How to End a Book

As of this writing I am almost finished with the final draft of Surreality. I’m hoping to finish either by the end of this week, or the beginning of next. There’s still going to be a couple of months of revisions ahead, but I’m getting really excited about finally being able to share this book with all of you.

But today’s post is not about that. It’s about epilogues.

Maybe it’s a product of some of the books I read as a kid, but as a writer I tend to write both prologues and epilogues. The first novel I ever finished had prologue, epilogue and interlude.

My use of this structure has tended to be whenever there is a significant time jump between sections of the book. For my first book, Atlantia, there was a period of six months between the extended prologue and the first chapter. For Surreality there’s only a difference of a couple of weeks (maybe even days) but every draft except this one has had an epilogue (and a first chapter short enough to be a prologue).

Prologues and epilogues tend to be outside the normal structure of the book, shorter or longer than chapters as necessary, potentially even in different writing styles, and while not unrelated to the events of the book, they are separate from the meat of the text.

So why write them?

For all the previous drafts of Surreality the epilogue mainly functioned as set up for a potential next book in the series, as well as wrapping up some of the more personal elements of my character, outside the central character of the mystery. But I have been giving some serious thought to just making it the last chapter, and forgiving any slight shift in time (a couple of weeks go by between chapter 1 and 2 so why not 22 and 23)?

This argument seems all the less relevant as we read things on tablets and eReaders, where at least initially, Surreality will be exclusively released. The chapter becomes just another place to hang our bookmark, a way to delineate scenes and themes, but not particularly important in a medium that increasingly takes on the properties of continuously scrolling text.

Are prologues and epilogues just delaying tactics for getting the book started, or letting it finish on a strong note? I’m not sure. I think in some first drafts they’re a way to warm up to the story and get comfortable with the world before really getting started. But I’ve tried the other variety as well, start the reader right in the middle of the action and it feels rushed. Like we haven’t given the reader any chance to orient themselves before we throw scene after scene at them.

And for the epilogue aren’t we happy to see our characters for just a little longer? To have a little more certainty as to how they’ll be for that interminable period between books? But that could still be another chapter and not a separate structure. Titles like prologue and epilogue make those chapters seem separate, vestigial even.

As with a lot of these questions the answer at best is instinctual. I’ll get to the end of this book and title this last couple of scenes what feels right at the time. And I’ll do the same whenever I start the next one. Structure is something to be played with, something that can work for or against you depending on the story. But whether epilogue or final chapter, it always feels good when you’ve finished.

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