D is for… Denouement

Poe, in his Philosophy of Composition, said that ‘Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen.

A Denouement, quite simply put, is the ultimate resolution or outcome of a story. It is the point where all plot lines converge into a coherent solution; it is where conflicts are resolved, the protagonist emerges victorious, the antagonist gets his comeuppance, and all loose ends have been neatly tied up.

Done properly, the denouement will leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction and catharsis, happy in the knowledge that everything worked out the way it intended. For, as we all know, a reader proceeds into the story carrying with him certain expectations. The boy and girl will fall in love; the treasure or quest will be won; the enemy will get his due; and everyone will live, more or less, happily ever after.

It becomes the writer’s goal then to bring the story to this satisfactory conclusion, meeting – and hopefully exceeding – the reader’s expectations in a way that does not feel contrived or stale.

The only way to do this properly, according to Poe, is to hold the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.’

Consequently, the act of writing cannot proceed until the outcome, or ultimate effect, has been thoroughly mapped out. It is only with the end in mind that we can hope to proceed in any meaningful manner. People often refer to a story as a series of dominoes; the first (or first Act) goes down and sends all of them tumbling, in an orderly and sensible fashion, all the way to the last domino in the row.

If at any point any of the dominoes are not properly in line, the story will not reach its preordained conclusion, i.e. that final domino will remain standing.

Poe’s ‘Philosophy of Composition’ is indispensable to writers, I think.

In it, he notes that ‘Most writers [..] prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy– an ecstatic intuition- and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought- at the true purposes seized only at the last moment – […] at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable- at the cautious selections and rejections- at the painful erasures and interpolations- in a word, at the wheels and pinions-[…]- the step-ladders, and demon-traps- the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

Poe has no such reservation, and proceeds to detail the process by which his most famous work ‘The Raven‘ came into being. He intended, through the essay, to ‘render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

The essay is well worth the long read, I assure you.

Do you have your denouement in mind? Have you tried working your story backwards rather than forwards?