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Monday, July 27, 2020

5 Keys to a Satisfying Denouement

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 their 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 of story. 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 changed, internally.

Pick the Right Ending

Author David Farland has talked about how satisfying endings will fit into one of these three options:

Happily Ever After - All of the "good guys" are happy and satisfied, and they successfully defeated the antagonist.

Sadder, but Wiser - The good guys may not have won the big external conflict, but they learned something profound and valuable from it, and will be better people because of it. Alternatively, maybe the characters didn't get wiser, but the audience did.

Much was Won, but Much was Lost - Much of the antagonistic forces were defeated, but it was costly. Good guys may have had to sacrifice things they will never get back. But it was probably worth it.

Usually certain genres lean toward one type of ending. The tone and theme and plot of your story will also likely lean toward a specific one. Demonstrate your ending model in the denouement for a powerful impact.


  1. I love your point about validation. I think sometimes we subconsciously build it in, but it would def be better if we write it with intent.

    1. Yes, I do think probably a lot of people end up putting that in, without really thinking about it. But when we are aware, we can make it stronger. :)


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