On the denouement

So. The denouement. The bit at the end; the ‘happily ever after’ section. The most important part of a novel.

Your denouement is the difference between your readers having complete emotional closure and just putting the book aside with a sense of ‘meh’. I’m always amazed when I read a half-assed denouement because, for me, they’re the most enjoyable part of the writing process. If you’ve any sort of complexity in your story your protagonists will have been through some heavy shit. They’ll have changed and grown, been traumatised and ended up different people to those who started. Don’t you want to reward yourself by showing them walking a little taller?

The climax is the end of your story. It’s where the main character overcomes – or not – his demons, competing your story’s main arc. What else, then, is there to say? Well, unless you’ve done an amazing (or over-simplistic) job of trying everything into your one great battle-scene – a fight that may, of course, be internal – then you’re going to have some unanswered questions. Some unwoven threads. The denouement is where you get to tie these lines off. You don’t have to answer the questions: that, my friend, is a rookie error. But you have to acknowledge them all. Someone has to ask who shot the chauffeur, even if the answer is simply ‘Looks like we’ll never know now.’

So that’s one thing. The denouement is one last opportunity to resolve the plot, to explain any last detail that you couldn’t squeeze into the main narrative. But it’s more than that. It’s the emotional conclusion – once the dust has settled (and denouements often take the form of epilogues, after time has moved a little) and the surviving characters have had a chance to take stock of what they’ve gone through. They’ll have changed – in most cases they’ll have grown. Here’s where you show what the story has done to them. Who they’ve become.

One thing, though: be wary of killing the future. JK Rowling did this at the end of the Harry Potter series. Great story, appropriately apocalyptic ending – and then we have this pointless little bit at the end, where Harry is sending his own kids off to school. Apart from adding nothing to the story, this essential stops anything interesting from happening to her characters at least until the point in time when the epilogue’s set. Harry can have no more adventures as we know he’s going to get through them to get to ‘then’.

You might be thinking ‘well that’s fine. JK didn’t want to write any more Potter’s.’ But she didn’t just take the option away from herself; she also took it from the imagination of every reader. What’s the point of imagining new stories if you know that cosy domesticity is the inevitable result? Fan-fiction has nowhere to go.

Of course, there are any number of devices that can be used to make this future non-inevitable. But that’s just cheating.

That in mind, here’s what I think a denouement should be:

  • The emotional conclusion to the novel
  • A place where all unresolved issues are acknowledged, if not necessarily answered
  • …and which can become the starting point for a sequel if you’re looking to write a series
  • As long as it needs to be. If you’ve somehow managed to create a story in which all the questions are answered in the climax then the denouement can be pretty short. ‘They lived happily ever after.’ More likely you’ll need scenes with all your surviving POV characters, to show the reader what they’ve become
  • …But don’t let it drag too long. There’s nothing worse than a story that doesn’t know where to end. If you have many characters, or many issues, then you can simply have two characters discussing the rest. The denouement is one place where you can afford to tell not show – but be careful not to simply recount a train of events. You still have to satisfy

I’m currently working on my own denouement; the great battle is fought and now my characters have to face the consequences. This is my reward for all the hard slog that brought me to this point. My post-coital cigarette after the thrill of the climax.

The doubt-beast; or The loneliness of the long-distance writer

What if I can’t pull this together? What if every turn disappoints the reader? What if, instead of a nail-biting action-adventure full of depth and passion, I’ve come up with the literary equivalent of a novelty Christmas single.

I doubt. Everyone doubts. This ain’t my first rodeo and, to be honest, I can’t really imagine writing without anxiety riding the shoulder. It’s almost a comfort; without it I’d worry I was becoming cocky and not caring enough about my work. As it is I’m suddenly struck (for the doubt-beast is a stealth predator) by a fear that what I’ve written is really – well, a bit crap.

I’m not worried about the actual words. They are, doubtless, shit. I’m fully intending to go through this manuscript half a dozen times before it’s ready for professional scrutiny, and the actual quality of writing will, in theory, develop with each pass.

Nor am I too worried with characters, not right at this moment, and for similar reasons. I’ll start to worry about them after my second draft, where I’ve swept away all the foreshadowments I didn’t use and replaced them with the ones I actually need.

No, I’m worried about the actual ideas. I’m worried about choices made and the roads not taken. I’m worried about logic and motivation and cop-outs and gone-too-far-edness.

More specifically, I’m worried about the following:

  • Do I have a decent three-act structure?
  • Is my underlying idea strong enough?
  • Do I have too many point-of-view characters?
  • Is the whole damn thing too complex? Am I trying to do too much?
  • …but the ending lacks a twist or revelation. Is it not complex enough?
  • Is my world consistent? Is there a thread I failed to knit in tightly? Will everything unravel if it’s pulled upon?
  • At almost every stage I could have taken different paths. Have I gone the right way? What opportunities have I missed? What else could the novel have been? Why haven’t I written that novel? Would it be better?
  • Does the story work?

These questions are, in fact, pretty much what I’d want a beta-reader to tell me. And it’s no bad thing to have these questions out there now; it means I’m actively looking for fundamental errors. Simply, I’m alive to ways my story could be improved.

Doubt – self-doubt – is your friend. It’s a way of making sure you look at things from every angle. It’s your subconscious’ way of making sure you’re doing the best you can. It also gives you something of a shield for when you do finally send your work out into the wider world and prepares you for the inevitable criticism from early readers.

But doubt can also be crippling. Too much fear and you’ll never get that first draft down. Which is why I cry ‘Onwards!’ Onwards, to the end. I lock doubt in the broom-cupboard of the mind, or set it to worrying about what I’m going to get the Missus for Christmas (not that novelty single, that’s for sure). Doubt has no place in a first draft. I will save all the questions it throws up – all the above and many, many more – because they’ll be tremendously useful as I move through my revisions. But for now it’s all about getting this draft finished. And I’ve still got my Eternal Climax to overcome.

Bring forth the sacrificial lambuscript!

The Sacrificial Lambuscript: original art by Peat Blagg @peat999. He's really good!

The Sacrificial Lambuscript: original art by Peat Blagg @peat999. He’s really good!

Some people are better at some things than others. Yes, I know – blindingly obvious, huh? But it’s amazing how much stall you can put in a single person’s advice, no hint of a second opinion or of checking over for anything missed.

I have the very good fortune to belong to AB-FAG, my local manuscript-critique-exchange group. Last week was one of our periodic get-togethers where, over a pint or two (white wine for the ladies*), we eviscerate our sacrificial lambuscript and perform several pagan – and probably illegal – orgiastic dances with its entrails. The cleaning bill’s a bit of a bugger, but it is a guaranteed cure of all known arrogances, blockages, superverbosities and misplaced metaphors in the writing world.

The point (and there is one) is this. Some people can spot things like plot-holes or impossible travel times. Some people are quite happy to let those go but are absolutely abhorring of the misplaced apostrophe. Some are super-hot at dialogue; when it’s singing and when it’s turning into gruesome parody.

My thing is the factual error; internal contradictions; things that a character describes but can’t actually see; and a side-order of plot-nonconvincery and missing motivations. A colleague is hot on character and voice. These strengths overlap (we hope) with those of the rest of the group. We can all see these things but some emphasise some things over others. Sometimes this leads to intense debate. Example: in this last manuscript there is a character of a piratical nature. Two of the group found him shallow and lacking in logic/motivation. Two others had absolutely no problem and thought him convincingly villainous.

It is an aside that the two who thought him shallow were male and the two who liked him female. Not sure if that really means anything. Just, as I said, an aside.

It’s up to the writer whether they make any changes – on this and on anything else – or if they simply say ‘to hell with you all’. The point is that one person can mislead, can give you a bum steer. There’s no guarantee that a multitude will be any righter, but a more rounded critique – by a body of people who read both in- and outside of the (any) genre – can be nothing but useful.

Because everyone reads differently. Even professionals – agents and editors and the like – have their strengths and weaknesses. They should be all-round better than you and I because it’s their job to see things from many angles: they should have the experience to have raised their floor to a level above that of the average joe. But – and I’m sure you all know this – they’re only human. Your manuscript can fall on the wrong desk at the wrong time. Some people might have a sudden urge for a red-hot erotic fantasy just as your worldly-worthy study in Victorian prudery arrives in their inbox. Just your bad luck.

There’s nothing you can do about luck. The only thing that’ll help you is to make sure that you’ve got the best possible material out there just in case your epic tome on German cheesemaking lands on the desk of a committed subscriber of Westphalia Tilsiter at the time when she’s desperate to bring her passion to the masses. And the best way to get the best possible material is to share your drafts with as wide an audience as possible – preferably early enough in your writing process that you’ve time and energy to make the changes.

And now I’m off to prepare my own sacrificial lambuscript for the altar of public opinion. Happy writing to all.

*An Al Murray/Pub Landlord quote. Not being sexist. Honest.

The climax

So. The Climax. The decisive moment – the event, the emotion that you’ve spent the whole novel waiting for, writing for. The bit where the tension you’ve been ratcheting up for the last hundred pages finally explodes as the brakes fail and the momentum splinters like an industrial accident.

Modern novels are all about tension. Climaxes are the ultimate release of that tension. The climax of the stereotypical detective story is in the reveal of the killer (‘I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here…’) – although these days there’s usually a chase and a fight just after the reveal for one last stroke of adrenaline and power.

This tension is why I like quick jump-cut scenes in the final stages: two things happening simultaneously. Build up the action in one, bring us to a high-point – and then cut to the other characters before the action is resolved. Build this new scene up – and then jump back. Never let the reader relax. Keep the buggers on tenterhooks.

What matters is less the logic of the situation, less the blood and the smug satisfaction of having got one over on your readers: it’s about the emotions you create. Violence without an emotional punch is just sadism. It’s the completion of the hero’s journey, their final step to independence. It’s about making that definitive decision that allows them to grow, to be free. A final realisation. A psychic blow to the gut that leaves the reader breathless, drained and – yes – satisfied.

This is why I always like to sacrifice an ally in the climax – someone the audience (and author) has grown to care about. To show them this is real, it has consequences, that winning hurts.

It’s also why pacing is so important in the world of the novel. You need your lull before the resolution. You need your moments of fear and anxiety and introspection so that when you come to the crunch you can accelerate from thereon in. Shorten your sentences. Forget the prose. Forget description. Feel the punches; mix it with long run-on sections to bring out and the breathlessness and the panic and chaos (for speed is inherently chaotic) and punctuation is optional for this is your oh my god this hurts this hurts moment.

The antagonist – usually an external force, but not always – may be defeated. They may not. But even defeat must give a sense that the (surviving) characters have learnt and grown. Otherwise you’re writing a very bleak piece indeed.

Of course, that might be the point. But it’s always nice to have hope.

And, after the climax is complete, it’s time for the denouement where we sift through the wreckage in search of unanswered questions. But more on that later.

For now – happy writing, folks.