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Denouement

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English Literature

The denouement is the unravelling of a mystery. It is the final full stop, the last resolution, a tying up of loose ends. Many literary works use a story arc that features a denouement to create endings that don’t leave the reader or audience hanging.

Denouement: meaning

Denouement is a literary term used to describe a section of the story structure or a narrative arc. It is the last part of a narrative that ends existing conflicts, provides closure or resolution, and ties up loose ends. Authors and playwrights use denouement in their novels and plays when they would prefer a neat, resolved ending.

There are many types of story structures; in Freytag’s Pyramid, for example, the denouement comes after the 'falling action' phase and wraps up the narrative.

Denouement: origin and pronunciation

The literary term denouement is derived from the French word dénouement. The French meaning of the word dénouement can be translated into English as untying, unravelling or, more literally, outcome. This meaning mirrors denouement's literary meaning, which is a story structure element that concludes or 'unties' the tension created by the climax.

What is less straightforward for those who don’t speak French is how to pronounce this French word without its é.

You can pronounce denouement just like it is said in French, or with a slightly different emphasis.

/deɪˈ nu ː mɒ̃/

Denouement: synonyms

Denouement is the formal literary term, but it is synonymous with outcome, conclusion, resolution, or coda. More stage-specific synonyms include finale and last act. An 'epilogue' would be a literary synonym more suitable for novels or plays. The word 'unravelling' is a more abstract synonym related to the original French meaning.

These synonyms are not interchangeable with denouement, but are great for a more comprehensive understanding of its meaning and purpose.

Denouement in story structures

There are several story structures; some of them make use of denouement. Also referred to as narrative structures, examples include Freytag’s Pyramid, the Hero’s Journey, and the Three Act Structure. These are further explained below.

While the final stages of the Hero’s Journey can be said to be a type of denouement, they are not explicitly labelled as such. As Freytags’ Pyramid and the Three Act Structure feature denouement as an explicit phase, we will look at them in more detail.

Story structures: Freytag’s Pyramid

Named after Gustav Freytag, this five-part story structure is often represented as a triangle with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Here, the denouement ties up any loose ends bought in as part of the earlier phases that built up to the climax. This was a prevalent structure for both plays and novels from the 19th century to modern times, so you will have read many examples of works that follow this form.

Freytag’s original diagram was created for tragedies. The denouement has replaced the original term used by Freytag, which was catastrophe. This is still used today for novels or plays that can be classified as tragedies.

More modern adaptations use denouement, as it covers a wider range of possible endings than 'catastrophe'.

Studysmarter, Denouement, Studysmarter

Denoument in modern Freytag's Pyramid. Image: Studysmarter Originals

Story structures: The Three Act Structure

The Three Act Structure also follows a beginning, middle, and end flow. This form dates back to Aristotle in Ancient Greece. Similar in many ways to Freytag's Pyramid, the key difference is the five parts versus the three acts. Many modern forms of media such as films also use a three-act story to determine their narrative arcs.

The Three Act Structure is really simple, with some of the same terminologies as Freytag's Pyramid being used.

Denouement, Story Structure, Studysmarter

Denouement in the three-act story structure. Image: Studysmarter Originals

Denouement in literature and drama: examples

Since the 19th century, works of literature have followed the Freytag Pyramid form. There are some famous examples of denouement in the world of literature, theatre, and drama.

Denouement: dramatic tragedy

An example of catastrophe in tragedy would be the suicide of Romeo and Juliet (1597). This is a denouement; but, since it is a tragic one, it is more accurate to describe it as a catastrophe.

Denouement: literature and dramatic comedy

A well-known example of denouement in modern literature is JRR Tolkien's Lord of The Rings (1954). This is a pretty complex example with many loose ends being tied up, but the main resolution is the personal transformation of Bilbo Baggins.

Another famous example of comedic denouement is the Shakespearean drama, As You Like It (1623). This is a pastoral drama, well known for its complex female character, Rosalind. Let's look at this example in more detail.

Denouement in drama: As You Like It - Shakespeare

The last scene of Act 5, the Epilogue of this Shakespearean comedy, can be considered its denouement. After four acts of rising action, a climax, and some falling action at the start of Act 5, the final scene wraps ups all the loose ends into a pretty happy finale.

Phoebe and Orlando realise that they are in love with people who are not the gender that they thought they were. Various other couples are also in love and a spontaneous group wedding just seems to happen. A whole collective of couples including Orlando and Rosalind, Oliver and Celia, Phoebe and Silvius, and Touchstone and Audrey all get married. The wedding is briefly interrupted with some good news bought by Jacques de Bois.

Duke Frederick, the mortal enemy of Duke Senior, had been waylaid on his way to usurp Duke Senior. A priest had somehow convinced him to join a monastery instead. There would be no battle and everyone could return to court. This leads to more celebrating and dancing until everyone leaves the stage, except for Rosalind.

Earlier in Act 5, scene 4, Rosalind had mentioned that she will:

make all this matter even'.

She does this in the epilogue. To reveal the final mystery that is not a total mystery, Rosalind unmasks herself as a woman, who had been playing the part of a man, Ganymede, who also pretended to be a woman. What is more intriguing is the boy actor playing Rosalind reveals his gender too, when he declares that:

If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me'

In the end, it is revealed that not only was a boy pretending to be a woman, but the woman was also pretending to be a boy pretending to be a woman. Neat.

Can you see why the French meaning of denouement ‘unravelling’ fits this scenario, as well as the English meaning of 'tying up loose ends'? The mystery is unravelled, and the ends are neatly tied up.

Denouement - Key takeaways

  • Denouement means to untie or unravel, as well as meaning the more literal conclusion. Adopted into English from the French, it is derived from the original Latin.

  • The literary term 'denouement' refers to the epilogue or last scenes or chapters of a novel or play. It is similar to a resolution or finale.

  • The denouement is considered part of many story structures; from the Three Act Structure to Freytag’s Pyramid. It is always the final part of any story arc.

  • 'Denouement' is used for more light-hearted or less tragic endings, while the word catastrophe is used more accurately for tragedies.

  • An example of denouement in drama from As You Like It: Act 5, scene 4 and epilogue, when Rosalind’s true identity is revealed.

Denouement

Denouement is pronounced similarly to the original French.


/deɪˈ nu ː mɒ̃/

Denouement exists in novels and plays. Famous examples include the suicide of Romeo and Juliet in Act 5, Scene 3. 


A more comedic example is Act 5, Scene 4 and the Epilogue in William Shakespeare's As You Like It.

In tragedy a denouement is called a catastrophe; its purpose is to end the story in a convincingly tragic way. 

In drama, the denouement often happens in the final scene of the last act, or in the epilogue. Its purpose is to tie up loose ends and unravel any mysteries.


In tragedies this is called a catastrophe, and functions as way to end the play in a way that is likely to lead to catharsis. 


Catharsis is the audience's feelings of sadness, fear, or anxiety after watching a tragedy.


Denouement contains a resolution, but is broader than just that. It also unravels, reveals, or concludes.

Final Denouement Quiz

Question

How do you pronounce denouement?

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Answer

Denouement is pronounced like this:


/deɪˈ nu ː mɒ̃/

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Question

What is the meaning of denouement?

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Answer

Denouement is a literary term used to describe a part of a story structure. It is the last part of a narrative that ends any conflicts, provides closure or resolution, and ties up loose ends.

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Question

What story structures contain denouement?

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Answer

Freytag’s Pyramid

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Question

What does denouement mean when translated from French?

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Answer

The French meaning of the word dénouement can be translated into English as ‘untying’ , 'unraveling' or, quite literally, ‘outcome’.

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Question

What are some synonyms  for denouement?

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Answer

Conclusion

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Question

What are some famous story structures?

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Answer

Freytag's Pyramid

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Question

What structure do Freytag's Pyramid and The Three Act Story have in common?

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Answer

Beginning, middle and end.

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Question

What is the original term for denouement used for tragedies?

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Answer

Catastrophe.

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Question

What types of literature use denouement?

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Answer

Novels

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Question

What is an example of denouement in a Shakespearean comedy?

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Answer

Act 5, Scene 4 and the Epilogue of William Shakespeare's As You Like It are examples of denouement

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