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Nov
22

To Epilogue or not to Epilogue?

I just finished writing the script for a music/culinary-themed graphic novel I’ve been working on called In The Weeds and I found myself wrestling–not for the first time–with whether to include an epilogue.  Here’s the thing with epilogues: whenever I’m reading a book or watching a film and there’s an epilogue tacked on to the end that wraps everything up (as Homer Simpson would say) in a neat little package, I always feel sort of condescended to–as if the writer assumes that I’m too fragile (or just plain to conventional) to deal with a story that has any loose ends.

On the other hand though, whenever I’m writing I always want to wrap everything up. I even had an epilogue scene for In the Weeds tacked up as the final index card on my little plotting cork-board.  At the last minute, though, I decided not to include it. The story just ENDS. The main conflicts have been resolved, but ultimately there are a lot of non-essential things that the reader will probably be curious about that are never resolved. For example, one of the main threads in the story involves a band having to decide whether to jump on-board with a successful but somewhat sleazy record producer, and in doing so betray their current friend and manager. You of course find out what they choose to do, but without an epilogue, you never find out whether the choice they make pans out for them–whether they ever “hit the big time” or not.

As mentioned before, this isn’t the first time I’ve been round and round with how much of the plot to tie up at the end of a story. The last time was a few books back with Midnight Sun. That book originally had a one-page epilogue scene that would have been the first and only time the story moved to first person narration from the protagonist, H.R. I actually drew and lettered this page and had it ready to go to press. Before I send off the files for a completed book though, I like to have one (or preferably more than one) person read through the book and give me any thoughts or suggestions he/she has.

In the case of Midnight Sun, one of the people who was nice enough to give the book a read-through was my friend Craig Fischer. One of the things he reacted to was the epilogue. As I recall, he mentioned the change in narration to first person as well as just the overall “neatness” of having everything tied up in the end via a verbal “exposition dump.” Ultimately (through the Magic of Photoshop™) I removed the narration and ended the story instead with a (nearly) wordless single-page image.

Just for fun, though, here’re both versions.  First the page used in the published book, then the original with the narration:

6 comments

  1. Eric says:

    I much prefer the sans-epilogue ending to Midnight Sun, and think you made the right choice there. The starkness of the ending was one of the things I liked most about it.

    This might not be the case with all stories. The epilogue could be useful to see the long-term effects of a moral decision, like you have here. I suppose the question is, does knowing the result matter? Does it benefit the characters and the reader perception of their growth to know that the manger decision yielded / did not yield positives for the band? Or is knowing that they made the decision, regardless of outcome enough…or even better? Do the characters make the decision based on the intended outcome, or based on the ethics of the situation? For my two cents, If it’s the latter, it seems like an epilogue might not be necessary.

    The other question might be…do you intend to work with these characters again in the future? How might the inclusion of an epilogue limit your ability to tell further chapters in their story?

    Interesting question. Thanks for sharing your process!

  2. Ben says:

    Wow, thanks for the incredibly well thought out comment. I cut the epilogue from IN THE WEEDS based mainly on just a “gut” decision, but I think you’ve nailed exactly what’s going on mechanically: what’s important to the story isn’t whether they succeed or fail in their musical endeavors, but rather how they behave when forced to make an important decision under pressure. Once that’s resolved, the important part of the storytelling is over.

    I also much prefer the non-narrated ending to MIDNIGHT SUN and I’m really glad I didn’t wind up including it as an (unnecessary) epilogue.

  3. Chris Schweizer says:

    I’m glad you’re cutting the epilogue – especially if it’s an “animal house ending” epilogue. Though I think the framing sequences in my books could, in theory, be used for good, I don’t think I’ve figured them out yet, and feel like they’re too epiloguey.
    You’re a fine storyteller. Your audience will be satisfied. And further, we like to believe that the characters will either benefit or suffer from their decisions based on our appraisal of those decisions, and to be potentially told otherwise means that the narrative that we’ve constructed in our minds is forced to give way to one with significantly reduced emotional impact for us.

  4. Eric says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the last sentence here (though not all before it — I think the Crogan’s framing sequences do a great job of providing context for the story, especially working well for younger readers because it gives them an investment in the stories). And maybe one of the easier ways to determine whether you should cut an epilogue is if there’s a desire to put a “Visit Universal Studios — ask for Babs” joke within it.

  5. Eric says:

    One qualification to my wholehearted endorsement: sometimes it can be in the author’s interest to use his narratorial authority to work against audience expectations.

    For instance, in the above, the reader would expect correct moral decision leads to success for good people, or the opposite. But if you want to make a point about the reality of morality not always aligning as we want it to, then showing the band succeeding as a result of making the “evil” choice, or, again, the opposite, might also be effective. In denying them the constructed narrative, you can sometimes create emotional resonance by providing an ending that runs contrary to reader expectations. I think it’s much better to do this than to have an epilogue that has the same trajectory as the reader constructed narrative, because then you run into the situation that Chris describes above.

    I’m thinking something along the lines of the epilogue of The French Connection here. Hope this comment is useful to think about, and makes sense, and is not just a big blob of words.

  6. Ben says:

    Yeah, for sure that makes sense. I’d certainly not hesitate to include an epilogue if it served some narrative purpose–as in your example, of subverting reader expectations. I do have to be wary though, of my tendency to want to tie up loose ends that really don’t need to be tied up. (And thanks for the thoughtful commentary!)

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