On Writing: The Denouement

that's all folks

Not gonna lie, one of my favorite parts of writing a novel is the ending.  But it’s not necessarily because I’m FINALLY FINISHING a project that has gone on for far too long.

No, I love writing denouements.  I know…I’m weird that way.

Some people see this as the post-climax ‘what happened to the characters’ sequence, or confuse it with the epilogue, and I can understand why some aren’t fond of these types of end scenes because of that.  Like the occasional argument about prologues, this is a sequence that some people think is completely unnecessary.  [A really good example of this not being done well is Tolkien’s The Return of the King, where the main story actually finishes up around three quarters of the way through, and ending with a post-adventure rambling about hobbit life that was much longer than it needed to be.]

Denouement done well, on the other hand, is always a joy.  It’s where all the remaining strands of plot are brought together to complete the story and give it proper closure.  In The Balance of Light, for instance, I used it as a final closure scene for all the main characters.  Everything was as back to normal as it could be, and everyone was content in returning back to their daily lives.   It was definitely needed there; I wrote it as a relaxing exhale (for both the characters and the reader) from the almost nonstop action in that third book in the trilogy.

The trick in writing a good denouement is to treat it as part of the story proper.  Try to avoid the trap of writing a list of what happened post-climax to everyone; that will read like a dusty old classic, and it’s a style that’s very rarely used anymore.  Instead, what you want to do is treat it as a proper coda to the entire story.  Picture how you would react if you were the main character, having FINALLY just completed an intense ordeal; you’d want to take a break, right?  You’d want to clean up all the loose ends, close the case, and then have a nice twelve-year vacation doing absolutely nothing.  That’s the denouement right there: that cleaning up and putting away of everything.

I’m just about to start in on this segment of In My Blue World, in which our main characters have defeated evil and are now going back to their normal lives.  They’ll need to return to their own time, come to terms with what they’ve gone through, and move on.

Why do I enjoy writing these?  I think it’s partly because this is where I’m right near the finish line for the project, but it’s also because I get to do a little bit of last-minute character development.  If they’ve gone through this ordeal, they’ve definitely been changed in some way, good or bad.  I get to look at the characters one more time and decide precisely how they’ll act next.  In The Balance of Light, Denni is relieved that her role as the One of All Sacred has ended, but she’s still worried whether or not her actions have actually made a difference.  In Meet the Lidwells, the siblings and cousins interact with each other once more as adults, finally enjoying their lives the way they truly want to.

Think of it as a kind of poetic coda to a song.  Perhaps like the “The End” off the Beatles’ Abbey Road:  after the songs and long medleys, this track brings the band together one last time, with the three guitar styles playing off each other, followed by a final verse that ties it all together (“And in the end, the love you make…”), all brought to a close with a final melodic statement.

The denouement should always provide that final relaxing exhale.  And if you’ve done it right, it’ll provide one for the writer as well.

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