(Morning, crime dogs. I am en route from Paris to Tallahassee today. I hope. Airports are crazy these days. Will try to check in here if I make it to Atlanta.)
It is the loose ends with which men hang themselves. — Zelda Fitzgerald.
By PJ Parrish
Another sleepless night. Another search for a good old movie on TCM. Tonight, I caught the last half hour of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Right at the climax when the tensions and heat in the Brooklyn neighborhood boiled over, leading Mookie to throw a trash can through the window of Sal’s pizza joint. All hell then breaks loose.
Spike Lee choreographs this climax with chilling precision. But what interested me was what came after. The next day, Mookie and Sal, standing in front of the smoldering ruins of the pizza joint, argue then reach a tepid reprochement. But Lee adds a coda of the local DJ (Samuel Jackson) greeting his listeners with the admonishment “Wake up! Up you wake, up you wake, up you wake! It’s gonna be another hot day.” Then before the credits roll, Lee gives us two quotes — from Martin Luther King Jr. on peaceful protest and Malcolm X on violence as self-defense.
That’s when I got up and jotted some notes for this blog. Because I think the ending of Do the Right Thing is a great departure point for a talk here about the dénouement.
You’ve probably heard this term bouncing about in craft books or maybe on conference panels. But I’m not sure we really know what it is or how we should use it in our books.
First, let’s learn how to say the sucker: It’s day-new-moh.
It comes from the Old French word desnouer, “to untie” and the Latin word nodus for “knot”. It’s the part of the story that comes after you’ve built up your conflicts in a rising arc of tension and blown up your plot in a giant fireball of gun fights, car chases, lovers’ quarrels, dying zombies or melting Nazis. The dénouement is where you the writer have to tie up those loose plot ends, slap on some salve, leach out the suspense and resolve things into a nice satisfying conclusion.
Or maybe not. But we’ll get back to Spike Lee in a second. For now, let’s stick with conventional dénouements.
Above is a slide from one of our workshops. A good plot is never a flat line or even a comet-shot straight upward. It is like that fever chart at the bottom — a series of triumphs and setbacks for your hero but its main thrust is always upward toward the climax. And that little downward line out to Z is the dénouement.
Think of the dénouement as a coda to the big movements that precede it. It is a tail on the plot beast, but still important because it is where things are explained (if necessary) and secrets revealed (sometimes). Shakespeare was big on dénouements: In Romeo and Juliet, after the lovers are dead, the Montagues and Capulets gather and Escalus lays a big guilt trip on them all telling them their feud is to blame. At the end of Hamlet, with the stage strewn with bodies, Horatio shows up to remind us that the voices of angels will carry Hamlet to his heavenly rest, meaning his story – and thus he – will live forever.
To use a metaphor: Your climax is well, like a climax. The dénouement is smoking the cigarettes afterward.
Maybe it’s useful to stop here and think about the THREE-ACT STRUCTURE. James and others here at TKZ talk about this a lot, so if you aren’t familiar with it, pick up James’s books on plot structure or go troll through our archives. Here’s the skinny over-simplified: The first act is your set-up wherein you introduce characters and their world, set up your plot, and define the main conflict that is the hero’s call to action. The second act is “rising action,” a series of events and setbacks that build up to the climax. The third act is the turning point and climax that requires the hero to draw on strengths, confront the antagonist and solve the problem at hand. Then we move into “resolution” where conflicts may be fixed, normalcy restored, and anxiety (for the reader) released.
The dénouement is a big deal in traditional detective stories. At the end, you will often get Holmes or Poiret laying out the clues and explaining how they figured things out.
One of my favorite detective dénouements is from Psycho. The climax has Norman, dressed up as Mother, trying to stab Lila in the creepy cellar. But what comes next is the scene where the psychiatrist explains what happened to Norman.
It’s hokey, yeah, but we need to understand how Norman got so twisted. Likewise, you might need such a useful scene to help untangle the yarns of your plot at the end.
There’s a great example of dénouement in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. After the climatic fight between Biff and Willy and Willy’s suicide (to get insurance money) there is a final scene called “Requiem” where the family gathers at Willy’s funeral. Sadly, no one has come to pay their respects. Biff laments that Willy had “the wrong dreams.” And Willy’s wife, who has been able to cry, breaks down, sobbing that the house is now paid for, repeating “We’re free…we’re free.”
Both Terminator movies have nice dénouements. In the first one, Sara Conner in her Jeep, guns and dog in tow, pulls into a last-stop desert gas station where a young boy points to the darkening sky and says “a storm is coming.” Sara’s last line before she heads off toward the apocalypse — “I know. I know.” In the sequel, the dénouement is the “good” Terminator lowering himself into the fire pit to destroy his microchip and thus save the world.
Another of my favorites is from The Shawshank Redemption. After Andy Dufresne escapes from prison and disappears, the story is essential over and all is resolved. But no…we are treated to his friend Morgan Freeman’s touching narration about going free: “I hope the Pacific Ocean is as blue as it is in my dreams.”
I think a denouement is different than an epilogue. An epilogue is an animal unto its own world, a specific literary device that has a special purpose, often yoked with a prologue. The denouement usually takes places immediately following the climax and resolution; an epilogue is usually separated by time — week, months or years later. Sometimes it hints at a sequel to come, or it serves as a commentary of sorts on what has happened. It might sum up what happened much later to the characters. Think of way George Lucas used this device in American Graffiti — as the credits rolled, he shows graduation pictures of each character and listed what happened to each i.e. “Curt Henderson is a writer living in Canada.”
A good denouement is subtle. What you don’t want to do is end up with an extended “Now I have to explain why I have to kill you” speech. This is not a true denouement; this is just a bad climax. The skeins that you weave as you move through your story should come together in a logical and satisfying pattern. And if you have some little loose threads that might poke out after that — well, that’s what the denouement is for.
But then there’s the big question: Do you have to untie every knot? Do you have to snip off every loose thread? No, of course not. I love ambiguity in endings. I don’t like anal books that clean up everything. And truth be told, I don’t really enjoy those classics mysteries where the detective gathers everyone in the dining car and lays it out there. I want to figure some things out for myself. And I crave some messiness in my fiction. Not all stories are neat; not all storytellers color within the lines.
Which brings me back to Spike Lee and his denouement for Do the Right Thing. It doesn’t tie up anything in a pretty bow. In fact, Lee rejects the whole idea of traditional closure. Mookie and Sal are left in a wary face-off that personifies the unease of race relations in this country. The mayor (Ossie Davis) tells Mookie to “do the right thing” but no one in this story really knows what that is, which is the only thing that is clear at the end. So what can Spike Lee leave us with except the denouement he offers — two powerful and deeply conflicting quotes from King and Malcolm X. And a final picture of them shaking hands?
Some knots just defy untying.