We normally think of a novelís denouement as a chance to wrap up loose ends from
the story before typing ďThe End.Ē We donít normally think of them as being
essential to the portrayal of our characters. After all, the storyís over; how
can the denouement matter much? But it does. If you mess up the denouement
youíll murder the characters.
I learned this the hard way.
Iíll never forget what it was like to finish my first manuscript. The story was
done, the characters were done, but I wasnít ready to let them go. Having spent
so long with them getting to that point, I loved them and I wasnít ready to say
So what did I do? I wrote an epilogue. Itís a sweet epilogue. Kind of sappy. To
this day I still like it. It gave me a chance to say the goodbye I wasnít ready
for in the last scene.
But it killed the characters. I didnít understand that at the time, but it did.
I donít mean I literally killed the characters off in the epilogue. I gave them
a happily-ever-after. What I mean is that I killed them for the reader. Without
meaning to, I murdered my beloved characters.
One of my critiquers told me to cut the epilogue. ďYou donít need all that,Ē he
said. ďItís too much.Ē I rankled at that piece of feedback. I liked my sweet,
sappy epilogue. It had given me closure.
It took me a long time to understand what he meant. Although the characters
werenít dead for me, although they werenít dead in the story, they were dead
for him. I had written a denouement that satisfied my needs as a writer, as
if Iím the one the story had been written for. I had completely failed to
understand the readerís needs, and how a denouement should fulfill them.
The purpose of a denouement
Again, most people think of a denouement as the stuff between the climax and the
end where you wrap up loose ends. Thatís true, but itís trivial. The deeper
purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of
Reorienting, thatís the important bit. The reason for this has nothing to do
with you. Itís all about the reader.
An audience usually wants to leave a story with the feeling that the characters
are facing a new, better future. We want to believe that theyíre going to be ok.
We want that same sense of an unbounded but positive future for the characters
that we ourselves have when we conquer major obstacles in our lives: the feeling
that ďnow, anything is possible!Ē
You graduate high school or college, bursting with the feeling of
accomplishment, confident that youíre going make good and retire by age 40. You
finally find the right person to be with, endure the ordeal of a wedding, and
head off into your honeymoon feeling like life is just going to be awesome from
here on out. It doesnít always happen, but thatís how it feels, and thatís the
feeling readers love to have after turning that last page.
In a denouement, you create that feeling by pointing the characters toward
someplace new. Not by actually taking them there. We want to believe they are
now facing a new, better future. We just donít need to be told what that new,
better future is.