Have you ever read a novel that seems to drop off very suddenly, with no real resolution? Or maybe you were watching a film that rolled credits without tying up the story’s lingering loose ends. These experiences can be confusing and unsatisfying, and they happen because a story’s missing one essential element: the denouement.

Nailing this final hurrah is paramount to ensuring your readers don’t set your book down feeling unsatisfied. We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about writing the perfect denouement for your story, with some denouement examples from popular culture.

What is a denouement?

A denouement (or dénouement) is the final scene of a story which gives the audience a sense of resolution and closure. “Denouement” comes from the French and literally means “untie the knot.” It acts as a way to resolve any “knotty” plot points and answer any remaining questions the reader might have. The denouement usually occurs right after the climax.

This is probably most recognizable in mystery novels. The climax happens when the detective reveals the killer and prevents them from getting away. The denouement happens when the hapless sidekick says, “But Poirot, how did you know?!” The detective then pours himself a drink and says, “Well, it all started when…” This part of the story is the denouement.

In epic Hero’s Journey tales, the denouement usually happens after the hero has defeated his enemy and returned home. They then have to readjust to the normality of living, assess whether or not they fit into the home they once had, and consider where their journey is going to take them next.

A dénouement is a post-climax scene which resolves the loose ends of a story.

Do all stories need a denouement?

All traditionally structured stories should have a denouement, but they don’t necessarily need to occupy a lot of space. For example, the denouement for many fairy tales is “And they lived happily ever after.”

Without a denouement, your story may end too abruptly with too many unanswered questions. Your reader might feel like they’ve hit a “commercial break” instead of the end of the book, and feel annoyed that there’s still more story to tell (and then they’ll log onto Goodreads to vent about it to other readers…). Denouements create the sense that a story has reached its natural conclusion.

If you’re working with a non-traditional structure such as hermit crab fiction, a novella-in-flash, or funky dream sequences, you may not have a traditional denouement that functions in the same way. However, if you’re leaving it out, be sure you’re doing it with intention and not just because you’ve run out of steam.

What’s the difference between a denouement and an epilogue?

You may be reading about denouements and thinking they sound a lot like the epilogues you’ve read in the past. Both give the reader an idea of what lies ahead for the main characters they’ve been following through the story. But though they have elements in common, they’re not quite the same thing.

A denouement is the conclusion of the plot that you’ve put in place. An epilogue is an optional section which follows the denouement and takes the reader even further into the future. It shows how the events of the climax and denouement went on to affect the characters later on. You can think of it as two stories back to back: the denouement is the final chapter of one novel, and the epilogue is the first chapter of a second novel (which you don’t have to write, but which may exist in the narrative melting pot of your mind).

A good way to check whether the scene you have in mind is a denouement or an epilogue is to ask yourself if the novel can stand alone without it. If the scene has necessary information that makes the story feel complete, it’s probably a denouement. If the reader could put the book down without reading it and still feel like they experienced a complete story, it’s probably an epilogue.

An epilogue is an extra “bonus feature” glimpse into your characters’ future.

An epilogue isn’t a necessary plot point, but rather a “bonus feature” glimpse into what happens to your characters beyond the page.

Examples of denouements from literature and film

Let’s look at how a few beloved stories have used the denouement effectively.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is a classic literary work for a reason—it’s a masterfully structured takedown of the American Dream. The plot builds until it reaches the climax, which is the hit-and-run death of Tom’s mistress and the subsequent murder of Jay Gatsby.

So what happens next? The protagonist, Nick, goes to Jay’s funeral and finds out that no one else cared enough to show up. At this point Nick is thoroughly disgusted with humanity in general, and leaves the city behind. The denouement shows what direction the remaining central characters are taking as a result of the events of the story and helps cement the theme that the author has been building.

The Outsiders, by SE Hinton

SE Hinton’s breakout novel, which later became the first Brat Pack film, is a coming-of-age saga about good kids from the bad side of town. Tensions build until one kid dies from first-degree burns, another goes on a grief-fueled suicide rampage, and the two opposing gangs come to a head in a vicious bout of next-level fisticuffs.

The falling action explores what happens to the survivors as they deal with the traumatic fallout of these events. This involves the outcome of a court case over the first kid’s murder, a hidden letter brimming with theme, and a school assignment which gives the protagonist room to reflect over everything he’s learned.

The Breakfast Club

Speaking of the Brat Pack, is there any cliché-bashing confession-athon more iconic than The Breakfast Club? A group of teens from the far corners of the status-quo axes are locked in a room together with only their cultivated social façades to protect them. Eventually, those façades break down and everyone comes to reveal and better understand their true selves.

The denouement comes once everyone leaves detention and struggles with their new, broadened perceptions of the world. Two unlikely romances bloom, and the fifth wheel ends up writing an essay—but it’s a groundbreaking essay that summarizes everything they’ve learned (aka the theme; are you noticing a pattern?).

The dénouement is a great place to reiterate your story’s theme.

5 Tips for writing a successful denouement

Ready to plan the final resolution to your own story? Here are some important things to keep in mind.

Acknowledge all lingering questions

In the denouement, all the questions the reader might have about the story should be either resolved or acknowledged in some way. The mystery has been solved; the secrets have been revealed; the dramatic question has been answered. This is key to ensuring your readers come away satisfied with the story.

Occasionally, you might prefer an open-ended ending where some of the answers are left to the reader’s imagination. This can be challenging, because readers most often like compact, conclusive endings. If you do choose to leave some of the story’s questions unanswered, make sure that you at least acknowledge them so it doesn’t look like you just forgot.

For instance, during your denouement your protagonist might say, “I guess we’ll never know who killed Mr. Stickets, because that’s just the cold, cruel world of 1940s Los Angeles.” If you don’t include this final acknowledgement, your reader is going to be annoyed and confused because they thought you were going to reveal the truth, and instead you’re rolling credits.

Allow for thematic reflection

The denouement is the ideal place to beat your reader over the head with your core message, as we saw in our examples above. Your characters have emerged from their battles, external or internal, which means they can finally take a beat to sit down, catch their breath, brew themselves a cup of tea, and think things over.

Give your protagonist space to reflect on how they’ve grown and what they’ve discovered over the course of their journey. This could include discoveries about themself and what they’re capable of, as well as discoveries about human psychology and the world around them.

Consider using the “bookend effect”

The “bookend effect” is a narrative technique that’s so foolproof it almost feels like cheating. It involves using the same image, motif, or phrase at the very beginning and very end of a story to create a sense of circular completion. In addition to making your readers happy, the bookend effect also gives the writer a concrete way to examine the beginning and ending of their plot development arc, and how they compare.

You can play with recurring images and motifs to frame your dénouement.

For example, your inciting incident might involve your main character sitting at their favourite café and receiving a mysterious phone call. Then, your denouement could involve the main character going back to that café and reflecting on how much has changed since the last time they were there.

A bookend could also be a weather condition, a physical object of personal significance, or a set of words (for example, The Outsiders begins and ends with the same sentence).

Hint at what lies ahead

Now that your characters have overcome their conflicts, faced their dragons, made mistakes, learned from their mistakes, and emerged anew—what’s next? Will they go back to their ordinary world? Travel to far-off places to #livetheirbestlife? Make a conscious change in the way they treat others, or the way they approach their own way of living?

You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) reveal too much, but the readers should have a sense that the lives of these characters continue off the page and into the future. And, if you’re planning on revisiting these characters again in another installment, this is the perfect place to set up the sequel.

Favor showing over telling

It can be tempting to overtly describe everything that will happen beyond the end of the novel, but your denouement will have a greater impact if you find ways to show these things instead.

For example, instead of saying “Penny Lane went on to fulfill her dream of traveling the world,” try showing your character arriving at the airport and purchasing a ticket to Morocco. Instead of telling the reader your two romantic leads lived happily ever after, show them happily moving into their new home.

You might find it helpful to make a bullet-point list of what you want to communicate to your reader, and then brainstorming ways to illustrate it through setting and action (for inspiration and ideas, check out our lesson on “show vs. tell”!).

A denouement is your goodbye to the reader

The denouement is the final step in a plot sequence, and a chance to end your novel on a high note. After all the tension you’ve constructed so carefully across the story, you and your readers have a moment to say goodbye to the characters you’ve come to know and love (or love to hate). It’s also an opportunity to express your story’s guiding theme one last time.