Often as writers, we put a lot of our focus on the starting, climax, and middle of a story, and the denouement or falling action may be somewhat of an afterthought. If you grew up like me, you were kind of taught that the denouement should just be a quick wrap up that can end the story, and you weren’t given much direction on how to do that in a satisfying way. But when crafted well, the denouement can sometimes feel like the most powerful part of a story–not because it has heightened tension and conflict, like the rest of the novel probably has, but precisely because it’s the emotional release of all that.
Here are some things to keep in mind when working with denouements.
The Proper Length
Denouements are often short, and in fact, I’ve been in some creative writing classes where we were told that you can even cut them off completely, and while that might work for some rare stories, I argue that almost every story is better with a strong denouement than without. My advice? Don’t skimp on it. (Usually.)
Because some of us were taught that the purpose of the denouement is to get out of the story quickly, some of us actually make them too short. You might be able to get away with that, but you miss out on ending your story on a more powerful note.
So what length should they be? Well, long enough to cover the important parts but short enough to keep them interesting. So let’s talk about what they need.
Its True Purpose: Validation
A powerful denouement doesn’t just “end the story.” It validates it. This means validating changes that happened during, or maybe rather, because of the story. Show evidence of what has been lost, defeated, gained, or won. So after a romance conflict, you may show the couple getting married. If someone died in the climax, you may show a funeral. If the protagonist completed a character arc, we need to see him acting as a changed person. Was the antagonist defeated? Show that he, she, or it is now gone from the world.
Powerful validation, especially one after another, is what can often bring an audience to tears–it’s the release and outcome of all the previous hardship. It can also cement the theme into readers’ hearts.
Validate what has changed, and sometimes, what hasn’t changed. A lot of powerful denouements do some of both, which is why you’ll notice it may be similar to the beginning of the novel, but different.
Tie Loose Ends (and Maybe Add New Ones)
This is usually what people think of when thinking of denouements, but when you validate changes, you are often tying up any loose ends in the process. Still, there may be some elements that need to be mentioned and addressed directly. If there was a side mystery, we may need to still get that resolved in the falling action. Any information that we are lacking, should probably be in the text. Smaller conflicts that weren’t handled in the climax, may be concluded here.
And in some stories, you may actually be adding loose ends in addition to tying off others. This is particularly true for a book in a series. Maybe what happened in the climax opened up more questions and potential conflicts. Some denouements close all the conflicts of the book, and then at the very end, add a few loose ends. Installments in a series may acknowledge any ongoing loose ends that haven’t yet been resolved.
Convey a New Normal
In the beginning of the novel, you probably conveyed a sense of normalcy to the audience–what was normal for this character, this setting, this society. Most satisfying denouements establish a sense of what the new normal may be. This can be big and obvious, like a couple being married. Or it may be more subtle, like what a changed character is planning to do next in life. In some cases, you may be “hinting” at the future more than “establishing” it.
Sometimes, the “new normal” may actually be the old normal you opened up with, but in most stories, that would probably undermine all the changes that took place. Still, it can work for the right kind. But even if the new normal is almost the same as the old normal, typically it’s a good idea to at least give us a hint of how the protagonist grew, internally.
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.