Writing

Writing 101: What Is Denouement? Learn About the Difference Between Denouement and Epilogue With Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 31, 2019 • 3 min read

In a literary work, the denouement is the resolution of a plot that occurs after its climax.. Denouement is not a literary technique; rather, it is one of several literary terms that describe a plotted conflict’s unfolding and resolution.


What Is Denouement?

Denouement is the point in a story in which the conflict is resolved. Borrowed from French, the word derives from Latin and literally means “untie the knot,” which refers to the narrative entanglements the author has woven through the first four stages of plot development. The denouement always occurs after the climax, in the final part of a story’s narrative arc.

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What Is the Plot Pyramid?

Denouement is one of the five steps in influential German writer Gustav Freytag’s so-called “plot pyramid.” According to Freytag, a story will always have conflict and conflict unfolds across five discreet but interdependent stages, of which denouement is the final stage.

  1. Exposition or introduction where the characters and settings are introduced
  2. Rising action, where conflicts begin escalating
  3. Climax, where these conflicts hit their crescendo
  4. Falling action, where the conflict begins to deescalate and resolution approaches
  5. Denouement, where the conflicts are resolved, and normalcy returns

What Is the Purpose of Denouement in Literature?

A story cannot happen without conflict and conflict cannot be resolved without denouement. A denouement could mean tying up loose ends, revealing unshared secrets, unmasking masqueraders, rewarding the good, punishing the bad, and so on. Regardless of what it looks like or how it comes about, the denouncement restores order to the narrative world of the main characters and in doing so, provides resolution and a feeling of finality for readers.

What Is the Difference Between Denouement and Epilogue?

Denouement is an essential conclusion to plotted conflict, while the epilogue is an optional afterward in which the author shows readers how characters have fared after the events chronicled in the work.

  • An epilogue is an optional follow up after a story has concluded, while denouement is an essential point in the plot that allows a story to conclude.
  • In a sense, an epilogue shows how the story’s denouement has affected its characters after a period of time. Whatever happens in the epilogue is a result of some action already dealt with in the story and resolved in the denouement.
  • A conflict cannot be resolved without a denouement, and by definition, an epilogue cannot occur until this resolution has been achieved.

5 Examples of Denouement in Literature

Denouement is an essential part of a story, restoring order and providing resolution for central conflicts.

  1. In William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, the denouement appears as the declaration of peace between the Montagues and Capulets, which resolves the conflict that resulted in the lovers’ climactic double suicide.
  2. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the denouement comes in the novel’s final pages. After a climactic encounter with townsfolk, overarching conflicts—between Beloved and her mother, Sethe, and the other members of 124—have careened towards their resolution as Beloved disappears as suddenly as she had arrived. Yet it isn’t until the novel’s denouncement, when Sethe comes to understand her own self-worth, that she can come to peace with Beloved’s departure and memory.
  3. In JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the denouement comes at the end of the story when Holden resolves to go home to face his parents.
  4. In comedies, particularly those that venture into the absurd, denouement can restore order to the narrative world formerly marked by chaos. For example, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy Puck reassures audiences that they can safely return to their normal lives because the characters have all resolved their conflicts.
  5. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the conflict is resolved when Macduff kills Macbeth, but the denouement does not occur until later—when Malcolm tells the audience he will restore Scotland to peace after the chaotic and murderous upheaval chronicled in the play.

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