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Does your denouement murder your characters?

I have a confession to make. I’m a murderer. Only in the third degree—I didn’t mean to—but murder is murder.

You know what I remember most about writing my first manuscript? Writing the ending. I’d had such a wonderful time writing that whole manuscript. I loved those characters. When I wrote what I knew was the last scene, I became so choked up the lump in my throat literally hurt.

The story was done. They were done. But I wasn’t ready to let those characters go.

So what did I do? I wrote an epilogue. It’s a sweet epilogue. Kind of sappy. To this day I still like it. It gave me a chance to say the goodbye I wasn’t ready for in the last scene.

But it killed the characters. I didn’t understand that at the time, but it did.

I don’t mean I literally killed the characters off in the epilogue. They got their happily-ever-after. What I mean is that I killed them for the reader. Without meaning to, I murdered my beloved characters.

I did it in my second manuscript, too, before one of my critiquers told me to cut it. “You don’t need that,” he said. “It’s too much.” I rankled at that piece of feedback. I liked my epilogue. It was sweet, kind of sappy, and let me say goodbye. But the cool thing about writing is you can undo any mistake, even murder. I gritted my teeth, cut the epilogue, and brought my characters back to life.

So when I see my clients accidentally kill their characters at the end of the book, I understand. Sometimes I can tell that my client is looking for their own emotional closure on the book, just like I was. Sometimes, it’s equally evident that my clients feel like they have to wrap up all the threads to give readers perfect closure on everything.

I’ve been there. I understand that drive. But I’ve now written enough manuscripts of my own and analyzed enough from my clients that I can finally articulate what that critiquer meant when he said my epilogue was too much. He meant I was killing the characters.

Not for me. Not in the story. But for him.

The purpose of a denouement

To explain what that means, I need to establish a little groundwork about a novel’s ending—or if you’re writing an epic series, about the end of the last book in the series. Your story builds to a gripping peak. You write a climax that resolves the story’s major issues one way or another. And then there’s the denouement at the end.

Ask people what’s supposed to go between the climax and the final page, and they’ll say things like “that’s where you wrap up any loose threads,” or “that’s where you bring the reader back down from the emotional high of the climax, so they don’t leave the book feeling unsettled.”

True, but trivial. That’s tactics, not strategy.

The strategic purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of their lives.

You might indeed do that by wrapping up loose ends. You might do it by giving a flash-forward scene that shows a less tumultuous time in the characters’ lives. It is in how you implement those various strategies that you will either accidentally murder your characters, or will allow them to live. The difference lies in whether you keep your denouement focused on reorienting the characters, or whether you stray too far outside those bounds.

That’s what my critiquer was trying to tell me. “Your epilogue goes way beyond reorienting the characters towards the next phase of their lives.”

The important bit

Reorienting, that’s the important bit. The reason for this has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with the characters, either. It has everything to do with the reader.

As readers of fiction or watchers of movies, usually we want to leave the story with the feeling that, after the climax, the characters are facing a new, better future. We want to have the belief that they’re going to be ok. We want that same sense of an unbounded but positive future for those characters, that we ourselves have when we conquer major obstacles in our lives: the feeling that “now, anything is possible!”

You graduate high school or college, bursting with the feeling of accomplishment, and confident that you’re going to kick-ass in the rest of your life. You ask the person of your dreams to marry you, they say yes, you endure the ordeal of wedding planning and in-laws, and you head off into your honeymoon feeling like life is just going to be awesome from here on out.

It doesn’t always happen, but that’s how it feels, and that’s the feeling readers just love to leave a book with. Here’s the thing. Simply by seeing the characters turn away from the now-completed problems that led up to the climax, and turn towards something else, we know that they are now facing a new, better future.

We don’t need to be told just what that new, better future is.

Committing murder

That’s how you go too far in a book’s denouement. You do the good work of reorienting the characters, but then you also specify where and how far they go along their new paths.

When you do that, you murder them in the reader’s mind.

Ok, perhaps that’s melodramatic. I guess it’s not so much that you murder them, per se, as it is that you prevent them from living on for us.

This is a tricky point, so bear with me.

As the writer, the characters live for you because you are imagining their feelings and choices and actions and responses and so forth during the events of the main plot. It is your imagination which brings them to life for us.

As readers, we don’t have that same full freedom; we’re not allowed to imagine our own choices and so forth, because those are part of the story. Different choices would lead to a different plot, so obviously the writer has to do that part. The writer must imagine the characters’ choices and present them to us through the narrative.

That difference means that on a very fundamental level, characters in a novel necessarily must feel less alive to the reader than they do to the writer.

This is true from page one up through “the end.” But once we get to “the end,” the situation changes.

When the plot is done, suddenly the doors of possibility are thrown wide open. The characters might now choose anything. They might do anything. How exciting! And having come to know them through the course of the story, we readers are finally in a position to imagine them into further life just like you imagined them into life while you were writing the story.

You had your turn. Now it’s our turn, but only if you allow us to imagine what the characters might do next. If you imagine it for us, we can’t. If you write it all down in a tidy little epilogue or final chapter—if you let us know that Mary Louise got her biology degree and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on tissue regeneration, while Charlie eventually bounced back from the breakup, married another woman in Iowa, had two kids and a dog and settled down to a modest life as an auto mechanic—then we don’t get our turn.

If you imagine the rest for us, we cannot then imagine them into further life. Murderer!

Reorient the characters. Then stop.

Just don’t be so specific about your story’s Mary Louise and Charlie. Leave it more open-ended:

Mary Louise slipped the envelope from her purse and walked into the post office. She stood in line. Two people ahead of her, she saw the back of a familiar brown leather jacket.

Awkward, she thought, but not as awkward as saying nothing.


Charlie turned. “Oh. Hey. What’s up?”

Mary Louise motioned with the envelope. “Grad school application.” His usual Sunday-evening stubble looked out of place on a Wednesday morning. “How are you doing, Charlie?”

He shrugged. “Not great, really. But I’ll be ok. It’s cool.” She glanced down. After all those years together, how strange not to have anything left to say. He held up a form. “Change of address. I’m going to Iowa,” he said.

“Wow. Your dad’s?”

“Yeah. He’s talking about retiring. He keeps hinting for me to take over the shop, but you know him. He won’t just come right out and say it. I figure I’ll give it a try.”

Mary Louise smiled. “You should. I think you’ll like it. You always were good with your hands.”

Reorient. Point Mary Louise at grad school. Point Charlie at Iowa. Then stop, so the reader can imagine the rest. Give us our turn to bring the characters to life.

December 21, 2011 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, denouement, reorient

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