Storyville: Why Denouement is So Important to a Satisfying Story
If you are hearing this word “denouement” for the first time, then we have a LOT to talk about. To me, it’s a crucial part of your storytelling, and one of the most important aspects of your story structure, mechanics, and ending. Let’s dig into it.
I talk a lot about Freytag’s Pyramid / Triangle in my Short Story Mechanics class here at Lit Reactor. It’s a classic dramatic structure that goes back to the ancient Greeks, and is an important guiding force in contemporary fiction. I don’t want to spend too much time on this (click that link above if you DO want to read more) but basically you have a narrative hook, and exposition, where you set up the story and build your world, as you start to explain the internal and external conflicts. As you do this, the tension should increase, leading to a climax, with a resolution (including change) and the aforementioned denouement. If everything aligns and you’ve done your work, this should be a satisfying journey, and a complete experience, eliciting emotion, thought, and reaction.
According to the dictionary, a denouement is: “the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.” And that’s a good place to start. I’d expand that to say that it is the INSIGHT that is gleaned from the experience, what the character comes to understand. It’s not just a matter of deciphering what has happened, but how that is a big deal, how it matters to the world (big picture, external conflict) and them specifically (personal details, internal conflict). I think of it as an epiphany, a sudden understanding, filled with strong emotion, and feelings.
I’m going to talk about a few of my stories, and then some more famous examples. There WILL be spoilers listed below. So be aware.
- In my novelette “Ring of Fire” the entire epilogue is a denouement—the epiphany transferring from the protagonist to a secondary character, who carries the story forward taking the 100th monkey concept and applying it to humanity—with the 1000th human being.
- In my literary story, “Moving Heavy Objects”, it’s the understanding that the protagonist cannot force his father to be who he wants him to be, but can only be the man he is—and that’s okay.
- In my novel, Disintegration, it’s that there IS still room in the world for a man, a killer like my unnamed protagonist, even if his family may be better off without him.
- In my story, “Repent,” it’s that the father is making the ultimate sacrifice, in order to save his son, and even though he will be erased from any existence, his wife and child no longer remembering him, he’s willing to do that—the ONE noble, kind, loving gesture in his life, which was otherwise filled with hatred and violence.
- In the movie, Inception, the film ends on a shot of a spinning top. Does it continue to spin, or does it have a very minor stutter in its motion? This top is what Cobb uses when traveling in dreams to show him whether he is in the real world or still in the dreamscape. If it keeps spinning, he’s in a dream. If it topples, he’s in reality. How you interpret that ending will give you your ending, but more importantly it’s that Cobb doesn’t care whether it’s a dream or reality. He just wants to be with the woman he loves, and their daughter. Pretty intense.
- The end of Moonlight is also powerful. Not only does the protagonist Chiron finally find love, as a gay black man, oppressed his entire life, bullied, and forced into a life of crime, but it ends on a shot of him as a young boy, on a beach, looking back at the camera. It taps into his childhood, the innocence and what was lost, and the damage that occurred along the way, while reminding us that in the end, he did still find love. Haunting.
- The end of the movie Spring comes to mind—that build up to that moment telling us that she will either turn into this monster and kill him, or if their love is strong enough, she will stay human, and they can be together. He’s willing to take that risk. Her transformation is interrupted by love. And that’s a powerful moment.
Now that you’ve seen a few examples, let’s talk about how you can make your denouement work.
It’s not just the denouement. It’s all connected. You need to look at your hook, and conflicts (both internal and external) and make sure they are connected, and addressed. That is essential. You also need to have some sort of change—which can be as subtle as accepting who you are, or the decision to stop doing horrible things, or something huge like the fate of the world changed by a single action. This must all happen BEFORE you can get to the denouement, otherwise we have nothing to reflect on. Make sense? In order to have a powerful denouement you have to set it up right.
One of the ways you can have a powerful ending, and denouement, is to make sure there is an emotional response from your character, and hopefully—the audience. If the protagonist is crushed, if they are inspired, if they are horrified then that has to come across in the story. There is a moment (SPOILERS AHEAD) at the end of my story, “White Picket Fences”, where the chaos is unfurling, and the protagonist Jimmy sees in that moment that things have gone horribly wrong, and wonders what might have been. Here is the last paragraph:
And the tentacles wrap around me, the babies scuttling up my legs, nipping as they go, her hands on my shoulders pushing the clacking beak to my neck and it is not the kiss I had thought about—her plump red lips on mine, wet tongue in my mouth—her beak instead tearing into my flesh, too weak and giving. I think of Connie, and what happened this morning, how clean and pure she smelled, the gleam in her eye—I focus on that instead, thinking of how that night might have gone, holding her hand as we strolled around the church grounds, knowing now there is no God, but pushing that away for a moment, smiling as I pretend that maybe something else could have happened instead of this.
My hope is that there is a sadness wrapped around this positive vision, what might have been. It’s all lost now. But there is that emotion, that longing, that surrender.
One of the most powerful aspects of the denouement, in my opinion, is the epiphany. That sudden and striking realization always has power, that’s the inherent nature of an epiphany. It’s that AHA moment: Soylent Green IS people; Scout realizing what Atticus had said about Boo Radley, that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”; or Thomasin in The Witch realizing in a time of limitations, in her puritanical world, that she actually WOULD like to “live deliciously,” and all that this decision entails. There are twists, there are revelations, and there are shocking moments where the truth is revealed. That is not the epiphany. It’s the emotion, insight, and response TO those moments that gives you the understanding of what has truly happened here.
I love using sleight of hand to keep the reader just out of reach of the truth. I want them to ask questions the entire time, to seek out the answers, but I try very hard to hold back all of the information, allowing for that climax to really have power, depth, and emotion. I want to add up to the truth that is the number 10, not by throwing a cat through a window and shouting TEN!, but through clues, hints, and a slow burn, tension increasing, leading to that moment. I don’t really like 5 + 5 = 10 either. Two huge chunks, that’s not very subtle. I prefer the 1 + 1 + 2 + 1 + 1 + 3 + 1 = 10. I want the reader to make connections, to try and figure out who is good vs. evil, and I want the experience to be rewarding along the way. It’s the journey not the destination, right? But where I’m taking you, that also matters. I want that truth, that realization, that hidden threat to finally be revealed, and when the truth is shown in all of its horror and glory—that should be powerful. The denouement here is finally getting the truth, understanding what has happened, and what that means now. The truth is going to set the protagonist free, or condemn them to eternal suffering—one or the other, usually.
I hope that as you look at the essential components of a satisfying work of fiction, you can see how the elements connect. It’s crucial to having a satisfying experience, and I see the denouement as the cherry on top of an already intense sundae—whipped cream and nuts, hot fudge, and the ice cream mix that makes you happy. It’s the exclamation point at the end of a powerful journey, a satisfying emotion and understanding, that hopefully leads you, the reader (and author) to gasp or shout YES! while pumping your fist or perhaps to close your eyes, and sob in horror. Whatever reaction you are looking for as an author, the denouement is key to creating a fulfilling experience.
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