The catalyst and climax get a lot of attention, and most writers are pretty knowledgeable about what those terms mean, but whenever I talk about the denouement, I rarely get reactions much better than, “Doesn’t that have something to do with the ending?” The poor denouement doesn’t get nearly enough attention (*wipes away a tear*), but today the denouement gets its whole own lecture.
So what is the denouement? (I know you’re dying to know). The denouement is the very last structural element of a novel. It comes after the climax and may be anywhere from a few paragraphs to a few thousand words long (depending on the story).
Its role is to stitch a pretty little button on the end of your story so that everything gets tied up in a tidy little package. Not a perfect package. But a tidy one. One that leaves the reader feeling as if they know everything they need to know.
Note that everything the reader needs to know is not the same thing as everything you want them to know. Writing an effective denouement means knowing when to say goodbye, when to step away from the keyboard, when to leave the reader wanting more.
This is probably the most important aspect of the denouement:
Leave the Reader with Longing
As the reader turns the last page, you want to create a bit of sadness in their heart, a feeling that they aren’t quite ready to say goodbye, to let the characters go, a feeling that there is still a bit more to say, that the characters still have story, still have potential.
This is not the same thing as leaving loose ends. A loose end is something you promise to resolve but do not. Leaving the reader with longing simply means that you end the story with the sense that it isn’t the end, that everything is not tied up with a perfect ribbon, but one that is a bit crumply and fraying at the edges.
Resist the temptation to explain everything, to outline the trajectory of your characters’ lives, to give them a great big “Happily Ever After” sign to wave around like Disney characters. When you tell the reader too much, you destroy that sense of longing, which comes from the feeling that there are still conflicts and mysteries and adventures in the character’s future.
What is the Denouement Used For?
What you include in your novel’s denouement will depend entirely on the plot of your story, how much was resolved during the climax, and how many loose ends are left to be tied up. Denouements are commonly used to:
The denouement is the perfect time to conclude a theme or explain the “moral” of the story. Characters might state the theme outright or it may be explained in the narration. Just don’t be too heavy handed. People don’t read novels to be preached at.
Did a character die while fighting the antagonistic force? The denouement is a good place to let the surviving characters mourn the loss and perhaps discuss that character’s contributions to what has been achieved.
For characters that have been lying or hiding something throughout the novel, the denouement is a good point for them to come clean. This provides a last “ah ha” moment for the reader that makes all the pieces fall into place.
If your character was injured in the final showdown (physically or emotionally), the denouement offers you the chance to show them beginning to heal their wounds. This tells the reader that everything will be okay someday, even if things aren’t perfect just now.
If romance is an element of your novel, the denouement supplies a last chance at professing love. The characters could be exploring their true feelings for the first time or could just be reenforcing a love that they have already expressed.
If your character won some sort of award during the climax, the denouement is the perfect time for him or her to receive it. This provides the reader with a final sense of achievement and success. It also indicates that the character’s efforts paid off with recognition.
Tie Up Loose Ends
And of course, the denouement is a good place to tie up any loose ends that just didn’t fit (or couldn’t be revealed) earlier in the novel. Just make sure it doesn’t take up too much space. The reader only needs enough wrapped up to feel satisfied.
Homework: Improving the Denouement
Ask yourself the following questions to strengthen any weak aspects of your denouement:
- Is the denouement long enough to be satisfying without being so long that it starts to drag or meander? Does it provide a sort of button on the end of the story (such as by wrapping up a theme, moral, or long-standing issue/mystery)?
- Does the denouement hint at future successes or failures without laying everything right out in the open? Does it leave room for the reader to imagine the future for the characters? Remember that a denouement that explains too much actually prevents the characters from living on in the reader’s mind. It is the mystery that keeps your characters alive.
When in doubt about whether to include something in your denouement, ask yourself if you’re leaving the reader with a sense of longing. There is beauty in yearning for more. It both leaves a favorable impression of your book and prompts the reader to look out for your next one.
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3 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #16: Nailing the Denouement”
Denouement – learning never stops. I know what you’re talking about, but never knew there was a word for it. Cool!
In my time travel novel [spoiler alert] I originally ended the story with two of the protagonists falling ‘back up’ the rabbit hole. My son [my biggest critic] said everything was fine, except he wanted to know what happened to the guys. Did they get home? Was there closure, did they find their wives at home, etc. Hadn’t thought about that [didn’t know about denouement! 😉 ].
So, I added two last chapters – and it was awesome! However, since there are never going to be any sequels, I didn’t feel it would be a problem to tie up all the ‘loose ends’ and give everybody a ‘happy ending’.
That being said, I only walked my characters up to their front doors and left their personal futures open. Does that meet the requirements?
Can’t wait to get to the denouement of my novel. I’ll have to print this out as a reminder when I get there. You are right, a bad one can leave you saying, “Why didn’t they just leave well enough alone?” And why do I think of 50 Shades every time you list don’ts? (okay, I read them all, and the Twilight books, too) The epilogue with the picket fence and a baby really did not need to be there. How did we go from a red room to a nursery? Bleh.
Can a denouement be intertwined in the revelations of the last few pages, as part and parcel of the ending of the book.