I’ve finally finished reading a box-set SF trilogy given me a while ago by a friend. The Void trilogy by Peter F Hamilton (a British writer apparently of some renown) is really one long story in three volumes, but is part of an overall sequence of related books (related trilogies?) of the type that I said above I admire (see “More on genre: the novel sequence” on 8th Jan 2016). And it has indeed many admirable qualities, but at 2000 + pages for a single story, I think life is too short to read much Hamilton. (Interestingly, in a future where death has been virtually abolished, and people zip easily from planet to planet, we are all still eating croissants for breakfast.) My full review (lengthy, as befits the subject) is on Goodreads.
The denouement involves a confrontation between (I think) fourteen characters, not all of whom are present in the same physical sense, while a fifteenth lobs nuclear missiles, and a sixteenth waits anxiously for the outcome. And it was not at all clear what happened.
This is quite common in SF and fantasy, in books, comics, TV and film, unless I am unusually stupid. Explosions, polarity-reversing, and emotional self-discovery frequently take the place of coherent plot resolution.
Surely a satisfactory epic denouement should meet the following criteria:
- The story should have set up a problem;
- The denouement solves the problem, in a way that is plain to see;
- But it solves it in an unexpected way, ideally after dashing the heroes’ hopes;
- The characters continue to act in character, and the development is plausible and morally acceptable;
- For full marks, the denouement makes the whole story richer, and gives us something extra to think about;
- It should obviously be exciting to read.
The perfect denouement, to my mind, is that of “The Lord of the Rings” (book). As follows (Look away now if you do not want to know the result):
- The problem of the book is to destroy the Ring, and it can only be destroyed in Mount Doom. Therefore Frodo and Sam travel to Mount Doom;
- The Ring is dropped into Mount Doom, and is destroyed;
- But it was not dropped by Frodo, who gave in to its power at the last minute. Instead the Ring was grabbed by Gollum, who then fell in;
- Frodo, Sam, Gollum and the Ring all act as (looking back) one might expect. Frodo is not rewarded for his final collapse, but nor does he deny it. He is rewarded and praised for getting there in the first place;
- The denouement demonstrates that the power of evil cannot be defeated by humans/hobbits acting alone, but the assistance of Providence is needed. However, the mercy shown by several characters, especially Frodo, to Gollum, was also essential;
- It is exciting to read. From Sam’s point of view, the scene is heart-wrenching.
(I have to admit to having read some of Tolkien’s letters on the subject.)
By contrast, I remember reading a fantasy novel years ago. After the crisis, someone said to the hero that he had managed to save the world by cutting his finger. I remained baffled. (I suppose “A New Hope” is fairly clear, although the only unexpected bit is the appearance of Han. “The Return of the Jedi” is not clear – does killing the Emperor actually have any plot significance, or not? “Doctor Who” climaxes are also frequently confusing.)
Having written thus grumpily, I have to admit that my own book probably fails the above criteria. In fact I’m not convinced it has a denouement at all. My excuse is that it is not “epic”. Frodo and Sam are trying to save Middle-Earth from centuries of tyranny. In the Void trilogy, our heroes are trying to prevent the irrevocable alteration of the fundamental laws of physics, throughout the universe. (The villain thinks big.) By contrast, my characters are concerned about the lives and happiness of a few people, and a possible security risk to a small kingdom.
Does anyone else have a favourite denouement?
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