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The Denouement–Resolution & Resonance

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sol Stein defines resonance as: “an aura of significance beyond the components of a story.” He also writes that for a work to have resonance, it must start with the first line and weave all the way through the story.

Now, I had to quote that because—for the very first time—Mr. Stein’s most excellent book on the craft of writing has failed me. Stein on Writing doesn’t include any specific information on crafting the end of the novel. So, instead, we’ll be focusing on what Nancy Kress has to say about endings in Beginnings, Middles & Ends.

Since, as we’ve already determined, it isn’t just the last line that’s most important, let’s focus on crafting the ending.

Last week I wrote about the implicit promise the opening of the story makes to the reader. Your ending—the climax and the part that comes after it—is your chance to make sure you’ve followed through on all the promises you made to your reader in the opening pages.

According to Kress, the ending “must use [the] same characters, conflicts, problems, and tensions” as the beginning. “If the ending tries to use different characters (such as the cavalry riding over the hill at the last minute), the story will fail. If the ending tries to switch to some other last-minute conflict, the story will fail. If the ending tries to evade the promised collision (by, for instance, a peaceful compromise in which no one loses anything), the story will fail. You cannot, in other words, promise apples and deliver oranges.” (BM&E, pg. 105)

This is the resolution (little ‘r’) of the conflict that I’ve discussed at length before.

How do you craft your ending? Well, firstly, what has your story promised your reader? As a romance writer, my stories promise a relationship between two people that has its ups and downs but, ultimately, ends in a happy ending. Before you start to write your ending, go back and re-read your first (at least) three chapters. Make a list of the promises you’ve made to your readers.

Secondly, make a list of the conflicts you’ve set up in your middle that you haven’t resolved—both in the main plot and in any subplots you have. Can you craft an ending that brings them all to a satisfying ending?

“The ending dramatizes the triumph of some of the forces developed in the middle, which, in turn, were set in motion by the characters and conflict introduced in the beginning.” (BM&E, page 107)

Once you wrap up the climax, you come to what’s called the denouement—or as Mark Twain tagged it, the “marryin’ and the buryin’.”

“A successful denouement has three characteristics: closure, brevity, and dramatization.” (BM&E, page 113)

Closure means you give your reader enough information about what’s going to happen to the characters after the last line of the story so that they can feel satisfied the promise from the beginning has been fulfilled. It doesn’t mean your character has to be satisfied at the end (just think of Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Gone with the Wind), just your reader.

A beginner’s mistake is the “let the reader decide for him-/herself” ending. The story is under your control. If you suddenly let go of that control, it’s like letting go of the steering wheel of a car going 70 miles per hour on the interstate during rush hour. The reader doesn’t want to decide what happens to your characters. They want you to tell them what happens to your characters (well, showing them would be better).

Keep the denouement brief. Look at Return of the King (the novel, not the movie). After the climax of the victory over Sauron, and the coronation of Aragorn / Aragorn and Arwen’s wedding, the book then goes on with the hobbits back to Hobbiton where a whole new conflict takes place. Don’t do this to your readers.

Use dramatization to make sure that your denouement flows with the rest of your story. It shouldn’t feel like a “wrap-up” just tacked onto the end. (Oops, I got to the end, I’d better wrap this up quickly!) Show your characters in action—but keep it simple. You don’t want it to compete with your climax (see example of Return of the King above).

Now, we get to RESONANCE and RESOLUTION—the last paragraph/last line. Kress tells us to keep the denouement active. But when you get to the last line, you have two choices. Here are examples from Ransome’s Honor:

Resolution ending:

          William hastened up the ladder and attained the deck just as Cochrane assisted Julia from the bosun’s chair. His crew, all standing at attention and dressed in their finest, crowded the quarterdeck, the men eagerly craning for a better look at her.
          He escorted her up to the poop and the crew turned to face them. “Julia, I have the honor of presenting the officers and crew of his majesty’s ship Alexandra.” Looking out over his men, he raised his voice. “Men. I am pleased to introduce to you Mrs. Ransome, my wife.”
          The men cheered, but the pounding of William’s heart drowned it out. His wife. He looked down at her in wonder. Hints of the ten-year-old Julia Witherington remained in the freckles across her nose and dimples in her cheeks. But standing beside him, Julia Ransome was his wife—the wife he had not even known he’d been praying for all his life.

I could have just ended it there. But I felt it needed more. So I continued with a Resonant ending:

          He now understood—fully comprehended—Collin’s decision to resign his commission and stay in England to be with Susan. William’s ship, his career, his reputation—none of it mattered any longer. For, if asked, he would walk away from his crew, forsake his duty, and even sacrifice his own honor to provide for and protect Julia.
          Love demanded nothing less.

Kress wrote: “. . . you create a resonant ending by suggesting connections between your story and a larger context.” (BM&E, page 123) In my case, I decided I wanted to end not just with a happily-ever-after ending (until the sequel) but I wanted to connect it to more universal themes: honor, duty, love.

Is your ending feeling flat? Is it possible that it needs RESONANCE? Try writing a resonant ending paragraph after your last line. How does your ending connect your characters and the change that’s happened in them since the beginning of the story with the wider world? Even if you don’t end up using the resonant ending, you may find an even stronger RESOLUTION for the ending than you had before.

  1. Thursday, April 19, 2007 8:01 am

    I need to print this post out for when I rewrite my ending. I did the ‘wrap-up’ thing because I felt I was pushing against my word count and my time deadline. It will need more fleshing out, more emotion, and a better Resonance.

    Love this blog. It’s like going to a writing class every time I read it.


  2. Friday, November 21, 2008 4:42 pm

    Great post (and great ending…;-)).

    One question. I began my novel from Elizabeth’s point of view because she’s the heroine. Is it ok to for the last scene to be in a different person’s point of view (as long as they’re main characters) or should it end in her point of view?



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