One of my favorite books when I was younger was Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith. It had everything a girl with my interests could have hoped for: a plucky heroine, rebellion, a fantasy setting, court intrigue, epistolary romance… I adored it. When I got to the end of the book, however, I discovered something strange.
The last ten pages of the book promised a never-before-seen addition to the story. Excited to read more about Mel and Danric and the rest, I eagerly turned the page… to discover that the addition was a trite and honestly embarrassing epilogue. It was tooth-rottingly saccharine, and turned the kickass protagonist into a wilting flower too nervous to talk honestly with her husband. I didn’t have much of a critical eye at age eleven, but even then I knew it was a shitty writing decision. So why are so many authors going the way of the epilogue now? It’s terrible in so many ways, and it needs to stop.
The first problem of epiloguing is that it’s just plain bad writing. Part of what makes a good story good is a clear knowledge of when it should start and end. (This means prologues are often regrettable as well.) If the story goes on and on after the actual plot has been wrapped up, it just feels like the writer is unable to let go. Death of the author is one of my favorite things about fiction—I’d much rather spend a day headcanoning or reading fanfiction than being abruptly informed of the author’s fully realized vision for the rest of the characters’ lives. Death of the author allows you to explore the untapped potential in a story and let your imagination fill in the gaps, rather than being told outright that x thing happened and that’s that.
Even a simple “and they all lived happily ever after” is less frustrating than the epilogues we are typically given, because that gives you some range to come up with a variety of happy endings. Especially grating is the implication from every corner that a happy ending is necessarily “domestic, heterosexual bliss with the person they dated as a teenager and the job they wanted when they were fourteen”. It’s so hard for me to relate to Katniss and Peeta smiling at each other over their children’s heads—especially when Katniss spent the entire series swearing she would never reproduce—or a whole herd of ninja running around Konoha looking like more like they were grown in a laboratory to equally resemble both their parents than they were gestated the usual way. Harry’s an Auror! Naruto’s the Hokage! And none of the world-changing, nearly life-ending experiences they had served to change that.
I want anyone to look me in the face and tell me that after years of doing nothing but being chased by and chasing evildoers because he had no other choice, Harry James Potter would opt for the one profession where he’d be stuck doing that for the rest of his life. Look me dead in the eye and tell me that an adult Uzumaki Naruto, childhood dream and legacy or not, would spend his teenage years cleaning up former Kages’ messes and still decide he wanted to be the political head of a village full of trained assassins. Tell me that both of these famous and well-traveled men would end up marrying and settling down with the same girls they’d crushed on since they were thirteen. Nothing is remotely different from how you could have predicted it would go sometime back in 2005. It’s not particularly exciting to find out that your fictional faves grew up to be just like your parents because their Boomer-aged author can’t imagine young people growing up with any other goal in mind.
Basically, if you are going to add onto your story, it needs to be an addition that both improves on and continues to expand on the original universe, and an epilogue simply can’t do that. They’re too short, for one thing. There’s no way to expand or improve on a theme or a character that you spent hundreds to thousands of pages developing in a dozen pages at the end (or minutes, if we’re talking movies). You’re better off writing an entirely new story set in the same universe, and even that can go wrong.
JK Rowling’s ongoing expansion of the Harry Potter universe may be continuing to build out on her original series, but it’s an ever-more-rickety building, and more and more of the flaws in the architecture are showing the more she tells us.
While the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie will give us more detail about the workings of magic in America, I wouldn’t call its predominantly white cast an improvement. Between that and all the nonsense JKR has put out about Ilvermorny, the only wizarding school in America which is both a British-style boarding school and a racist trashfire, and I’d argue that all she’s doing is weakening the power of the original franchise by oversaturating the market of readers’ imaginations with her own Word of God. And race isn’t the only place where the Harry Potter expanded universe is stagnating—from the first declaration that Dumbledore was gay (but not gay enough for it to be mentioned in the books), to the thorough Al/Scorpius queerbaiting in the Cursed Child play, her story where love conquers all is really, really dedicated to heterosexuality.
A good example of what to do instead of any of the things I’ve just complained about it Star Wars: The Force Awakens. TFA brings us back to many of the same characters, places, and conflicts from both the original and prequel trilogies. However, it doesn’t force a happily ever after down our throats. Because honestly—the idea that some insurgents could destroy the leader of a galaxy-wide government and then just… slip into democracy and peace—that’s absurd. There would obviously be fallout from the war. There would obviously be people who pushed back against the New Alliance government. It’s not hard to believe that Han and Leia’s marriage, forged in the heat of rebellion while they were both young and high-spirited, might suffer from both their own personality clashes and the further stress of losing their son to the Dark Side. The Force Awakens is good storytelling because it doesn’t try to get us to believe that once one battle has been won, everything will be great forever.
Sailor Moon’s Neo Tokyo is another example of how to subvert bad epiloguing. We learn very early on in the Dark Crystal arc that Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask eventually get married, have a child, and become Neo Queen Serenity and King Endymion, ruling their idyllic new utopia from their Moon Palace. However, because we’re given that ending in the middle of a story arc in only the second season of the show, it no longer becomes the corny bow on top of the completed story. Instead, it’s a future that is no longer guaranteed thanks to Wiseman and his minions, and the Sailor Scouts have to battle these evil forces to protect this happy ending. We understand from Wiseman’s defeat that the future has been secured, without being battered over the head with it as part of the conclusion of the arc.
Epilogues and their ilk are often irredeemably bad. They often conflate what an author thinks their character deserves after their adventures—a happy ending, a cheerful marriage, a herd of children—with what the character would actually want, given all the development they’ve had over the life of the story.
However, that doesn’t mean that continuing a story is necessarily bad. Continuing and building on a story’s themes and morals can be great ways to deepen your world and make audiences actually consider the effects past storylines would have on future character development. But epiloguing doesn’t do that. Having an epilogue often means that no matter what the original story was about, every character is going to get shoved into a cookie-cutter heterosexual marriage with 2.5 kids because that’s what everyone wants, right? Of course not. That doesn’t add to a story—it just pushes the author’s idea of a happy ending on everyone else and onto their audience, and it needs to stop.