Aw, the denouement. Such sweet sorrow and candy to the battered reader. I think A.O. Scott might have best captured the reason I love it so, in his New York Times review article on the third installment of the Toy Story franchise of movies.
“Toy Story 3 is wondrously generous and inventive. It is also, by the time it reaches a quiet denouement that balances its noisy beginning, moving in the way that parts of Up were. That is, this film–this whole three-part, 15-year epic–about the adventures of a bunch of silly plastic junk turns out also to be a long, melancholy meditation on loss, impermanence and that noble, stubborn, foolish thing called love.” (A.O. Scott, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Day Care Center.” The New York Times, June 13, 2010)
A QUIET ‘ENDING’ THAT BALANCES ITS NOISY BEGINNING.
Sometimes when I read a thing I just want to scream, “THIS!”
***Possible Spoiler Alert re: The Martian***
That is the reason I am so passionate about the denouement. Because after the tumultuous roller-coaster ride to the CLIMAX, we need a soft kiss. A soft landing, if you will. This past weekend, we took in THE MARTIAN with Matt Damon. It was, in my opinion, a fantastic cinematic wonder. It had all the elements that go into making a great movie. We all have that list, don’t we, of movies we immediately know we could watch again and again. Well, I just added another one to that list. The thrill-ride of The Martian, was only surpassed by its enjoyable humour and…well, it’s soft landing.
How would I have reacted if Matt’s character Mark Watney had simply made it to his rendezvous point safely and the credits had rolled? You can’t have that much excitement without the gentle kiss at the end. The heart can’t take it. Every good story should have a denouement…never underestimate its intoxication to the reader/viewer. After that explosive build-up, and the frenetic climax of near-death space capitulation, I NEEDED to see Mark Watney with his feet on the ground. I needed to SEE that he was not merely alive, but better for having made the heroic and insanely death-defying journey.
“[T]he denouement is the main character’s and/or the rest of the world’s reaction to the outcome of the final battle.” ~ (Drew Yanno, The Third Act: Writing a Great Ending to Your Screenplay. Continuum, 2006)
More than a soft landing, the denouement is also the final opportunity for resolution and clarity. The denouement draws the final picture. Denoue is French and it means ‘to untie’. So while you’re letting your readers/viewers sigh that last great sigh of relief as they are fluttering back to their seats and placing their hearts firmly back into their chests, you can also fit the final pieces of the puzzle into the denouement. It’s such a beautiful thing!
OH! Speaking of fluttering back to their seats, one perfect example of a denouement that I always think about when I think about the denouement isn’t a denouement at all. It’s just a quick passing paragraph within my favourite novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is chock-filled with nuggets for me. The following passage describes a typhoon of wind whipping through a house (the climax) and then the immediate result of its absence after the storm (the denouement).
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. There was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
That passage always felt like a story to me, complete with the scintillating satisfaction of a denouement. “…and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.” How utterly satisfying is that ending!?
I don’t know about other writers, but quite often I find myself in tears when I’m writing the denouement in my own stories. I see the device as my final opportunity to slip a love note to the reader. I love to batter them with conflict and strife and unfairness and plight…don’t get me wrong! I really enjoy that part of my job. But I don’t want them to be left feeling like I simply beat them up and left the ring. I want to bring them to the edge, definitely. But once they arrive at the climax, all shaken and what-not, I want to thank them for taking the journey. I see the denouement as the reward at the end of the journey, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow…the soft kiss at the end of the throat punch. Everyone wants that tender moment of awwwwwwwwwwwwww after the wipeout climatic scene, don’t they?