Tying Everything Up in a Bow:
The Challenge of a Good Denouement
The denouement is the second most challenging part of the plot to write – occasionally maybe even surpassing what is typically the most challenging part: a well-earned climax. Basically, you have two seemingly conflicting goals. You must:
A) Wrap up the remaining storylines in an engaging and satisfying manner.
If you fail here, the story will feel incomplete, leaving a sour note in the readers’ mind.
B) Do it quickly
The reader is both expecting the book to end soon and is (hopefully) emotionally exhausted from the climax. Take too long, and the reader will feel like you’re just stretching out the story needlessly. They might even quit before reaching the end because, “It’s basically over.”
Finally, if you’re writing a series, it has another job…
C) Whet the reader’s appetite for the next book…
And do it without the reader feeling like they’ve been cheated of the satisfaction of finishing this one. If you deny them the pleasure of a meaningful conclusion here, they may choose to not read any more of your books in any series until the series is completed. It is possible to build excitement for an upcoming book without ruining the ending of the current one!
When you think about it, your denouement is trying to do more with the plot in less time than any other part of your book! You have had the entire novel to build characters, conflict, and anticipation. But once the main conflict has been resolved, the readers’ level of investment will quickly dissipate. “Well, if they can’t be patient enough to let things draw to their natural conclusion, that’s their problem. You can’t rush art.”
In response to that…
It’s one thing if someone reading your story doesn’t like it because they don’t care for either your writing style or the type of story you’ve written. But what a shame to lose readers who appreciate your writing because you frustrated them with the tail end of your book! And all because of laziness!
Because that’s what writing a poor denouement is – just plain lazy. You can’t rush art. But you can pace it well. The key to doing that well is to set up all your characters and subplots to be ready for their conclusion before revealing the main climax. Here are some tips I’ve learned for wrapping up a story quickly after the climax without feeling “rushed”.
1) View every sub-story as worthy of its own climax.
You have the main character(s) and the main plot. But what makes them stick out is their relationships with the other characters and their plots. The weight of your primary characters comes from the impact they have with all the other characters and and their conflicts, which will be heavily influenced by the primary one. By giving the subplots and their characters the attention they deserve, you increase the worth of your main plot and character.
2) Bundle the climaxes together
And put your main plot’s climax first in line. Basically, if you’ve plotted well (forgive the pun), every character’s story arc should be hinged on the main. When the first one falls, it should start a chain reaction like dominoes. This will allow you to do the third and final part of a good denouement…
3) Quickly give the readers the resolution they’re seeking for the remaining conflicts.
You can spend a lot of time drawing out the main climax. In fact, while you don’t want to draw it out beyond your abilities to keep them interested, the longer you are able to do so, the bigger the payoff when you reveal it. But the denouement is like the dessert of a big meal you are hosting for your guests. They will be disappointed if not served and complain about it to their friends, but if made to wait too long, they won’t want it anymore and will just leave without it. People love ice cream; they don’t like waiting for you to fetch the ingredients and making it after they’ve finished the main meal. You also don’t need to worry too much about presentation. Yes, maybe add a little panache if you can do so quickly – like a drizzle of chocolate syrup or a candle on a cake. But at this point, they’re much more concerned about completing the meal with a sweet finish than how it looks on the plate. Don’t try to draw up some fancy pattern if it means delaying service.
Of course, you shouldn’t be so worried planning the perfect ending that you let it keep you finishing. That is what multiple drafts are for. Just get the story down, then go back and work on the pacing. But if you want your readers to come again, it’s in your best interest to take the time needed to go back and get everything ready to be served when its expected before publishing.