Saturday, February 28, 2015


As a fitting last post, I thought I’d write about epilogues. My book’s epilogue was, perhaps, the hardest thing for me to write. After spending so much time reconstructing this history, now I was supposed to stand back and say something about it? Hadn’t I said enough already? I kept putting off writing it, agonized about it a ridiculous amount, then sat down one day and wrote it out. Phew, I thought, at last that is over. Except nobody liked it. It was fine. In fact, I turned the manuscript in to the press with my adequate epilogue. But I knew that if I could, I needed to come up with something better. I just didn’t know how.

This brings me to a brief segue into cultivating a group of supportive but critical readers. First and foremost for me was my editor Sally Gordon who pored over every word of the manuscript, sat me down for tough talks, and like an excellent coach, didn’t stint on pep talks or praise. I have also relied on writing groups. I formed my first during graduate school with a few people from my history program who were living, like me, in New York. At Penn, where I now teach, we have created a fantastic writing group that brings together faculty, fellows, and graduate students working in legal history. Whether what I received was helpful conversations about writing or a work over of a chapter, this group was invaluable in my book-writing process. But my secret weapon has been my good friend from graduate school, Dara Orenstein. She’s brilliant and astute, which has made for a handful of critically timed, incredibly helpful conversations, usually more at the conceptual level than about the nitty-gritty details of writing. Dara’s the kind of person I could call up and ask what a book cover should accomplish and I credit her for guiding me to my cover’s design. She’s also whom I turned to when I was stuck with my epilogue.

What follows is really Dara’s insightful advice, not mine. Dara gave my dull epilogue a quick read and, like a master diagnostician, broke its problems down for me. An epilogue, Dara observed, can do four things: First, it can summarize the history in the book. Second, it can offer a new slant on that history. Third, it can offer new information. And fourth, it can raise new questions entirely. An author can do a couple of these in an epilogue (e.g., offer new information and use it to raise new questions) but she can’t do all four. I, Dara pointed out, was doing all four. Further, Dara opined, summarizing, which is where I began, is the least interesting thing to do in an epilogue. And providing new information, especially when it is crammed in with so many other things, raises particular dangers. After providing a carefully wrought history, if you then skim across several decades or centuries in your epilogue, you risk jarring superficiality, not to mention outright errors.

I had to rewrite the epilogue, Dara prescribed. I couldn’t do everything; I had to choose. At a more meta level, she pointed out that summarizing and adding new information let me write the epilogue from a reporter’s remove. The strongest epilogues, Dara insisted rightly, use a strong voice, the author’s voice.

So we sat there over her dining room table and she made me talk about the book: why I wanted to write it, what I wanted readers to get from it, etc. When we got to something that resonated, I wrote it down. And after an hour or so of talking it out, literally in my own voice, I had a list of points I wanted to make in my new epilogue. That week, I turned the list into an outline and hammered out a new version of the epilogue. You’ll have to judge for yourself if I found my voice and if it achieves the right mix of goals. But I guarantee you it is a much better epilogue than the one I began with.

What epilogues have you found particularly effective? Are there other things an epilogue can or should try to accomplish? Comments welcome!


Karen Tani said...

I'm so grateful to you for sharing this advice, Sophia. I'm re-writing my conclusion this weekend, and it's a bear. Endings are hard! I'm looking forward to hearing if readers recall any book's epilogue or conclusion as particularly effective.

Karen Tani said...

P.S. My husband's suggestion was that I end the book by hinting that a particularly interesting historical figure from the book might not actually be dead -- thereby setting up the sequel : )

Sophia Lee said...

I love it--now if you could just work a vampire in as well, you'll be sitting pretty.

Karen Tani said...

Mary Dudziak just raised a good point on Twitter. Do you have thoughts on conclusion versus epilogue?

Sophia Lee said...

Interesting. The conversation can be found here: My common sense understanding is that a conclusion closes things down and epilogues open them up. That said, as I am often telling my fifteen year old when he is struggling with writing concluding paragraphs for an essay, the best conclusions gesture to a broader question or point beyond the essay. Out of curiosity, I looked up the definitions of conclusion and epilogue and as defined, an epilogue can be many things including a conclusion, which is either the summary of an argument or the final proposition to which an argument leads.


So maybe it's epilogues all the way down and you just need to decide how you want to end your book (which is really the hard question, much more so than the label you give the book's final chapter).