Denouement

In my last letter, about Election Day USA, I called that time the climax of 2020, and I think it was. But now what?

After the climax in a story, there is often a denouement, where the tale has a chance to wind down.

By the very end, it’s best if the central conflict is resolved, but it’s also good if there’s a sense that the story will continue in some way, letting the viewer/reader continue playing things out in their imagination.

In Gone With the Wind (book and movie), Scarlett fails at her main goal—making a life with Rhett Butler—when Rhett brazenly walks out on her. But Scarlett vows to continue the fight: After all, tomorrow is another day.

The very last scene of The Sopranos series takes this concept further. Tony sits in a booth in a diner with his wife and son. He’s a mob boss, and we have a strong sense that this might be his time to get whacked. We wait for the worst. Nothing happens. Screen goes black. We must decide the outcome for ourselves. (My view: he lives a long life, but always looking over his shoulder, a kind of purgatory.)

Similarly, great stories often don’t end on a note that’s totally happy or sad. The curtain comes down with a chord that blends multiple emotions.

The turmoil of 2020 is not finished: the politics, the pandemic, the social and economic stresses. No matter your personal belief, chances are you’re not completely relieved or downcast as you read this, but still questing. Tomorrow is another day.

In Toy Story 3, Woody (a toy cowboy) lives to serve his owner, Andy. The boy is about to leave for college, but thankfully he’ll take Woody with him, the one toy that will be his lifelong companion. Woody and his fellow toys suffer abuse and almost-annhilation in the outside world, but finally Woody makes it back to Andy’s house and jumps in the box marked “College.” But then, at the climax, Woody decides to climb in another box, to join his fellow toys who are destined to go to a little girl.

The denouement… Andy takes the box to the little girl and introduces her to all the toys. He’s surprised to find Woody there. But when he sees the girl’s face light up at the sight of Woody, he hands the cowboy over. Andy (like Woody) realizes that Woody’s best home will be with a child who wants to play with him.

So much heartbreak and happiness at once.

A story doesn’t need to be all one thing or the other at the end. And that’s where we find ourselves right now.

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Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop

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