhaps you’re writing a last chapter and not an epilogue.
4. You can make them as long as you like although if the plot point is minor, I’d recommend short rather than long.
5. If you’ve raised a story question in the book, even only a minor one like the fate of a pet or a secondary character, make sure you tie that up either in the body of the story or in the epilogue.
6. Don’t introduce new points of tension unless you’re using the epilogue as a teaser for the next story. Your principal couple need to be blissfully happy at this stage of the story and not facing further troubles. Romances should end happily ever after!
This article first appeared on the Romance University blog on 24th November 2014