What is a Dénouement? A Story’s Final Beat (+ Examples)
A dénouement is the resolution of a plot, consisting of the final moments in a fictional work — the closing sequence after the climax of a story. The last beat in many story structures (including Freytag's Pyramid and the three-act structure), the dénouement provides a degree of closure, fulfills the author's promises to the reader, and answers lingering narrative questions.
In this post, we’ll look at some hallmarks of this element of story structure, and what purpose the dénouement serves. In short, a dénouement is important for:
Tying up loose ends
A dénouement often aims to give readers a satisfying conclusion to their experience by tying-up dangling narrative threads.
Some genres come with the inherent expectation of a rounded-out narrative. Romance novels, for example, typically conclude with a “happily ever after” for the leading couple. But if there are any unresolved subplots — did our heroine get that job she interviewed for? Did the best friend and the cute baker ever get together? — they are addressed in the dénouement.
💌 Curious about romance tropes beyond “happily ever after”? Check out our list of 11 popular romance tropes.
Mystery novels also tend to tie up most loose ends — or all the ones that pertain to the mystery at hand, at least. The narrative arc reaches its climactic peak when the clues scattered throughout the story suddenly click together and the guilty party is uncovered. During the dénouement that follows, when the villain is apprehended, the detective (or the narrator) reveals how they cracked the case and explains away any red herrings.
Example: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (spoiler ahead)
In this story of deception and mistaken identity, the dénouement takes place after the death of its villain, Sir Percival Glyde. We learn that Sir Percival had committed his bride, Laura, to an asylum under the name of another woman, Anne, who died soon after and was buried in Laura’s place. When Laura’s true beloved learns of the deception, he is able to free her from the asylum, and they have their happily ever after. It’s an especially fitting end to a book that is both a Victorian novel and an early work of detective fiction, both genres favoring closure in the form of a dénouement.
💡Fun fact: if you hadn’t guessed from the accent, dénouement is a French term. The word’s literal meaning is unknotting, or untangling — a helpful way to visualize putting the final touches on a story’s structure.
Of course, a dénouement is more than just an act of narrative housekeeping — it can also serve a more visceral purpose within a story.
A well-told story will inevitably build tension throughout the narrative. While this may not always take the form of suspense, the stakes ratchet up, or the protagonists’ odds of getting what they want grow ever slimmer — building to a climax. In story structures like the Fichtean curve and the three-act narrative, this climax is the moment of maximum tension, one that leaves the reader on the edge of their seat, gasping for air.
Much like a roller-coaster slowly rolling back to the platform after its most exciting loops and turns, the dénouement gives the reader a few moments to catch their breath and collect themselves before closing the book and rejoining the real world. It’s a chance for readers and characters to reflect on what just happened, now that the peril has been defused.
Example: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Following the dramatic death of Myrtle Wilson and the low-key murder of the titular character, The Great Gatsby’s dénouement is a decidedly somber affair.
Through Nick’s narration, we see the fallout from Gatsby’s death: his sparsely attended funeral, and a reluctant admission of responsibility on the part of Tom Buchanan, which ultimately comes too late. Nick moves back to the Midwest, disturbed by what has unfolded, and we join him in reflecting on what took place, and what any of this meant.
Then, of course, some final acts in a story may choose to give the reader a final look at the protagonist.
Reflecting on a character’s journey
Most novels feature some kind of “character vs self” conflict — where the protagonist can only achieve their goal once they realize that their main obstacle is, in fact, themselves. This might be the main conflict of the story (a movie star must overcome their ego to find happiness) or a sub-conflict that mirrors a character’s external conflict (a greedy tech bro must defeat an AI that’s programmed to accumulate wealth). It’s this internal conflict that drives the character arc — the inner journey that unfolds over the course of the plot.
Just as the narrative arc comes to a head at the climax, so will the character arc. Readers will therefore want to know what effect the climax has had on the character and their personal journey. In the dénouement, we should get a sense of how the events of the story have impacted them, and whether they have changed for the better, for the worse, or not at all.
Example: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, protagonist Janie struggles with self-actualization. She starts the novel unable to truly speak or advocate for herself: a helpless observer of her own story, trapped in a cycle of loveless and controlling marriages. By the novel’s climax, she finally takes action, shooting her third and final husband after he attacks her in a (literal) rabid rage.
In the novel’s dénouement, Janie finds a new sense of agency. She advocates for herself in court, and shares her story with other women on her own terms, no longer invisible and ignored.
While Janie’s story is a personal one, it also has something to say about society in general (here, the lives of women, and especially marginalized women) — which brings us on to our next point.
Playing one final thematic beat
Many stories, such as Aesop’s fable of “The Tortoise and The Hare,” explicitly state their moral lesson at the end: “Slow and steady wins the race.”
Unless you’re writing an anthology of overbearing parables, you won’t want to spoon-feed your readers this way. However, a dénouement can be a great place to give a final, subtle, nod to your novel’s theme or motifs. Again: don’t be heavy-handed or repetitive — simply offer an insight that gives your readers one last thought to chew on.
Example: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
For a dénouement that hits a theme on the head without overtly stating it, we can turn to Harper Lee’s classic novel.
Set in the Depression-era Deep South, To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the eyes of Scout, a 6-year-old girl. Her sense of right and wrong is shaken when lawyer Atticus Finch — Scout’s father — fails to secure an acquittal for Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongfully accused of sexual assault and killed before he has a chance of an appeal. Bob Ewell, one of Robinson’s accusers, vows revenge on Atticus and ambushes Scout while she’s returning from school dressed as a ham (don’t worry, it makes sense in the book).
Scout and her brother are saved by Boo Radley — a local recluse and the subject of a ghoulish local legend — who kills Ewell in the process. Scout suddenly sees Radley as a human being and realizes her previous prejudice toward him. She also backs up Heck Tate’s decision to report Bob Ewell’s death as an accident in order to spare the already-taunted Boo the publicity of a trial.
These actions and realizations show Scout’s acquiring a more “adult” and complete moral perspective. This includes the recognition that life consists of experiences with both “good” and “evil,” and underlines the core message that people have the choice to live consciously without becoming cynical, or losing hope in human kindness.
In case you’re thinking that dénouements are all about leaving no stone unturned, remember that the most thought-provoking endings are often open-ended.
Leaving the end on a question mark
Stories that end by wrapping all their threads into a bow can often feel a little contrived and jolt readers out of the narrative (the final season of Downton Abbey, anyone?). As such, some authors offer a dénouement that leaves a few lingering questions in the characters’ minds — and the feeling that there’s still more that could be said.
Authors who want readers to reflect on their story after the final words can end their novel by implying the characters’ lives will continue. This could be done by nudging at future events or by pointing out that there are minor conflicts that have yet to be worked out. These endings provide readers with a sense of longing. As they say in showbiz: leave them wanting more.
Authors can also leave a thematic or practical unanswered question for readers to reflect on. By giving readers something to chew on, authors can make a lasting impression.
Example: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Though the ending of this classic mystery novel answers all the logistical questions of how Cassetti was murdered (they all did it!), Agatha Christie’s dénouement for Murder on the Orient Express doesn’t end on a note of total resolution. It closes with a moral debate: who should be condemned for this crime?
While Poirot feels the murder was justified, there is still a question that hangs in the air: is the law absolute? And if not, where does it falter? Poirot does not reach a conclusion that wholly satisfies this ethical quandary, so despite its resolved mystery, the novel ends on an ellipsis that allows the reader to reflect: what would we do in Poirot’s situation?
All the features of a dénouement that we’ve mentioned so far have been artistic in nature. However, there’s one last variety that’s a bit more on the commercial side.
Setting up a potential sequel
There’s nothing more frustrating than reading hundreds of pages, only to find that the story is totally open-ended. And yet, there’s nothing more exciting than starting a second or third novel in a series, keenly anticipating answers that the previous book didn’t supply.
While a cliffhanger can be a great hook for the next novel, authors should approach cliffhangers with caution when not writing a sequel. Many readers consider sudden plot-twist endings that don’t provide a sense of resolution a betrayal of their trust. So if a stand-alone novel does end on a cliffhanger, the author must adequately lay the groundwork so that readers are caught off-guard. A bit of foreshadowing can save them from feeling like the rug has been swept out from under them. In other words, a cliffhanger should leave readers speculating, not consternating.
Setting up a sequel doesn’t necessarily mean a cliffhanger, either. Authors can tease a follow-up either by leaving readers with a lingering question, as seen above or by redefining the characters’ goal to set up a future plot — “Now we’ve retrieved the magical sword, we need to return it to the dragon’s lair”, etc.
Example: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
The first Grishaverse novel follows the story of a team of hired mercenaries, commissioned to rescue the inventor of a weaponizable drug from a military stronghold. While they’re successful in securing the formula, they are betrayed by their benefactor in the final pages of the book: Van Eck, the man who hired them, takes one of them hostage, and the story closes with the crew rethinking their aims and what they mean to each other. Their quest is far from over, and they begin to hatch a plan for securing the safe return of their friend and retrieving the money they are owed.
And now, having seen what purpose a dénouement can serve in a story, we reach the final, dying moments of this post. Should we reflect on what we’ve learned about this topic? Maybe we’ll give you, gentle reader, a few moments to consider what you want to learn next. Or perhaps we’ll leave you on an unsatisfying…