5-Act Play Structure: Denouement

Jennifer Mendez Writer's Resources


It’s all come down to this, to the end of a 5 part series following the structure of a 5-act play. Today we’ll cover denouement, or resolution, as it’s more commonly known. This is the point when the story ends, after most of it has been wrapped up in act 4, with falling action. But what’s so special about this act, the final one? The heroes kiss and the curtain drops?

Why do we care?

This Is The Moment We’ve Been Leading Up To

All four previous acts have been leading up to this final act. The build-up came and went, and subsided with falling action, leaving us with the still water that is denouement. It may seem like there’s no point other than to say goodbye, wave a little at the audience, and close the curtain. But that’s not all there is in a final act. It is here, in act 5, that the results of the events really hit home. It is here that they’re dissected. It is the moment when the heros are seen clearer than at any other point in the play. The moment when the audience decides whether they love the characters as much, more, or less than they did in the beginning of the play.


Now, as a writer you should know all this pondering at the end of a play points in one solid direction: the overall message the author is trying to convey. In a novel, it is very much a series of questions about actions, and character arcs. It’s a matter of lessons learned, and hopefully having the wisdom to be able to apply what you learned. However, it’s a little different in a play. When writing it, the objective isn’t so much to teach as it is to challenge.

Consider Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Juliet is 13, but Romeo is believed to be older, somewhere in his late teens, or even 20’s. Their love isn’t meant to be this cheery, loving, “oh, I want that,” kind of love. It isn’t meant to be something to want for yourself. They’re young, and she’s discovering love for the first time. Teenagers rarely get their partners right; the frontal lobe isn’t even fully developed. The point that Shakespeare was trying to make was to capture the forcefulness of love, and how quickly teen lovers can forget about the world at large when they’re in love. How naive it is to make that person your whole world.

Take, for instance, the deaths. Upon thinking Juliet is dead, Romeo kills himself. She awakens and sees that he is dying, and so she kills herself. Neither of them think of their families, friends, nothing. There’s no pause, no contemplation. It is as if to say there is nothing to live for without each other. Now, that may sound romantic, but the older you get, the wiser you are (hopefully). While romantic, it isn’t healthy. They had nothing else to live for other than each other, there was nothing else to them, other than each other. Shakespeare challenged the audience with a love story, but it was meant to portray young, naive love. It was meant to ask tough questions about love, how we love, youth, society, etc.


Denoument, or resolution, isn’t just boring content where the heroes rejoice, throw out a joke, and wave goodbye to the audience. It is the act that ties a neat bow on the message that the author wants you to take away. As a writer, constructing a resolution, this is the moment when you want the audience to be left thinking. You want them to struggle with something after you’ve posed challenging questions. Perhaps it’s regarding love, or maybe it’s just society. Maybe it’s about vanity, or something deeper, like the dark side of humanity. Whatever the challenge, this is the reason why you wrote the play in the first place. At the end of the day, it may not seem as thrilling, but it is the heaviest moment in the entire 5-act play.

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