What Is Resolution in Literature?

Little Peter Pan
The resolution of Peter Pan ends with Hook sailing away. Iliana Mestari/Getty Images

In a work of literature, the resolution is the part of the story's plot where the main problem is resolved or worked out. The resolution occurs after the falling action and is typically where the story ends. Another term for the resolution is "dénouement," which comes from the French term dénoué, meaning "to untie."

The dramatic structure of a story, whether it is a Greek tragedy or a Hollywood blockbuster, typically includes several elements. Gustav Freytag, a German writer, identified five essential elements—exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement—that together form a story's "dramatic arc." These elements can be plotted on a chart, known as Freytag's pyramid, with the climax at the peak.

The left side of the chart, including the exposition and the rising action, represents the background information and the events that build toward the climax, the point of greatest interest in the story and the point where the protagonist typically undergoes a dramatic change or reversal of fate. The right side of the chart, including the falling action and the dénouement, is what follows the climax. This is the part of the story where conflicts are resolved and tension is released. Often there is a catharsis of some kind, an emotional release that brings satisfaction to the reader.

During the dénouement, or resolution, questions and mysteries that arise during the story are typically—though not always—answered and explained. All complete stories have a resolution, even if the author doesn't disclose every last detail to the reader.

Examples of Resolutions

Because every story has a resolution—whether the story is told through a book, a movie, or a play—examples of resolutions are ubiquitous. The examples below help explain the role of the resolution within the larger dramatic arc.

In J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan," the titular hero—a young boy who loves adventure and never grows old—invites a group of London children to visit the fictional island of Neverland, a magical place home to pirates and mermaids. The rising action of the story is made up of the children's many adventures, which culminate in a battle between Peter Pan and a one-handed pirate, the dreaded Captain Hook.

After Peter defeats Captain Hook, he takes control of the pirate's ship and sails it back to London, where Wendy and the other children return to their home. This resolution brings the story back to where it began, the children safe and snug in their beds, away from harm. They have learned a lot from their experience, and are changed for it, but the story has reached a point of stasis, having resolved all of the problems and conflicts created by the rising action.

A much different resolution occurs in George Orwell's "1984." This dystopian novel, published in 1949, tells the story of Winston Smith, a government employee whose curiosity about the workings of the ruling party lead to great trouble and misery. By the end of the book, Winston is an enemy of the state, and after he is captured by the Thought Police he is sent to Room 101, a torture chamber where victims are confronted with their worst fears. At the prospect of being placed in a cage with rats, Winston is overcome with panic and terror. His spirit broken, he finally betrays his lover, Julia, abandoning his last bit of humanity in a final cry of surrender. "Do it to Julia!" he shouts, begging to be released. This is the climax of the novel, the point at which Winston makes an irreversible decision, one that marks a fundamental change in his character.

Later, after his release, he sits alone in a cafe. He is no longer an enemy of the state, an opponent of the mysterious leader known as Big Brother. He is a different man entirely:

"Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."

The story ends on an unambiguous note. It is, in a sense, a classical resolution, eliminating any mystery about where Winston's allegiances lie. The man is defeated completely, and all of the tension that has propelled the novel is released. There is no longer a question of whether Winston will uncover the truth, or whether the Party will stop him first. By the end, we have the answer.