The denouement is an essential building block of a satisfactory story. Without it, you could have upset or unsatisfied readers on your hands. With it, you can create superfans that come back for more time and again.
Even if you're not familiar with the word, you probably have an instinct for the function the denouement plays in a story. But by putting a definition to the word, you can hone your instinct and craft satisfying stories that wrap up nicely to give readers the feeling they seek from a good novel.
So join me as I answer, “What is the denouement of a story?”
- What a denouement is and why it’s important.
- Examples of well-done denouement.
- Tips for crafting a denouement.
Table of contents
- What is a Denouement?
- Denouement vs Epilogue
- Why the Denouement is Important
- Denouement Examples
- Tips for Writing a Denouement
- What is a Denouement: Conclusion
What is a Denouement?
A denouement is a literary term that refers to an essential part of a well-written story. The Latin root of the French word means “untie the knot.” There's no better explanation. A denouement's purpose is to untie the knots you've made throughout your story, resolving any plot lines that weren’t resolved in the climax. This is what gives readers (or viewers, or listeners) a sense of closure at the end of a story.
As you can probably guess, a story's denouement always comes after the climax and falling action in the story structure. Having a denouement earlier just wouldn't be possible, given its function.
A Denouement by Any Other Name
If you're familiar with the Three Act Structure or Freytag’s Pyramid, then you've heard the term denouement before. But other plot structures have different names for this piece of dramatic structure.
You get the idea.
The point is, there's a spot for this in every well-known plot diagram, even if it's called something else.
Denouement vs Epilogue
Denouements and epilogues are easily confused, but they're two different plot elements. The biggest difference is that an epilogue is optional, whereas a denouement is generally not.
An epilogue is designed to give supplementary information after the denouement. Authors often achieve this with a jump in time to show how the characters have been impacted by the story's conflict in the long term. This can also be a place to set up a sequel.
In most cases, a story's plot structure dictates that the denouement takes place shortly after the climax. Whether you make it your final scene or add an epilogue is up to you.
Why the Denouement is Important
Think about one of your favorite stories. Consider the climax and the main conflict that leads up to it. Now, imagine that everything immediately following the climax was taken out, and the story ended just after the main character faced the antagonist or made it through the darkest hour.
Something wouldn't feel quite right, would it?
While it wouldn't necessarily ruin the story, it would still feel like an incomplete narrative. After all, we as readers or audience members like to see how the main character has changed at the end of their journey.
We don't want just a resolution to the action; we want a resolution that encompasses how the primary conflict affects the characters involved. This, after all, is why we like stories.
This is why a denouement is important. It gives us closure after the pulse-pounding, nail-biting climax. It allows us to relax a bit, see how the characters have changed, tie up any loose ends in our minds, and live in the new, changed world for a little while.
Without a denouement, your readers could be walking away feeling less than satisfied with your story. And when read-through is a huge part of any author's career, this is the opposite of what we want.
So now that we've discussed why the denouement is a vitally important plot point, let's look at a few well-known denouements before getting into tips on crafting your own.
The following examples feature a wide range of different types of denouements that nicely wrap up the stories they end.
The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy
The denouement of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy is about twenty minutes long—about what you'd expect after more than nine hours of storytelling. It features the hobbits coming home to the Shire after their trek across Middle Earth. They don't come home to trumpets or fanfare, though. The Shire remains the idyllic bubble it has been.
Sam gets married and everyone but Frodo seems to slip back into their old lives, changed but at the same time, somewhat unchanged.
Frodo, however, can never go back. Of all the hobbits, he is the most changed. And this makes sense because he's the main character. In the end, he leaves the Shire to go to the Undying Lands.
While the denouement of the books is very different, the one in the film trilogy does a good job of showing what life is like for the characters after their journey. And while we may feel sorry for Frodo, we still need that ending to wrap everything up in a nice little bow.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In this famous American novel, the denouement comes after Daisy rejects Jay Gatsby, who is then murdered by an angry George—for something Daisy did during the story's climax.
The narrator, Nick Carraway, is one of only a few people who attend Gatsby's funeral. He comes to the realization that Daisy's crowd is “rotten” and that Jay Gatsby paid the ultimate price when he took the blame for Daisy's hit-and-run accident in his car.
Carraway leaves the “rotten” high society crowd behind and heads back to the Midwest. While Nick Carraway isn't the protagonist, his realizations help us to make sense of the events and deal with the loss of the love-struck Gatsby.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
After the tension from the climax, we get to see things settling down in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Darcy, now married, move to Pemberley. Bingley and Jane move to a place nearby.
This denouement is more about how Elizabeth and Jane's marriage affects the various family members than it is about these two main characters. Most of the family members—who had been against the coupling for most of the book—start to come around. In general, it has positive effects on the extended family, which makes this a very satisfying final resolution.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye shows how it's possible to end a story on an ambiguous note while still including a denouement. In the last chapter, Holden Caulfield wraps things up by telling us about all the things he doesn't want to tell us about.
“I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I'm supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don't feel like it. I really don't.”
In his own way, Caulfield provides a resolution, telling us he did actually end up going home and that he's going back to school in the fall. But he also leaves room for some interpretation in the final chapter.
He mentions how he misses everyone he talked about, and how you shouldn't tell anyone anything because it will make you miss the people you're talking about. After spending the book claiming that he doesn't like anyone and doesn't want to be around people, this hints at his character arc. Whether that change will last is up to the reader to decide.
Tips for Writing a Denouement
Let's explore some tips for writing an effective denouement.
There's No Set Outcome
It can be easy to think of a denouement as a limiting plot element, but this isn't the case. There's no set outcome you need to nail in your denouement. It just needs to be consistent with your story's themes and your central conflict.
If you're writing a tragedy, the denouement could be that everyone dies. (William Shakespeare did this quite often). In a romance, it will likely show how happy your two protagonists are.
The key is to make sure you don't leave any large questions open that will bother readers. The denouement is the place to answer all the major questions you posed during the inciting incident, rising action, climax, etc.
You Don't Have to Have One (But You Probably Should)
Like all other writing “rules,” this plot element is not an absolute must. It's your story. Write it how you like. But if you decide to shirk a denouement, then know what you're getting yourself into.
People may not be happy with the story, even if they don't know why. You may get bad reviews. People are looking for self-contained stories, and a denouement does a lot of that work.
Then again, you could write a bestseller that doesn't have a denouement. Rules are meant to be broken. Do your thing, just don't say I didn't warn you. 😉
You Can Have a Denouement And a Cliffhanger
It's entirely possible to write a denouement and a cliffhanger into your story. However, it's not the easiest thing in the world to do. You want to make sure the main conflict of your story is wrapped up, but this doesn't mean you can't have another through-line or an overarching conflict that spans multiple books.
The Avengers movies did this very well. Each movie was about a different conflict, and they each had their own denouement, but they all tied in together at the end.
Re-State Your Themes and Allow for Character Reflection
Consistency is key when it comes to the denouement. This is why you want to stick close to your themes and stay within the realm of the realistic as dictated by everything that has come before. A sudden change of tone or messaging at the very end of the story can leave readers feeling confused.
Character reflection can help you stay within the framework you've written for yourself. After all, the denouement is about how the story's conflict has affected your characters. Allow them the time and space to reflect on how they've changed, and what life will look like for them going forward.
What is a Denouement: Conclusion
While common in literature, this plot element is used in all kinds of storytelling. It's the final part of the story's plot and gives the reader a sense of closure. Crafting a consistent and satisfying denouement can leave readers both satisfied and craving more of your work!