Creative Writing Tips And The Definition Of Denouement

Posted at 22:56pm on 5th May 2009
This article has been revised & updated on: 6th September, 2010.
Photo: Looking back down to the end of the funicular railway at the sea below!

I expect many of you, as an aspiring author, will know that a novel has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s pretty obvious, I would have thought. But that statement is not quite as simple as it may first appear.

The Beginning of a novel is neither defined by, nor confined to, its opening sentence. Nor even its first paragraph, section or chapter. A novel’s Beginning is the first quarter of its length, and its End is the last quarter of its length. What remains – half the book’s length – constitutes the Middle. For fuller details, see my Post, The Structure Of A Novel: Twelve Tips.

Today I want to talk about a novel’s ending: its denouement. Here you'll see how to:

  • Make your main character squirm.
  • How? By making her choices fewer and harder, and her failure to achieve her goals more and more devastating.


This is what heightens tension in your reader and makes your book a page turner. Each time that your main character fails to achieve her goal, you need to present her with options to try again. By narrowing those options down, you create anxiety in both your character and your reader. Will she, or won’t she, find a way out?

Let’s say, for example, that she has to settle a large debt incurred by her brother in order to save his life. She’s tried appealing to the better nature of his loan-shark but he doesn’t appear to have one. Her failure is disappointing, but there are still other options open to her.

Later in the story she attempts to raise a bank loan but, without collateral, she fails again. Still her failure is not devastating. Pawning her jewellery will, she learns, fail to raise the required sum. But selling it might be an option. Even then, after all the anguish of parting with precious items of sentimental value, she fails to reach the necessary amount.

Her options are now fewer and harder. To make things worse still, her brother’s lenders have taken him prisoner and he’s an asthmatic. Worse yet, with all the delay on raising the money, they’ve decided to add interest at 1000%, and the total sum now needed to free her brother has doubled.

There’s only one thing for it. Your heroine is going to have to steal from her employer. . .

Can you see how the options and failures come thicker and faster? Not only that, they become increasingly doomed to failure. It is at this point that you need to prepare for your denouement.


When it comes, it will need to be rapid and complete. There’s no stringing it out over several chapters. And no room for unresolved storylines – either your main character’s or those of the other characters.

Let’s suppose that your lead knows that her boss is going to be away on a business trip. He’s an antique dealer, and she knows that there is a priceless pearl believed to have belonged to Cleopatra, deposited in the safe. As a trusted member of staff, she has access to the offices and, by some chance, she has had the opportunity to learn the code to the safe. She has only to dodge the ctv and she’s home and dry.

Little does she know, however, that her boss’s son, the handsome hunk, has set a trap because someone has been pilfering from the business on a grand scale. Our heroine, of course, is an innocent, unversed in the niceties of burglary and it doesn’t take much for her to be caught by the handsome hunk.

She is in a terrible state. Not only can she not rescue her brother, who may die if he has an asthma attack and is denied his medication, but she realises how low she has sunk to be attempting to steal from the handsome hunk and his dad.

But like all handsome hunks, he is kind and understanding. If she will help him to lure the real thieves to their just deserts, he will not only let her off her attempted crime, but he will help to free her brother.

Enter the burglars. And surprise, surprise! They are none other than our heroine’s captors. Bang! Bang! (Not literally). Within the space of a few paragraphs, they are apprehended and the police are alerted. Not only that, it transpires that our heroine’s brother is not in debt to them at all. He is the victim of a scam involving goods stolen from the handsome hunk’s dad. Arriving in the nick of time, the brother is freed, hospitalised to stabilise his breathing, and the handsome hunk and our heroine gaze into each other’s eyes. THE END.

There are no prolonged scenes of romance. No court case for the criminals. No hospital scene for the brother. Our heroine has reached her goal (to save her brother) and settle his debts. Brother has survived his ordeal. Handsome hunk has caught the burglars. And the girl! Finish.


  • The end of the story should be a quarter of its entire length.
  • The definition of denouement is the end of the plot, when the main character achieves the story goal and overcomes all opposition.
  • Plot conflict is heightened by limiting the lead’s options and increasing the depth of failure.
  • The storylines of all characters should be resolved.
  • The end should not be long and drawn out, but should be rapid and complete.

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