Falling through Your Novel’s Denouement (According to Brain Science)

Mar 14, 2024 |

The denouement provides final explanations to remaining questions. It represents clarity and releases the buildup of tension from the climax.

Falling through Your Novel's Denouement

Falling through Your Novel’s Denouement

What Brain Science Says about Writing with Story Structures #16

The insights from cognitive psychology can help us understand the effects and usefulness of story structures, and this is what I break down in this series. In these articles on story structure elements, I dive into the effects of story on readers and how these structures play a part in that. I also offer suggestions for what writers can do to have the best of both worlds — both the joy of just writing and creating a tale readers will want to read.

Phew! We made it. Not only to the last article in this series on story structures, but also to the final section of a novel’s structure: the release of tension, untying the knots, tying up loose ends, the falling action, the resolution, the lusis, the denouement. In other words, we’ve reached the final pages.

One way or another, your protagonist came through the conflict of the climax and is on the other side of it. Battered, weary, and reforged, she’s taking a breath as the dust settles. There are still a few things to do or people to reconnect with, but mostly, it’s done.

All the exciting stuff has already occurred in the psychologically difficult transformation and the outwardly difficult climactic conflict. Why don’t we simply stop there? What do the final pages of a novel need to do?

These pages shouldn’t be easily dismissed. If you were doing it right, your novel just put readers through an emotional gauntlet right along with your protagonist. Help them to process, feel fulfillment, and release tension. Provide a buffer between your novel’s action and the real world for readers.

For your story, make sure your novel has delivered on all of its promises. While some things can be left unanswered in a larger series, the individual novel’s main plot conflict should still see a full resolution.

What Is the Denouement of a Novel?

The word denouement is a French word meaning “untying.” It refers to the falling action from a novel’s climax, during which the climax was knotting up in a whole lot of conflict. In Poetics, Aristotle also uses words such as desis and lusis — tying and untying — which represent a story’s plot like a rope. The story is tied up in conflict before being untied in the ending.

The denouement occurs as the final section of the third act in a basic three-act story structure. It follows the climax and provides closure.

The denouement acts as the story’s conclusion, providing final explanations to remaining questions. Usually, it represents clarity and releases the buildup of tension from the climax. All that has been set up in the story is fulfilled.

The Brain Science of the Denouement

In Poetics, Aristotle is primarily observing the components of successfully told dramas (tragedies) of his day. One of the main components noted in Poetics is the untying of knotted tension. What Aristotle notes, what the playwrights executed in their craft, and what we know now from the insights of brain science all align quite naturally. Together, we can see with further clarity the importance of the denouement in a story’s structure based on its effects on an audience.

Aristotle emphasizes the “unity of plot” to avoid audience (or at least his) disappointment. I have to admit I’m with him on this one. He wants everything down to the songs from the chorus to be focused on the central goal of the plot. Unrelated and unconnected parts detract from the audience’s experience.

I would explain this notion with the following phrasing: not meeting the expectations previously established in the story/plot. Brain science says we need familiarity with a mixture of the new or unexpected to keep art from becoming boring or too familiar. But too much “new” also leads to boredom when sense can’t be made from it. Therefore, a story needs to establish a familiar pattern as much as it needs to riff on it. But as those strands of new complexity extend, they need to be brought back together — unified — for a complete and satisfying whole. The denouement provides this opportunity after the flurry of conflict in the climax. But the plot doesn’t work in isolation.

Art often acts as a mirror (or mimicry) of life, and audience emotions mirror or mimic that of the players. Catharsis, a purging or purification of emotions, is part of that vicarious experience. But, as Aristotle reveals, the true effect or perhaps marker of a good story (or, well, drama, although it all often applies beyond tragedy in theater) is rhaumaston, the overwhelming wonder and awe that results at the end.

Experiencing emotions in a way similar to reliving your own emotional memories in a relatively safe environment is a powerful benefit of story (and other arts). Think of the physiological relief after a good cry. The rise in mental health advocacy has clearly shown by now how unhealthy pent up emotions can be. Story provides an outlet and an escape.

But that’s not all stories do. We also have a desire to learn from characters overcoming adversity. Subconsciously, we want to file away all insights for that totally likely time that it will be useful to know how to slay a fire-breathing dragon (only sort of kidding). Poetics puts some weight behind the moral lessons in dramas (I would think of this as the theme or message rather than a forced lesson, however). Stories show us something about ourselves and the world. And isn’t that rather the ultimate source of the wonder or sense of awe we’re left with beyond those final pages?

Frequently, it’s in the denouement that this processing can happen. Once the emotions have had a chance to subside and final connections are clarified, what was revealed has a chance to settle over us. The falling action is the final chance to bring out of the story the wonder, the awe, the thematic revelations home.

The Role of the Denouement in Novels

That’s probably enough theory and philosophy for now. Instead, we’ll examine the role of the denouement in actual, concrete novels. While I’m using the first books in three series in these explorations of story structure, the full, series theme may not yet be the primary focus as they usually are by the series finale. These novels still show full structures contained within themselves, and I still believe examining such novels is a good practice for speculative authors since so many science fiction and fantasy novels are part of a series.

So what role(s) does the denouement have in three iconic speculative novels? Let’s take a look:

The Lord of the Rings:

  • Denouement: Frodo, having saved Sam from drowning, allows a companion to help him on his quest. Together, they set off in the boats on their way to Mordor.

    After the tug of war over Frodo’s will and premonitions of war, experiencing the tragedy of the corruption of one of his Fellowship, and determining to undertake a dangerous mission on his own, this ending brings some relief.

    Frodo is not alone, and he has the support of a friend. There is hope against corruption. Furthermore, we see the value of loyal friendship.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:

  • Denouement: Harry wakes up—and has survived. Dumbledore answers Harry’s questions to tie up the loose ends. Harry and Hagrid reconnect as Hagrid is eaten up with remorse for his own part in Voldemort figuring out how to get past Fluffy. He gives Harry the gift of photos of his parents—another step toward understanding his identity and coming to terms with it.

    Less important (although how did it seem so important at the time?!), Gryffindor wins the House Cup because of the actions of Harry and his friends, they make it through final exams, and all head home for the summer.

    Tension is released as we understand that the hero is still alive despite his willingness to sacrifice himself. Harry’s nobility results in rewards toward his personal goal of understanding who he is and outwardly in his service to Hogwarts and the wizarding world through the House Cup points and Dumbledore’s recognition.

    Nuggets of wisdom abound in the final pages that help cement a sense of wonder and awe now that we have new perspective on ourselves and the world through it all.

The Hunger Games:

  • Denouement: Katniss and Peeta are taken out of the Games arena by hovercraft. Katniss struggles to acclimate to the world outside of the arena while doctors save Peeta from his wounds. Katniss is closely watched and forcefully brought back to health so she can be presented as a victor. Through it all, she’s made to understand that the Games aren’t truly over yet.

    It’s a release of the tension of the Games even as a new tension begins to be introduced. The catharsis is strong. Still, the final section provides time for reflection and reconnection. And we can’t help but be left in a state of awe at all that Katniss overcame, and perhaps even more so knowing it’s not over yet.

It’s clear there’s not a “one right way” tone or manner in which to craft a novel’s denouement. The Fellowship of the Ring has a rather bittersweet ending while Harry Potter’s is triumphant. In The Hunger Games, the reflective tone is still one of dark trauma despite the “victory.” But they all still fulfill the same necessary role. They answer the lingering main plot questions for the individual novels (although there may still be series questions. They allow a release of tension from all the climax and plot drama. And, most importantly, they offer rhaumaston, in whatever way befits them, no matter the tone or emotion that helps an audience feel overcome with the everything they’ve just experienced through the characters.

A Checklist for your Novel’s Final Pages

I know. I just said there wasn’t a “right way” to craft the denouement of your novel. Yet there are a few things it really should do to help readers come away with that overwhelming awe that seems to be the goal — at least in part — of a story. So here’s a broad checklist that you can use to help make sure your story isn’t quickly forgotten or dismissed:

  • Make sure you’ve delivered on the expectations your novel set up.
  • Provide closure: bring any trailing plot threads together and answer lingering questions or offer some clarity.
  • Release tension from the conflict. Wind down the action to allow for reflection.
  • Reconnect characters as applicable.
  • Show the new view of the world, goals, or desires for fulfillment.

Whether your closing is happy, tragic, or somewhere in between, you want to leave your readers with some new perspective, insight, or wonder for something about themselves, the world, the universe and, well… simply everything.

Categories: : story structure

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