The denouement is at the end of a story, where the plotlines are tied up and resolved.
All remaining questions (if there is not a sequel to the story or the writer doesn’t have other intentions) are answered. The denouement can be found after the falling action.
Definition and Explanation of Denouement
The word denouement comes from the Latin meaning “untie the knot.” It refers to the narrative questions and plot points that are resolved at this point in the story. The narrative’s previous plot elements that are found in the exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action, are explained. Whatever the conflict of the story was, whether it was between two people, one person, and their mental/emotional health, one person and the natural world, or any other possibility, it concludes and normalcy returns. Denouement is one part of traditional plot structures, such as that laid out by Freytag’s Pyramid.
Freytag’s pyramid was created by German writer Gustav Freytag in the 19th century. He argued that all plots could be broken down into five parts. They are:
- Rising action
- Falling action
He created the pyramid in order to describe and define 19th-century plays that were usually divided into five parts already.
Today, the pyramid is used to help new writers and literary students understand one of the main ways the stories come together. It is also applied to other narratives, such as those found in television shows and films.
- Exposition: the first part of the plot and the section of the story in which the audience learns details about the characters, setting, and their relationships to one another. The historical details are also set out during this section of the story.
- Rising Action: the complicating event or events that create problems for the characters and lead up to the climax. Some believe this part of the story to be the most important as, without it, the climax would never occur, or would the falling action and dénouement. In a play, the rising action spans between two and three acts.
- Climax: the central turning point of the story. It is where the story peaks in tension and the reader should be most engaged and excited about the story. Usually, something happens during the climax that redefines the narrative and paves the way for the falling action and dénouement.
- Falling Action: the series of actions that follow the climax. It is usually the hardest part of the pyramid to stop due to the fact that it can take several different forms. It ends with the resolution.
- Dénouement: refers to the part of the plot that ties up the loose ends and reveals what happens to the characters next. It appears at the very end of the story and might be a chapter, a page, or a sentence.
Examples of Denouement
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
The end of Macbeth is marked by a speech from Malcom. He tells the audience that he’s going to restore Scotland to peace after everything that happened in the play. Here are the first few lines of that speech:
We shall not spend a large expense of time
Before we reckon with your several loves
And make us even with you. My thanes and
Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland
In such an honor named. What’s more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time,
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny,
He declares that he’s going to name his thanes and kinsmen the first earls that Scotland has ever had, rewarding them for bringing in this new era. Malcom also says that “we” must bring justice to all those who word for Macbeth and his wife. The play finishes with some lines that invite everyone to come and watch him be crowned king of Scotland at Scone.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
In this dark story, the climax occurs when Ahab gets a rope caught around his neck and is pulled into the sea. Only a fe moments later the entire ship is pulled down into the ocean by a whirlpool and destroyed. The entire crew is killed. The denouement does not provide a peaceful resolution to the story. It reads as follows:
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.
These lines seem to criticize Ahab for his quest and the idea that humankind could ever conquer the ocean.
Why Do Writers Use Denouement?
Writers use denouement because, without it, stories cannot be resolved. Without that resolution, readers would leave the story without knowing what happened to the characters. The novel would feel unfinished without the answers to questions asked throughout. It comes in a variety of forms, but it always restores the main characters’ world to a semi-normal state and provides a feeling of finality for the readers to enjoy.
Denouement or Epilogue?
While the two often feel similar, they are different for a couple of reasons. An epilogue is optional. It’s a follow-up to the main part of the novel that provides the reader with just a bit more detail if they’re interested in reading it. It won’t contain any crucial plot points but it might allude to a second novel if the series is going to expand. The epilogue’s purpose is to show readers how the denouement changed character’s lives. It depicts what “happily ever after” looks like.
Related Literary Devices
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.