Since we're all (well, most) writers here, I'm assuming we're all familiar with at least the basic idea behind the following chart:
A little googling informs this diagram is actually known as Freytag's triangle, after some guy named--wait for it--Gustav Freytag. (Who knew?)
Now, even in Greek and Elizabethan drama the denouement and conclusion put together add up to less stage time than the rising action (during which one sends one's heroes up a tree and throws stones at them, the old writer's adage goes), so that in Shakespeare it usually shows up late in Act Three, and in a Victorian three-act play it's late in Act Two. But the impulse in modern storytelling has been to abbreviate the denouement. And, you know, I'm down with that. When I'm watching Return of the King
and the denoument kind of drags on, I get antsy along with everybody else.
But in some forms of storytelling--most noticeably movies and Marion Zimmer Bradley novels--the denoument has all but disappeared. And this makes me sad because, you know, I like
A denouement is, essentially, curtain!fic. (In case you're not familiar with the term, this is fanfiction in which a happy couple is shown being happy, doing something cheerfully domestic like picking out curtains.) It's the mostly inevitable consequences of the climax (if they're not mostly inevitable we haven't truly hit the climax) working themselves out, so if the story has a happy ending, this is where the characters get to be happy. Cinderella wins over the prince, so there's a big wedding and the wicked stepsisters get their eyes poked out. Only . . . compare the amount of time the wedding gets in the Disney movie to the original text version (most any version, but I'm thinking of the French one).
The denouement is the part which is almost certainly guaranteed to start me bawling. I think I get jealous.
What separates a denouement from curtain!fic is that a denouement is earned in a way that curtain!fic isn't. In a sense, all of that rising action is there in order to earn its denouement--so when we see our heroes buying curtains, it's a reward, because we know all the stuff that had to be gone through to get there. And insofar as curtain!fic works as a fanfiction genre (and I do
think it can work) it's because we have all the rising action of the source text in the back of our minds when we read it.
Insofar as curtain!fic doesn't work, though (and let's face it, it's not an uncommon occurrence), it's because the lack of conflict and rising action just renders the entire piece boring, pointless, and uninteresting. So one has to strike a balance. And the balance that might have worked for Greek or Elizabethan (or Roman or Jacobite or Persian or whatever) drama might not work for contemporary Western audiences or readers. So when I write, I try to strike that balance. Movies in particular need short denouements (see the RotK comment above), so in my only original screenplay, which bends genres far too much to ever be produced but of which I am nonetheless quite proud (if frustrated at how it won't let me turn it into a novel) the denouement takes up a couple of pages, max.
But there are movies that literally have the climax (our heroes win!), maybe one or two reaction shots, and roll the credits. If the romantic subplot, the hero kisses the heroine and she doesn't seem to slap him afterwards (but the camera cuts away before we get to see afterwards anyway). Indeed, this seems to happen so often today in film it's become the rule rather than the exception. I sit excitedly on the edge of my seat for two hours waiting excitedly as the tension builds--only to find I end up with about twenty seconds of pay-off if I'm lucky. This is my most common criticism of the films I see.
Book readers are, I think, more willing to enjoy a longer denouement, which is why the Return of the King
ending works better in its original form than on the screen. Readers are more willing to sit around with the characters and watch them work out the consequences of the climax then moviegoers, so in my BtVS novella Divine Interventions
the climax comes at the end of Chapter Fourteen--and then Chapter Fifteen addresses the fallout of that climax in plot-oriented terms (what do we do with the captured bad guys?) and Chapter Sixteen more in character-oriented terms (I've just saved the world, now walk through my existential crisis). And
there's an epilogue, which sort of looks to the future of that 'verse. I'm very satisfied with the job of pacing I've done in that work.
[There is something to be said about Harry Potter
and its epilogue here, but I just finished the Half-Blood Prince
audiobook after having only read the first book and watched all the movies up to this point, so I'm not exactly qualified to say it. But HBP did
have several chapters of denouement--"The Pheonix Lament" and "The White Tomb," and arguably "The Flight of the Prince" as well--that I expect to largely be cut from the movie.] [Also, I've just discovered hbpspork
But because books are more likely to have, if not as lengthy denouement as I'd like, at least one which has some substance, I end up particularly frustrated with the MZB-type book endings I mentioned above. I think these are still the exception, but because my expectation is that the payoff will be there it's all the more disappointing when it isn't. (And you'd think I'd have have figured out by now that MZB consistently does this, but even when I re-read her books I just get disappointed all over again.)
It comes down to, if I've spent ninety minutes or two hundred something pages watching these characters suffer and remained interested, become invested in them, is it really too much to ask to have more than a couple of pages or a few reaction shots of them being happy?
I'd find it likely that other fanfic readers might, like me, prefer longer denouements, although honestly I find it difficult to see how anyone
at all can find the "rising action then cut to credits" type structure in any way satisfying. But I think my curtain!fic comments above point to the fact that one of the things fanfic does--not the only thing by any means, of course, but I do think one of the primary things--is to extend and draw out the denouements we get in the source text, and put some meat on their bones when they're looking anemic. (I think I may have just mixed a metaphor?) We'll insert our own conflict and rising action, of course, at least in plotty fics, but I think that tends to be less the point of it, and as readers we're more likely to let a fic sort of ramble on, because we love the characters and more than anything else just want to watch them existing in their native habitat.
Which means maybe I shouldn't have cut Divine Interventions
quite so short. Hmm. Food for thought. . . .