I. What is Denouement?
The denouement (Dey-noo-mahn) is the very end of a story, the part where all the different plotlines are finally tied up and all remaining questions answered. It happens right after the climax, the most exciting point in the story, and it shows the aftermath of that climax, giving the reader some hints as to what will happen next. The denouement is usually the very last thing your audience sees, so it has to be well-written or the story will seem unsatisfying.
SPOILER ALERT! This article is about the endings of popular stories, so it contains many spoilers for popular books/movies like Moby-Dick, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. Skip the examples if you don’t want those stories ruined for you!
II. Examples of Denouement
…and they lived happily ever after.
This is often the denouement of fairy tales. The main characters have succeeded at whatever conflict they faced (a dragon, an evil stepmother, etc.), and now they’ve gotten married and will lead awesome, happy lives. This denouement is a bit of a cliché, but tried and true.
In a video game, there’s often a long cutscene at the end, after the final boss battle, in which the player gets to see their character destroy the boss and win the reward. This scene ties up all the loose ends in the game and explains any remaining mysteries. It may also set the player up for some bonus levels which are not part of the main story (e.g. going back to the start with all the powers and items you had at the end!) Other cutscenes throughout the game serve other purposes, for example introducing characters or explaining the backstory – these are not examples of denouement.
III. The Importance of Denouement
Throughout the story, your reader is riding a wave of tension: there is mystery, suspense, and perhaps an epic conflict between heroes and villains. At the climax, this tension reaches its highest point, and the reader should be on the edge of their seat. After that, they need a denouement to relax a little. It’s as though the reader has been holding their breath for the whole story, and the denouement is their chance to finally exhale. As a result, it’s got to be well-written! The denouement determines how the reader will feel when they close the book or walk out of the theater. If the denouement is written badly, it will leave the audience feeling unsatisfied and unhappy with the novel or movie.
IV. Examples of Denouement in Literature
Then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick)
Moby-Dick is a dark tale of vengeance, violence, and madness, so it’s fitting that it should have a dark denouement. At the climax, Ahab gets a rope caught around his neck and is pulled viciously out of his ship and into the bloody sea. A moment later, the entire ship gets caught in a whirlpool and dragged down below the waves, killing everyone aboard. The denouement doesn’t ease or relax this tension; instead it seems to say: “Ahab and his crew died, but the ocean didn’t care: the ocean was here long before human beings, and will be here long after we are gone.”
The original ending of Lord of the Rings (the books) is highly unusual because its denouement is delayed. After the Ring is destroyed and Sauron killed, we expect the hobbits to go back to the Shire and live the rest of their lives in peace and security. What actually happens, though, is that they return to find that orcs have taken over the Shire! We expect the fight to be over, but instead we get a brand-new fight as the hobbits have to fight off all these orcs. Only then do we get a denouement, which consists of Frodo leaving Middle Earth and Sam finally getting married to Rosie.
V. Examples of Denouement in Pop Culture
The denouement of Harry Potter occurs when Harry and Dumbledore meet up in the celestial realm and Dumbledore explains everything to Harry, clearing up the mysteries and remaining plot holes. Some readers found this to be more than necessary, and it’s probably better not to imitate it. Rather than just having one character explain everything to another, it’s more satisfying to show your reader the answers. That’s a lot harder to write than a straightforward explanation, but readers usually like it more.
Next time you’re watching a stand-up comedian, keep an eye out for the denouement. Comedians will usually try to end on a high note, saving their funniest jokes for last (like a climax). In that same joke, or shortly afterwards, the comedian will often deliver a short, snappy line that ties up the various strands of the performance: for example, if there’s a repeating joke in the routine, the comedian will refer back to that joke at the very end. Like the denouement of a story, this line puts a cap on the whole performance and leaves the audience feeling satisfied.
VI. Related Terms
The climax of a story is the most exciting part. It’s the part where the action comes to a peak and the readers are in the highest state of suspense. In a video game, this would be the last boss battle; in a western movie, it would be the final shootout. The denouement is what happens right after the climax, where we see the result or resolution of the climax. The bandits have been driven out of town, and the sheriff and his deputy ride off into the sunset.
An epilogue is a separate section that explains what happened after the end of the story. For example, in a movie you might see various characters flash across the screen with text saying things like “Sam and Kate got married and now have three kids. Chad was arrested for fraud.” etc. Often, this is added after the denouement: the denouement should be especially short in the case.