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What is Denouement?

By R. Kayne
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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Denouement is the resolution of a movie or screenplay, sometimes occurring during the climax but more often immediately afterward. Denouement ties up loose ends and answers lingering questions. In some cases, denouement takes only a moment or two expressed as a final brief scene, a bit of narration, or a short bit of action. The golden rule of screenplay is that the denouement should be as short as possible so that the audience is left with the power of the climax as they leave the theater. An overlong denouement dilutes the emotional intensity created in the climax and weakens the effect of the movie.

In a murder mystery where a cop plays the hero, the climax will reveal the capture or ultimate escape of the criminal. If the hero succeeds in getting his or her man, denouement will likely touch on what comes next for the hero. Does he get his life back? Conquer the drinking problem precipitated by the case? Begin to repair his marriage? Retire? If the villain escapes capture, denouement will typically imply room for a sequel and indicate what happens to the hero as a result of his failure. In the latter case denouement might leave the future open, but story questions will still be answered.

A story that relies too heavily on explanations provided in the denouement is probably constructed poorly. The plot’s main mechanics, and especially the climax, should be causal and clear as they occur. Otherwise the audience will have trouble suspending disbelief. Explanations revealed in the resolution should also be satisfactory and in keeping with character. Convenient or shoddy explanations reveal a lazy writer and work against the authenticity of the story.

A common theme in life is coming full circle. Often denouement ties into the beginning of the picture through setting, mood or a specific action. While the end of the picture might reflect the beginning, there is an important difference, as the hero will have undergone a drastic change from what he or she has undergone in the course of the story. Seeing a heroine tuck in her small child in the opening scene to sing a lullaby will have a different effect repeated in the denouement. Life might be back to normal, but the character is forever changed and life takes on a more precious meaning.

After the excitement and anxiety created by a heart-racing climax, the denouement allows the audience to take a breath, put everything in perspective, and let the main message or emotion of the movie resonate. While audience members can be very forgiving about many scenes occurring within a movie, the denouement is extremely important because it occurs last. A poorly written denouement can ruin an otherwise well-written story.

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