The basic plot diagram for stories typically begins with an exposition. Then you introduce the conflict, heighten the problem through rising action, hit the climax, and taper off to a denouement.
Wait… a what?
Don’t worry, there’s no need to hire a French tutor just yet. The concept of a denouement is actually pretty simple, but not every story has one.
What Is a Denouement?
A denouement is the final part of the story after the climax, where things get resolved or explained, and plot points are drawn together in a coherent whole. It is usually the time when you finally reveal any secrets or mysteries and tie up all loose ends.
This can happen in the last part or chapter of the story. Other times, it might come as an epilogue to the book.
Significance of Denouement in Literature
Most fiction stories and dramas use a denouement to wrap up the story and offer readers a conclusion to all the action they’ve been following throughout the story.
Sometimes this conclusion is clearly stated; other times it may be left a bit vague.
Does Every Story Have a Denouement?
Some post-modern writings do away with the denouement altogether, leaving the stories hanging and letting the reader draw his own conclusions.
For example, take the critically acclaimed HBO series The Sopranos. The series finale episode cuts to black (literally) right in the middle of a high-stakes scene. Viewers are left wondering if the show’s protagonist is assassinated, or if he simply finishes dinner with his family in a packed diner.
While this now-famous ending frustrated many viewers, it allowed them an opportunity to draw their own conclusions about the main character’s fate.
Examples of Denouement in Literature
Because the denouement refers to the last part of a story, the following examples may be spoilers for you. If you would prefer to read the stories and be surprised by the ending, consider skipping the examples below.
Example #1. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
In Romeo and Juliet, the tragic climax occurs when Romeo finds Juliet dead and he decides to kill himself.
Then, in this scene, their families find them dead:
“O brother Montague, give me thy hand.
This is my daughter’s jointure, for no more
Can I demand…”
“But I can give thee more,
For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known…
As that of true and faithful Juliet…”
“As rich shall Romeo’s by his lady’s lie,
Poor sacrifices of our enmity…”
“A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head…”
The character Prince Escalus explains how their deaths were a result of the long-standing family feud. This leaves the members of both families to feel guilty and remorseful for their stubbornness in holding to their conflict.
Example #2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The epic story of Gone with the Wind unveils problem after problem towards the end of the book. And then, in the chapter where her sister-in-law Melanie Wilkes is dying, Scarlett O’Hara comes face to face with the reality that she had always leaned on the weaker girl’s strength.
Although this scene does not seem climactic, Scarlett’s lifelong obsession with Melanie’s husband Ashley makes this event a very important crossroads for her. The climax happens as she realizes she does not love Ashley, and starts to long for her husband Rhett.
As she heads home to profess her love for Rhett, the denouement happens in the tragic way that Rhett tells her he has given up on her and walks out of her life.
Example #3. Road to Memphis by Mildred Taylor
In Road to Memphis, Stacey and Cassie Logan need to help one of their friends, Moe, who accidentally killed a white man in a town gathering at Strawberry. The whole book revolves around this goal of getting Moe out of town.
When they finally succeed in getting Moe on a train to their Uncle Hammer in Chicago, the story wraps up several loose ends: their deceased friend Clarence had left a letter for his pregnant girlfriend Sissy. Sissy also gets Jeremy to admit to helping Moe escape, and Jeremy gets disowned by his own father for what he did.
Example #4. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
The classic story of Robinson Crusoe revolves around the title character’s experiences after a shipwreck: the months he spends on the deserted island, the things he resorts to in order to survive, and how he finally gets the man Friday as his servant.
Towards the end of the book, he finally gets rescued, and the story wraps up as he finally gets back home.
Example #5. Animal Farm by George Orwell
In the dystopian story Animal Farm, the animals rebel against their human farmer but end up enslaved by a group of totalitarian pigs. The problems continue to escalate as the pigs gain more and more control.
The story wraps up with this observation as its denouement:
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.“
Example #6. “A Dog’s Tale” by Mark Twain
“A Dog’s Tale” is a short story is told from the perspective of a dog. She tells about her life as a puppy, her transfer to a new home, and her eventual parenthood. The climax happens when she rescues her master’s baby from a tragic fire, but her master mistakenly punishes her before he learns of her heroism.
After she receives very special treatment for what she did, she wonders why the humans are talking about blindness and start to check on her puppy.
The humans end up burying her puppy, which she first misunderstands to be like planting seeds. The denouement happens when she starts to realize what really happened to her puppy, and the story ends on this sad note:
I have watched two whole weeks, and he doesn’t come up! This last week a fright has been stealing upon me. I think there is something terrible about this. I do not know what it is, but the fear makes me sick, and I cannot eat, though the servants bring me the best of food; and they pet me so, and even come in the night, and cry, and say, “Poor doggie—do give it up and come home; don’t break our hearts!” and all this terrifies me the more, and makes me sure something has happened. And I am so weak; since yesterday I cannot stand on my feet anymore. And within this hour the servants, looking toward the sun where it was sinking out of sight and the night chill coming on, said things I could not understand, but they carried something cold to my heart.
“Those poor creatures! They do not suspect. They will come home in the morning, and eagerly ask for the little doggie that did the brave deed, and who of us will be strong enough to say the truth to them: ‘The humble little friend is gone where go the beasts that perish.’”
How Do You Pronounce Denouement?
The word has its origins in the French word denoue, meaning “to untie.” It is not pronounced as it looks. Instead, you pronounce it
Denouement in Literature
From these examples, you can see that some of the best works in literature come with a very neat, tied-up ending.
Some include a conclusion, while others offer something for the reader to chew on as he or she closes the last page of the book.
What’s your favorite example of a denouement, or a story with no denouement? Share it with us in the comments below!