Cause of Death: Denouement
by Jason Black
We normally think of a novel’s denouement as a chance to wrap up loose ends from the story before typing “The End.” We don’t normally think of them as being essential to the portrayal of our characters. After all, the story’s over; how can the denouement matter much? But it does. If you mess up the denouement you’ll murder the characters.
I learned this the hard way.
I’ll never forget what it was like to finish my first manuscript. The story was done, the characters were done, but I wasn’t ready to let them go. Having spent so long with them getting to that point, I loved them and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
So what did I do? I wrote an epilogue. It’s a sweet epilogue. Kind of sappy. To this day I still like it. It gave me a chance to say the goodbye I wasn’t ready for in the last scene.
But it killed the characters. I didn’t understand that at the time, but it did. I don’t 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. “You don’t need all that,” he said. “It’s too much.” 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 weren’t dead for me, although they weren’t dead in the story, they were dead for him. I had written a denouement that satisfied my needs as a writer, as if I’m the one the story had been written for. I had completely failed to understand the reader’s 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. That’s true, but it’s trivial. The deeper purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of their lives.
Reorienting, that’s the important bit. The reason for this has nothing to do with you. It’s 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 they’re 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 “now, anything is possible!”
You graduate high school or college, bursting with the feeling of accomplishment, confident that you’re 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 doesn’t always happen, but that’s how it feels, and that’s 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 don’t need to be told what that new, better future is.
Which, of course, is exactly what my murderous denouement had done: I had taken the characters all the way to their new future.
The reader’s turn
How does that murder the characters? Epilogues such as I had written prevent the characters from living on for us – the readers.
As the writer, the characters live for you because you are imagining their feelings and actions and everything else through the whole story. It is your imagination that brings them to life for the reader.
As readers, we don’t have that full freedom; we can’t supply our own choices for those things, because your choices determine the story. Different choices would lead to a different plot; obviously the writer must supply the choices and present them to us through the narrative.
That difference means that on a very fundamental level, characters necessarily must feel less alive to the reader than they do to the writer. A good writer can create characters that feel very alive indeed, but I guarantee, to that writer they feel even more alive.
This is true from page one up through the end. But once the story ends, the situation changes.
When the plot finishes, the doors of possibility are thrown wide open once more. The characters might now choose anything. How exciting! And having come to know them through the course of the story, we readers are finally in a position to imagine them into further life just like you imagined them into life while you were writing the story.
You had your turn. Now it’s ours, but only if you allow us to imagine what the characters might do next. If you imagine it for us, we can’t. If your denouement tells us that Mary Louise got her biology degree and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on tissue regeneration, while Charlie eventually bounced back from the breakup, married another woman in Iowa, had two kids and a dog and settled down to a modest life as an auto mechanic, then we don’t get our turn.
Reorient, then stop.
That’s all a denouement has to do. Reorient the characters, then stop. That’s it. Just don’t be specific about what happens to your story’s Mary Louise and Charlie. Point Mary Louise at grad school. Point Charlie at Iowa. Let us imagine the rest.
Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com.