This is a feature that appears sporadically on the blog, whenever I have a bookish issue I need to rant or rave about. Feel free to comment with your thoughts!
Epilogues are tricky to write well, but so, so easy to butcher. There's a fine line the epilogue walks between giving the reader necessary closure, and going overboard. In the hands of a novice writer, an epilogue can turn from a potentially powerful way to end a story, to something that will make the reader groan as they flip the last page.
I have unfortunately read altogether too many cringe-worthy epilogues, and given that, I'd like to suggest that nine times out of ten, you probably don't need an epilogue at all.
To decide if your epilogue needs to get axed, you might want to consider some of the following questions:
1.) What purpose is your epilogue serving?
a) Wish fulfillment for the reader? As in, giving the reader just what you think they want to hear.
If this is the case, I'd recommend taking a step back and considering what feels right for the story and characters, not the reading audience. You don't need to make everything all HEA just because you think that's what readers will want. Chances are, if you do that, it will come off forced and unbelievable and you will actually end up giving readers precisely what they don't want: a bad taste in their mouth as they finish your book.
b) To tie up all the loose ends? Since there just wasn't enough story to do that in...
c) Because all the best books have epilogues?
Nope. Your book will not necessarily be any less wonderful if it doesn't have an epilogue. In fact, it might very well be better. Don't stick an epilogue in there just because you think it's some sort of requirement.
d) Because you can't bear to leave the characters and that world?
I can totally understand loving your characters and the world you've created, and by all means, go ahead and write down all that you're imagining their future will hold — just don't put it in the final manuscript. There is such a thing as too much information; I find the best epilogues give the reader a glimpse at the future without going into all the details.
2.) Could the story end without an epilogue? Why or why not?
If the chapter before the epilogue feels like it ends kind of abruptly, and you think having an epilogue will smooth that over...is there a way you could write the previous chapter to remedy this? Is the story really ending in the right place, or do you need another "real" chapter or two?
Consider the scope of your story. Is it a standalone novel or the final book of a trilogy? If it's wrapping up a long series, an epilogue might be more justified, but even then, be cautious: remember the horror of the epilogue in the last Harry Potter novel. Even J.K. Rowling doesn't always get it right.
3.) Would anything essential really be missing if you were to cut the epilogue?
This is a tricky question. I'd argue that if there is anything really important happening plot-wise in the epilogue, you may be on the wrong track. Epilogues are for winding books up, not introducing major plot points.
However, if your epilogue doesn't convey anything essential...seriously, why bother having it? It should be there for a (good) reason.
Epilogues can be useful in the right circumstances. One that springs to mind for me is the epilogue of Mockingjay. I know it received its fair share of criticism, but much of that book was quite dark and the epilogue balances that by providing some much-needed hope. But if your epilogue really isn't more than icing on the cake, don't be scared to axe it.
Sometimes, less is indeed more — and your book might pack a much more powerful punch if you let the reader create their own epilogue.