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.

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