Story from the Start: Denouement

So the action/emotional tension/suspense reaches its peak, the detective reveals the murderer or imposter, the hero emerges from the smoking remains of the bad guy’s lair with only a few scratches (and the girl on his arm), the heroine politely but soundly cuts the predatory Other Woman to win her True Love for herself, the cowboys capture the rustlers before they can get the herd into Old Mexico . . .

Story’s over, right?

Well, if it is a short story, it can be. If you are writing a serial and your readers know that in advance, it can be. If it is something longer, and you drop the curtain here, your readers are going to feel cheated.

“But, but . . . what about the kid? What about saving the ranch? Can we at least peek into the church at the start of the wedding?” We want to see the rest of the happy ending, or at least the happy-for-the-moment-ending. English-language fairy tales traditionally end with “And they all lived happily ever after.” German stories more often end with “And if they’re not dead, they’re living still.” (Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie nach Heute.) And the end of a very tense and dramatic scene in Intensely Familiar, the heroine warns her husband that if he comes home from “an errand” and falls into bed without eating, “Two words. Frying pan.” (It’s a running joke that she’s going to thump him with the big cast iron frying pan.) The reader gets a hint of returning normality, and that although things have changed, some things remain.

Sarah Hoyt calls these “cigarette moments,” after the now-long-gone smoking in bed after passion scenes. A moment to relax, to tie up lose ends, to confirm that justice has been done, and so on.

So, in the novel that we have been following, the nomads have seen that justice was done per the laws of the gods, even if they did it their own way. The river is returning to its proper place, the really bad guy is answering to a higher authority, the children and the most abused child have been saved, and they all live happily ever after. Right?

Sorry. I’m too much of a stickler for history, and human nature for that. And in the prehistoric-fantasy subgenre, the ending tends to be upbeat but still somewhat realistic for the setting.

Excerpt: [One thread in the book is that the chieftain, Mahon, is very determined that his daughter is going to marry his choice or not at all. Meana has her own opinions on that. Foy is unwed and has shown no obvious interest in Meana. Emphasis on obvious.]

Vashlo ducked out of the tent and stretched, then went looking for Foy. The morning wind smelled clean but dry, warning that the grass would soon start curing or withering. Without the main river, the others would run weaker, or so Dravanae’s visions had warned. Time to move, to follow the Fifth River wherever it went, toward the west. West was good.

Camp noises filled the cool air. Children trotted back and forth, carrying fodder or helping their parents and relatives. Three very young one chased a hoop as an older girl watched. Vashlo nodded to some of the other hunters. A few of the city women, the youngest ones, worked under the close supervision of clanswomen. They’d chosen to come with the clan, and Mahon had approved. Where would he go if he were Foy? A clump of trees caught his eye, and the bird sunning atop a dead branch. Vashlo nodded.  Indeed, as he came closer, he saw his cousin breaking a stick into smaller pieces and tossing them into the reeds at the edge of the salt pond. “You’re scaring the fish,” Vashlo called, quietly.

Foy turned, jerked his hand down with the middle finger extended, and resumed killing the stick.

“What’s eating you, Foy?” Vashlo kept his distance. He knew not to approach too closely when the scout simmered.

“The child, Heavchi. That even Lyria cannot help her to heal.” Anger blazed in his eyes, radiated from his taut shoulders and clenched fists. “I want to go back, find the bones of that so-called priest, and torture them as he did the poor child.”

Vashlo scowled down at the grassy ground then looked up to the sky. A hawk circled on the morning wind, catching the air and soaring on. “Time, Foy. All things with time. Remember that the hawthorn bloom last but best, even though the storms twist and bend the wood. Heavchi won’t heal in a moon. Your arm didn’t, so why should a heart?”

“And the gods work slowly, or fast, but on their own time. I know, damn it, but it doesn’t make it easier.” The scout kicked at a rock. “At least she’s walking and talking to a few people,” he allowed.

Vashlo nodded. “And the grass is greening, and Dravane has finally agreed that the spotted colt is not a sprinter and has decided to quit trying to train him to race instead of to truly ride.”

Foy folded his arms. “Un huh. And next you’ll be telling me that Meana has announced her choice of a husband and her father has approved it. In which case we don’t need to bother moving the herds, because the gods themselves will be walking among us to see such a wonder.”

Vashlo grinned. “I wouldn’t go that far, but Mahon is looking for you. Shall I saddle your running horse?”

“Fleetfoot might not be fast enough. And I can’t drown myself in a river that’s not there.” But he grinned back, a little.

A hawk called from overhead, and other birds answered. The men turned back toward the camp.

End Excerpt

Yes, in the final version, it will be longer. There will have been hints in the lead up to the climax that the people in the secondary towns know that the good times are going to end soon, because the gods always bring justice, be it soon or slow.  And readers know that the nomads are going to move on, because the herds need grass. With out the river, why stay when they can follow it to new pastures?

Story lines are tidied up, good is rewarded, evil punished, and there is hope for those who suffered.

I hope this series has provided some tips and ideas that you can use. Failing that, I hope it has served as a horrible warning on what not to do. 🙂


  1. Thank you very much for this series. It’s been extremely helpful. Would you use an entire chapter for the cigarette moment or a shorter bit at the end of a chapter?

    1. How big is your story?

      Seriously, and in earnest, that looks like a major variable.

      If I write something big, fast, and paranoid, I’ve done a good job evoking that in the reader, and just stop, what happens to the reader? If I dump them out into the real world keyed up and suspicious of everything, that isn’t nice to them, and they will be mad at me. If I’ve been using the reader’s time and the pace of the story to get them very excited about what happens to the characters, I also need to use their time and the pace to calm them down as I bring things to a rest.

      You get the train up to speed, travel where you need to, and slow down to a safe stop. None of this “reach the end of the line, and travel further than the length of the rails” stuff.

      That said, the conclusion may just be me. Because I’m in the middle of some intractable design work on something that seems to be big, fast, and paranoid. I’ve known from very early how I wanted to end it, the event that makes up the final scenes. I also know some of what I want to establish between the climax and that event. (Some people are going to hang, and there are others who will not be prosecuted. Plus, I need to establish that the bombings have stopped, defense technologies have been deployed, the diplomacy has had some success, etc…) Rest is TBD, partly because I’m maybe 2/9 figuring out what happens between the initial events and the climax.

    2. Usually every action scene has a little bit of a cigarette moment (since I don’t write thrillers, and even there there’s a very brief lull to breathe and reload). A novel will have a concluding chapter, often where the characters mention any loose ends or check up on the injured (or tidy the garden after the storm, or whatever.) In the short story I did for an anthology, it is a page, so two-three paragraphs. Like Bob the Registered said, the longer the work, the longer the cigarette moment or chapter. My upcoming release is 76K words, so the last chapter (2K words or so) has everyone recovering, missing pieces tidied up, and so on. [Sorry, no more for fear of spoilers].

  2. “And if they’re not dead, they’re living still.”

    I’ve seen the line (and even read it) many a time. Yet, just now (perhaps it’s that I’m on my second glass of Pinot Noir…) it has me pondering a magical, living, wisecracking still.

    “Ants? Really?”
    “Suits you. You do have an… acid wit.” (See: formic acid)

  3. I generally have a party at the end. Everybody gets to blow off some steam, show off their dance moves, and celebrate that they saved the world.

    In The Abandoned Shoe I have them all show up for Memorial Day at Arlington in DC (5,000 Valkyrie giants armed with ceremonial 20mm rifles stand as honor guard over the proceedings) and get invited to a post-event garden party. Lots of fun at the end after a tense battle.

  4. I was nobly resisting the impulse to put everything I knew into the denouement of a recently finished novel when, fortunately, three of the characters explained that there would be two sequels.

  5. The flip side is knowing when to *end* it.
    Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark is a case in point. It’s a beautiful story that reaches a natural bittersweet ending. (The decision has been made, the protagonist is walking in the park, knowing that however the procedure goes, the character he is, is going to end.)
    But she added an epilogue to try to get to a happy ending. It doesn’t work to such an extent that it actively undermines the story we’ve just read.

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