I have just written the denouement for ‘Speaking In Silence’, and it’s prompted me to talk about the subject and what I learnt from the process of writing the novel.
All my novels tie up at the end, but they don’t always come with a classic denouement. The closest I came was in ‘Unspeakable Acts’, the third Clearwater novel, where James Wright explains the villain’s motivation and method. ‘Speaking In Silence’ is slightly different to other mysteries I’ve written because it’s more of a ‘What are they doing?’ mystery for the reader, who won’t know what until the climax, and won’t know how until the last scene, the denouement.
What is a Denouement?
The word is borrowed from the French and originates in Latin, as this snippet from Etymonline tells us:
1752, from French dénouement “an untying” (of plot), from dénouer “untie” (Old French desnouer) from des- “un-, out” + nouer “to tie, knot,” from Latin nodus “a knot,” from PIE root *ned- “to bind, tie.”[PIE = The roots of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language are basic parts of words that carry a lexical meaning, so-called morphemes.]
In other words, denouement means to untie a knot. In literary terms, it means the final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved. Or, as the dictionary also states: the outcome of a situation, when something is decided or made clear.
In other-other words, it’s that bit at the end of an Agatha Christie when Poirot stands in the drawing room and tells the assembled characters who did it and how. Of course, the technique is used in all forms of literature and creative writing, and doesn’t have to pertain to a crime story. The denouement of Romeo and Juliet happens after the two main characters are dead, for example, even though we all saw how they died.
What to Consider When Writing a Denouement
The following is based on my experience. There are plenty of free writing-advice websites that will give their own views, but having just looked at a few, they are very similar to what I worked out for myself.
Keep notes as you write towards the end
First of all, as I wrote my way through the first draft of Speaking In Silence, I made a note every time a character was seen to do something with no explanation; every time I dropped in a question mark for the reader if you like. This was to make sure I didn’t leave any knots still tied at the end. I do this with every novel, and it’s a good way to avoid the trap of ‘I’ll remember that for sure’, only to say later, ‘What was it I had to remember?’
The notes also help me see if I have given too much away to the reader, and if I need to take out anything too obvious. Thinking about ‘Silence’, I’m worried the reader will catch on to what’s happening well before the end, and so the climax won’t be a surprise. (It doesn’t have to be. I’ve found readers are as happy to say, ‘I didn’t see that coming’ as they are to have proved themselves right.)
Don’t Witter on for too Long
Says he… My denouement happens in dialogue, and I’m not sure if that’s the done thing or not, but it’s what I have done. The chapter is currently 4,000 words long, but it’s not all explanation. Some of it is character thoughts, reactions and other story matters, and the explanation of how they did it comes from four characters, not one, so there is more than one voice, and more than one point of view. They are explaining themselves to Lord Clearwater, so we are in his head, and when I felt the others were being too detailed, I had him slow them down because I imagined that’s what the reader would also be thinking.
I was conscious of not repeating what the reader already knew. They would have seen X do this and that, and the idea of the denouement isn’t to go back and relive the action, it’s to explain the reason for the action. Yes, you have to place the explanation in context, but that can be done in a few words. Also, once something has been explained, there’s no need to repeat the explanation from another character’s point of view. In my scene, with four people untying the knots, I made sure they all contributed, but they only contributed something new or added a detail that cleared up another question mark.
Show Not Tell
That old chestnut again. Think about that Agatha Christie scene when Poirot has everyone in the drawing room, the dining car or wherever, and you’ll see he does a lot of talking. Now think film, and you’ll notice there are flashbacks showing the action. That’s one way of giving the explanation, but it’s a filmic one. The way to present a ‘show’ denouement is to write a scene where the action unknots the rope, rather than dialogue doing it for you. It’s not easy, and in my opinion, some stories require a dialogue explanation. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the action during the book, there would be no deepening mystery. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the climax, it would have cluttered up the pace. The only way I could make it work in ‘Silence’ was to have the four characters tell Clearwater — who knows what they have done — exactly how they did it.
Keep to the Rules
Although it’s right at the end of the book, my denouement still keeps to the rules of character arc and development, scene structure, location, description and pace. It’s not just one long dialogue of this-then-that. There is some character-created humour, we come away with the sense that a particular character has changed, and we know where we are (Clearwater’s drawing room with the footman coming and going). As well as all that, the scene ends with a great big question mark which will lead us into the next instalment. Not exactly a cliff-hanger because the reader knows the answer to the question, but the characters don’t.
Other Advice Answered
I pulled a few random tips of denouement writing off the internet. I’ve justified my ending against them.
Keep it short. Each part of my explanation is short, but there are a lot of things to explain, and that, I did on purpose.
The denouement validates the story. I always aim for this (see the end of ‘Fallen Splendour’ for my favourite story validation). The denouement validates what has changed for a character or a situation.
Convey a new normal. I have left the reader knowing a particular character will now be better off, and one will be worse off. That is their new normal.
Characters’ futures. Similar to the new normal; the conflicts have been resolved, and normalcy returns to the characters, although that normalcy might/should be changed. I’ve also put in a question mark, and the denouement is followed by a short epilogue which takes us towards the next story.
Epilogue Vs Denouement This is summarised very nicely at this page from masterclass.com:
Denouement is an essential conclusion to plotted conflict, while the epilogue is an optional afterward in which the author shows readers how characters have fared after the events chronicled in the work.
In ‘Speaking In Silence’, the epilogue concerns the villain and leads us into the next story. I now have a completed first draft and can set about rewriting the whole thing and improving it, all the while, aiming towards that all important denouement.