Denouement is one of the most important aspects of a script, yet it can easily be confused with other story beats like climaxes or epilogues. So what is denouement? In this article, we’re going to define denouement in a clear and simple way, then look at some key examples that show us how masterclass filmmakers use it to expert effect. We’ll cover the various types of denouement (explicit vs. implicit) with some stellar examples. But before all that, let’s start with a quick denouement definition so we can begin to understand the foundation of this highly important storytelling element.
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What does denouement mean?
Every story ends and most (but not all) wrap things up in the denouement. From a storytelling perspective, this is a very important section of the narrative. It's the last chance to bring it all home and it's the last thing the audience sees. No matter what came before it, if you don't "stick the landing" in the ending, the lasting impression will stick with them.
It would be fantastic to simply say, "For the perfect ending, do x, y, and z." But there is no such magic formula and every story's ending should be custom made. Let's quick run through the denouement definition and then we'll look at some specific examples and what makes them work.
What is denouement?
Denouement is an aspect of narrative that gives context and resolution to a major theme, relationship or event in a story. It occurs at the end of a story — from the moment the climax ends until actual end. This resolution can be explicit, implicit or both. Unlike a story’s epilogue, the denouement is essential. A narrative cannot be complete without the denouement but there are a few exceptions to this rule.
How to pronounce denouement: day-new-MAW
Where do we see denouement?
- Video Games
The word denouement is rooted in the French language as a term to describe the “unknotting” of something. Surprisingly, that translation is a bit ironic. Usually, we say "tying up loose ends" at the end so denouement is both tying and untying the end of a story.
Here’s a metaphor to clarify the difference between denouement and epilogue: denouement is closing a box, epilogue is putting a bow on top. There’s no need for the latter but it helps to reinforce the resolution every now and then.
We’ve covered the denouement definition, now let’s jump into some examples!
Denouement Examples in Movies
The explicit use of denouement is when an action gives resolution to an essential aspect of a story. A great example of explicit denouement is the ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Spoilers ahead — how the ending of the film plays out.
Denouement Examples in Movies • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
In this scene, Chief (Will Sampson) kills McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) then jumps out of a window at the asylum. Why is this denouement? Because it gives resolution to the theme of captivity.
These actions liberate our two characters: McMurphy was lobotomized so he’s liberated in death. Chief escapes the institution, as such, his liberation is physical freedom.
This denouement example also gives resolution to the relationship between Chief and McMurphy. In the end, Chief’s actions prove that he really did love McMurphy and heeded his words on individual freedom.Another great example of explicit denouement is at the end of Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader “kills” Darth Sidious to bring balance to the force and restore order in the galaxy.
Darth Vader’s Death • Return of the Jedi
The action here isn’t Sidious’ death though, it’s Vader’s, whose death serves to resolve a character arc and the theme of the “chosen one.”
Also, this scene resolves an essential aspect of character, which is Vader’s humanity. Vader asks Luke to help take off his mask, a metaphor for abandoning his evil ways. This action humanizes Vader, evident in the line “I want to look on you with my own eyes.”
Denouement Examples in Movies
If explicit denouement is reliant on action to give resolution, then implicit denouement is reliant on inaction. In A Streetcar Named Desire, the denouement is forced upon our protagonist Blanche.
In this scene, Blanche is taken away to a mental hospital, completely helpless to change her fate. The resolution of the film is implied by her inaction. Blanche is too far gone because of the abuse that she’s endured.
A Streetcar Named Desire • Ending
This denouement resolves the relationship between Blanche, Stanley and Stella. Blanche is powerless. Stanley chases Stella. Stella escapes.
In the original play, Stella stays with Stanley which changes the dynamic of the denouement entirely. Rather than each character having their own individual resolution, the cards are truly stacked against Blanche, as Stella and Stanley stay together.
A strong, recent implicit denouement example is in the last musical sequence of La La Land. If you haven't seen the film, we're about to spoil the ending.
La La Land • Ending
The ending of La La Land is filled with emotional force and incredible visuals, but it’s a bit tricky to spot the differences between the denouement, the climax, and the epilogue.
The climax occurs when Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) decide to invest themselves to their career dreams while talking by the Griffith Observatory. The ensuing scene takes place five years later, when Mia and her new husband go to Sebastian’s jazz club. This is the epilogue.
There’s also an elaborate dream sequence where Sebastian and Mia end up together, this is also the epilogue. I know, it’s kind of confusing. Why are both of these aspects the epilogue? Because they don’t give resolution to any aspects of the story on their own.
Then, we see that Mia goes to leave with her husband, then looks back at the stage. Sebastian meets her gaze. For a brief moment, the two former lovers share a somber moment, then both smile.
So, what is the denouement in La La Land? It’s this exact moment between Mia and Sebastian because it gives resolution to their relationship. Sebastian and Mia both achieved their goals with the help of one another but at the cost of their relationship.
Implicit vs explicit denouement
There are also examples of denouements in which there is an explicit action and a separate, implicit resolution.
One great example of this is in the final scene of The Departed.
The Departed • Ending
The implicit denouement is the rat running along the balcony edge. This image implies that Sullivan was nothing more than a rat and gives resolution to the metaphor of “rats” that pervaded the story of the film.
The explicit denouement in this scene is the action of Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) killing Sullivan (Matt Damon) and the corresponding resolution of the character’s death.
Perhaps the most famous implicit denouement example in film is the ending of one of the best Neo-Noir movies, Roman Polanski's classic, Chinatown. One more time — SPOILERS AHEAD!
Chinatown • Ending
The climax occurs just before this scene when Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) is shot and killed through the eye by the police.
The explicit denouement is the action of Cross (John Huston) taking Katherine (Belinda Palmer.) This action gives a tragic resolution to Katherine’s character, by showing that Cross got away with raping his own daughter, and plans on doing it again.
The implicit denouement is in the metaphor to Chinatown. Dumbfounded by the injustices that he’s seen, Jake (Jack Nicholson) is told to “forget about it, it’s Chinatown.” This implies the resolution of two themes: the first is that there are aspects of “the foreign” that are impossible to understand.
We see this referenced repeatedly throughout the film in dialogue and action, such as when Jake makes an awkward joke about the “Chinaman.” The second implication is that some things are simply out of our control, whether it be due to social injustice, economic fealty or some other factor.
What is a Plot Device?
Every story needs denouement, and it also needs a plot device. Plot devices are narrative tools that drive a story forward in a variety of ways. Some are used to great effect while others mar an otherwise strong story. In this article, we break down plot devices, both good and bad with examples from film history.