A novel’s plot structure, in its simplest outline, consists of an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and the denouement also called the conclusion or resolution. Of all the story elements, perhaps the least examined is the denouement which resolves the complications of a story’s plot.
Part of this lack of analysis might be because no two denouements look alike. Truly, there is no hard and fast “right way” to wrap up a story.
Fairy tales famously took care of the denouement with one line: They all lived happily ever after. Mysteries often closely dovetail the denouement with the climax—the whodunit is entwined with the lives and stories of the suspects who didn’t do it, and the reader learns all about those too as the detective reveals how the crime was committed.
Somewhat popular today in fantasy are stories that have a somewhat open-ended denouement, often for the purpose of introducing the next book in a series.
Other stories seem to go to great lengths to wrap up all the loose ends. I think, for example, of Return of the King, third in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Essentially the story question ended when Frodo battled Gollum and ended up destroying the One Ring.
But we know by the title that this volume of the story is about the returning king, so after the climax, there is the resolution of the king being accepted by his people. Then there is the story of the hobbits returning home, of their dealing with Sauroman in the Shire, and finally of Frodo’s departure with the elves. And I’m not listing all the various loose ends that are nicely tied in the process.
Another approach is to skip the denouement altogether. The story “The Lady Or The Tiger?” skips the climax (will the princess tell her lover under punishment by the king to open the door releasing the tiger or the lady he would then have to marry?) Consequently, with no climax, there can be no denouement.
Gone With The Wind ends in a similar way with one major difference: the protagonist is a different person in the end; she has learned who she loves and who she doesn’t love and she’s learned what gives her strength. Apart from that, the reader knows little of what will become of her.
Truby describes three types of endings that truncate a story: premature endings (of which there are also three kinds: the protagonist’s early self-revelation, the hero’s desire attained too quickly, the actions the hero takes to achieve his goal aren’t organic); arbitrary endings in which the story just stops; and the closed ending in which the hero achieves his goal, gains new insights, and essentially lives happily ever after.
With these endings, the story does not live on.
All three of these structural elements give the audience the sense that the story is complete and the system has come to rest. But that’s not true. Desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee the hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is a always a living thing, an ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story. (Truby, The Anatomy of a Story, p. 419)
As I see it, this “living ending” is the secret to a successful denouement. Of course, there is no formula, no set way to ensure that readers will continue to think about the characters going on after the story, but there are some principles that might help.
One writer, Charlie Jane Anders, says the most legitimate reason for the denouement to exist is to “provide some resolution to the themes of your story.” She goes on to explain:
if your plot doesn’t end with enough of a clear-cut catharsis to resolve the main themes of your novel, then yes, you need a denouement. (“What’s The Difference Between Denouement And Picking At A Scab?“)
Later she adds
Remember: readers actually like it when you make them do a lot of the work themselves. And a big part of the pleasure of reaching the end of a book is getting to imagine in your own mind how the characters will go on afterwards — the story keeps unspooling in your head after you stop turning pages, except that the training wheels have come off. So the less you spoonfeed the reader in your final pages, the more you’re inviting her/him to start imagining the story after the book ends. (Ibid.)
Statements about denouements that accomplish what a novel needs, then, include the following:
- they do not have a set length
- they do allow the characters to “go on living” after the end of the story
- they may give a panoramic view of the characters doing something that lends itself to expansion in the reader’s mind
- they may hint at what happens next without spelling out particulars
- they should wrap up the theme of the story, though other loose ends may still be dangling.
Your turn: what’s the best ending you’ve read? What, in your view, made it so good?