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Common Core: 6.RL.3 11-12.RL.5


Author: Sydney Bauer

This lesson introduces denouement in fiction writing.

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The French term denouement literally means “unknotting”; it refers to the resolution, explanation, or ending of a story. In tragedies, it is often referred to as catastrophe: the complete devastation or unraveling of the lives of the main characters.


Denouement can be a synonym for “falling action” 


However, denouement usually refers to the final stage of the falling action


A writer might choose to emphasize the denouement by concluding all storylines, so that readers can make no mistake about the outcome of the plot. Some writers include an epilogue set some time after the “official” end to the story.

  • Example: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1897)
    • Conflict: Alice is lost and wandering through Wonderland.
    • Climax: During her trial with the Red Queen, she talks back to the queen who then calls for Alice to lose her head. The pack of cards attacks Alice. She screams and suddenly finds herself lying with her head in her sister’s lap.
    • Denouement: The narrator tells the readers that Alice told her sister about her curious dream of Wonderland before she went home for tea. Alice’s sister just watched her run off toward home while she sat in the setting sun. Her sister fell into a light sleep where she half-dreams the sights Alice described (which are summarized as a review for the reader), but notes that all she would need to do to be home again was open her eyes. She then dreams of Alice as a young woman, delighting children with her stories.
      • This ending reinforces that Wonderland was just a dream and therefore the events don’t need to make sense. Even though most of the storylines from her dream are unresolved, they are not real and do not need true resolution.


A writer might choose to resolve the storyline to a certain extent and then hint at the projected outcome of events, or the future of the characters.

  • Example: Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” 
    • Conflict: Gregor, the oldest of two in the Samsa family and the sole breadwinner in the family, mysteriously turns into a large beetle overnight. Not knowing what else to do, his family kept him locked in his room. Mr. Samsa, Mrs. Samsa, and their daughter Grete had to find work because Gregor-the-beetle obviously couldn’t go to work as a sales representative. The family had to let out their spare rooms to some lodgers to make ends meet.
    • Climax: One evening, Grete plays her violin for the first time in months. The lodgers are at first impressed, but they quickly grow bored of the music and start teasing her. Gregor emerges from his room to be closer to the music and eventually confronts the lodgers. The confrontation results in the eviction of the lodgers and Gregor’s death.
    • Denouement: The remaining family members do not go to work the day after Gregor dies, and instead take a train ride into the countryside. This is the first time the family is able to talk to each other since Gregor’s metamorphosis. They realize things are looking up for them: they’ve found decent work; they’re now able to move to a cheaper apartment; and the daughter has bloomed into a beautiful young woman. The parents agree that they need to find her a good husband soon.
      • The cause behind Gregor’s metamorphosis remains a mystery
      • Rather than discuss the traumatic events, the family simply moves on
      • We as readers know that the family will be alright



A writer can even choose to de-emphasize, or omit, the denouement to leave the ending open to the reader’s own interpretations.

  • Example: Virginia Woolf’s “The Duchess and the Jeweller” (1938)
    • Conflict: The Duchess of Lambourne wants to sell her last ten pearls to the richest jeweler in England, Oliver Bacon; however, Oliver suspects that the pearls are fakes.
    • Climax: Just as Oliver is about to ring for a clerk to come and test the pearls, the Duchess invites him to spend the day at her home with her daughter Diana, with whom Oliver (old enough to be her father) is in love. Oliver reaches for his checkbook and pen, but hesitates. The Duchess pushes him further with the invitation to spend a weekend alone in the woods with Diana.
    • Denouement: After the Duchess leaves the shop Oliver inspects the pearls to find that they are fakes. He is consoled by the fact that he will have a long weekend with Diana.
      • The reader does not know if Diana returns Oliver’s affections or if the Duchess will keep her word. 


So then how will you know a denouement when you see one?

The denouement can be signaled by

  • An epilogue (and sometimes the chapter(s) just before the epilogue as well)
  • The clustering of brief, general statements at or near the end of a story
  • a discovery moment (“aha!” moment/epiphany)
  • the removal of masks or disguises
  • the revealing of secrets
  • the correction of misunderstandings
  • the reversal of fortunes (usually those of the main character)
  • the success/failure of events