National Novel Writing Month — The Denouement: How to Nail Your Novel’s Conclusion

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Each year, we are lucky to have great patrons for our nonprofit events. Reedsy, a NaNoWriMo 2017 sponsor, is a curated marketplace that connects writers and writers with the planet’s best editors, designers and marketers.   Now, Reedsy staff  writer Arielle Contreras shares her advice about operating through the end of your novel:

A novel needs a great orgasm–a moment when everything comes to a head–to it to actually feel completed to an audience. But most great stories don’t expire the moment the orgasm is over; they invest some time wrap up final insecurities and resolving lingering questions. This final structural element of a novel is known as the denouement.

But while you accomplish your book’s final moments, how can you go about composing a denouement that ends in a satisfied sigh from your readers exactly the minute they complete your publication? Let us take a glance (There are spoilers ahead, however you will always be given fair warning if one is approaching!) :

What is the denouement?

It’s possible to consider the denouement since the “beginning of their end.” It is the last outcome of a novel. (In the event you need a high school English course refresher about the “Three Act” novel structure, you can take a glance at this article about the narrative arc.)

The denouement can be clearly seen in activity in most mystery books. The climax happens when all of the many clues come to your mind, and it will become clear to the detective who the culprit is. The denouement occurs subsequently, when the detective explains how they resolved the offense: they rule out innocent suspects, tie together all the clues, and title the guilty party. Obviously, not all of denouements will tie everything up with a neat bow–not even murder mysteries. Sometimes the best endings will be the ones where we understand only enough to leave us.

Strategies for nailing the denouement

There is no one right way to finish a book. The denouement relies wholeheartedly about the story you are telling, and the way you wish to let it. But there is just something so gratifying about a flat-rate finish. It is the kind of thing that propels people to inform their buddies, “You just HAVE to read this novel.” Therefore the following tips are for authors looking to write a finish that leaves readers equally fulfilled by your publication, but also a bit wistful that it’s all come to a conclusion:

Hint #1: Don’t tell the reader too little or too much.

The denouement must inform the reader what they will need to understand. It must be determined by the questions or problems that were brought up during the novel, also shed light on almost any foreshadowing done in Act One or 2 that still is not clear. It also needs to tie up narrative threads that viewers have been promised would be resolved. Don’t leave the reader with various unexpected loose ends at the last minute.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to spell out everything. All book-lovers understand that feeling of hitting the last page of a publication and yearning to understand only a tiny bit longer. Writers can create that identical impact by ending the narrative in a means that makes it feel like there’s more that could occur, more that could be mentioned– that your personalities continue to live their own lives following the novel has ended.

[Spoiler alert!] Think about the last lineup of Gone With the Wind: “Tomorrow, I’ll think of some means to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” The novel ends with Scarlett realizing she enjoys Rhett, and Rhett deciding to not be with Scarlett. But this last line renders us lingering about the possibilities of Scarlett’s potential: will her confidence and gumption lead her to further heartbreak? Will it successfully lead her straight back to Rhett? Their connection–the driving force of the book–finishes with apparent finality, but Scarlett reminds us that for the rest is yet to come.

Obviously, there are exceptions for this tip. Romance books, for example, frequently wind up with a “Happily Ever After” with no doubts, lingering questions, or uncertainties. Literary books, on the other hand, can be fond of more ambiguous endings. More about that below.

Hint #2: Approach cliffhangers with care.

Oh, the cliffhanger. If it comes to reading a series, cliffhangers are equally frustrating and exciting: we don’t like to get left dangling at the end of a novel, but we still adore getting the scoop when we begin the next one.

But if you’re not composing a series, ending a book on a cliffhanger may be risky move. There is disagreement on this issue of Unusual endings–some viewers are for it, others aren’t. If you simply need to get your denouement be more of a denoue-what?! Then be certain that you’ve laid the groundwork, and it’s clearly set up by earlier events. You would like your cliffhanger to catch readers from surprise, so yes, but it shouldn’t arrive from nowhere. Imagine if the last page of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows showed Voldemort’s secret, even-more-unhinged brother unexpectedly looking before Harry? No, just no. This would be completely random as there’s zero foreshadowing of it from the narrative. It is the kind of cliffhanger that will leave a reader feeling much more shortchanged than intrigued.

But if your characters, their motivations, and the plot are compelling enough, then you may possibly leave loose ends or unanswered questions–because you have given the readers sufficient information to formulate their own conclusions. But that’s the important part: you have to provide them with sufficient info in Acts One and 2 if your denouement is going to be completely open-ended. The trick here is to compose a cliffhanger that permits visitors to speculate, none that renders them dumbfounded.

For an example of a widely hailed ambiguous end, check outthat he Crimson Petal and the White from Michael Faber.

Hint #3: Arrive full circle.

Can you recall many great books that ended with the author plainly saying the story’s theme? Neither can I. What I can recall is the last scene of The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway is reflecting the way the green light beaming from Daisy’s dock was to Gatsby what America was on the ancient settlers: a goal to achieve, and also a dream to realize. A useless chase.

This denouement leaves a lasting impression as it resonates a repeating symbol. The green lighting recurs throughout the book, underscoring its southern theme, and its protagonist’s arc. Ending with the green lighting is a very satisfying “full circle” minute, and conjures strong imagery that viewers can recall, long after they have put down the novel.

Hint #4: What is the point of it all?

Readers would like to know the way the orgasm has influenced the status quo. What effect did it have on the characters’ lives? What is changed in the aftermath? Just because the orgasm has occurred doesn’t mean your characters are unexpectedly immobilized. The orgasm is the summit of both the narrative and also character arc, so it can be very unsatisfying to not get much a glimpse of the way the characters have been influenced by their own travel.

[Spoiler alert!] At the end of Mockingjay, the last publication of The Hunger Games collection, we see the toll the revolution has taken on Katniss. She’s a shell of her former self, both physically and mentally. At one stage at the close of the novel, she’s so weak from starving herself that she needs to be wheeled home in a cart used to collect dead cells. This symbolizes the “departure” of the Katniss we knew prior to the orgasm. However, the denouement ends with a ruined meadow gradually coming back into life, and Katniss and Peeta confirming to each other that their love isn’t real–signifying that there’s hope even in the wake of destruction.

The denouement doesn’t need to show everything. In fact, stories where everyone wins may feel contrived or forced. But as viewers, we want to be rewarded with a view of the other side of the mountain when we are going to spend some time hiking it up.


Arielle Contreras is a staff writer at Reedsy, a curated marketplace that connects writers and writers with the planet’s best editors, designers and marketers. More than 2,500 books have been produced via Reedsy since 2015.

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