I guess we can blame the French for the always-difficult-to-pronounce literary term, DENOUEMENT. The word comes from the French verb, desnouer —to untie, and the French pronounce ment like mahn. I think I was in freshman English in college when I first heard the word. The professor was very precise in his enunciation. I kept staring at the the word and wondering how in the hell he got the mahn out of ment. I’m all for Americanizing the pronunciation myself. I think it should be /de-now-ah-ment/. I mean, what would be the harm. The French have stolen a lot of stuff from us (le parking, le television, and a lot of acclaim for Jerry Lewis comedies). But no matter how it’s pronounced, the denouement is an integral part of getting it right when you’re writing a story or novel. It’s the summing up after the climax, the final unraveling, the chance for the reader to breathe a sigh of relief and think everything worked out.
Like just about everything else about writing, there are no hard and fast rules about how long a denouement should be. Take the ending of American Graffiti, for instance. The faces of the characters appear on the screen listing the fates of each. One was killed by a drunk driver the following year on New Year’s Eve, one was listed as MIA near An Loc, Vietnam, one is a successful insurance salesman, etc. Another variance might be what they call the freeze-frame ending. This type of ending is most often used in movies and short stories, but seldom works in a novel. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s where the picture freezes an image on the screen and the credits roll, leaving the audience to determine what comes next. Usually, the answer is obvious, like the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. After reassuring themselves that the ubiquitous lawman, Joe LeFors, is not outside the bank, Butch and Sundance make a run for it not knowing that the entire Bolivian army is assembled outside ready to do them in. Other times it’s less clear, like the ending of X, Y, and Zee, a movie made in the early 1970s starring Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine, and Suzannah York. Caine, who’s married to Zee (Elizabeth) begins a love affair with Suzannah, who is in turn seduced by Elizabeth after she discovers the other woman’s latent homosexuality. The climax comes as Caine walks in on the two women, finding Suzannah crushed by the emergence of her repressed feelings. “Are you coming?” Elizabeth asks Caine as he sits beside the despondent Suzannah, not knowing exactly what has transpired. He turns to face her, opens his mouth, and the screen freezes. Another example is William Faulkner’s story, “A Rose for Emily.” Without giving too much away, that last line is a real killer. “Taste,” by Rolad Dahl, is another good example of a great freeze frame ending. Like I said, it’s very difficult to pull off in a novel because there is an inherent expectation on the part of the reader that the plot will be unraveled, loose ends will be tied up, and you’ll know how things turned out. I can think of only one novel where a freeze-frame ending was employed successfully and that was Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer book, The Chill.
With a mystery, I think it’s essential that you include a decent denouement. One of the reasons people read mysteries is to enjoy the restoration of order in the universe. SPOILER ALERT: Think back to those miserable, downer movies of the early 70s (like The Parallax View or Get Carter) where the protagonist spends the whole movie fighting against the evilness of the monolithic system only to be killed in the last scene. I hope I didn’t spoil anything if you haven’t seen them. On a brighter note, when Stallone redid Get Carter, he let the titular character survive rather than get shot by a sniper. The fight between Sylvester and Mickey Rourke at the climax is one of the best fight scenes I’ve even seen. It even rivals the great one between Rod Taylor and William Smith in Darker Than Amber. (It rumored that things got a bit out of hand and Taylor and Smith really went at it.)
Anyway, I digress. If you have any doubts about the importance of the denouement, try leaving one out. Think about how the movie, story, or book would be if it ended with the climax. Think about how you would feel if, at the end of The Prisoner of Zenda, for instance, the hero collapsed after saying, “The king lives,” and the screen froze? We wouldn’t have that great scene between him and Princess Flavia, the woman he loves, talking about honor and responsibility, or Captain Fritz saying, “Fate doesn’t always make the right man king.” Like I said, there are way too many loose ends that we, the reader (or the audience), expect to be rectified. To not resolve these questions is something of a cop-out. I admit to feeling a bit of anger and disappointment at an open-ended story, perhaps the most famous of which is Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?” I remember reading it in high school and felt cheated by the clever, cutesy ending line that leaves the outcome up to the reader. If the author would have provided the answer, he most likely would have disappointed those readers who had hoped for the alternate ending, but at least there would have been a bit of closure. As it stands, he succeeded in pleasing no one and disappointing everybody.Hmm, I wonder if that guy was part French?