Friday, March 1, 2013

Problems with Your Story’s Climax

Throughout your entire story your main character has had a problem, the book’s main conflict, and he or she has been working to solve this problem. When your character formulates his or her last ditch effort to finally solve the problem or fail, you’ve approached your story’s climax. This in essence, is your book. It’s what your readers have been eagerly looking forward to.

However, your own problems can arise while writing this section. Even though this is one of the most important sections of a fiction novel, many writers blow it here. Today I’ll be discussing some of the common ways writers sabotage their main conflicts.

There is no Buildup
Have you ever read a book that never seemed to make headway towards the main conflict, and then suddenly the book’s protagonist finds himself or herself in the middle of the story’s climax? I don’t know about you, but it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

I like to think of the book’s climax as a roller coaster ride. Everything leading up to the book’s climax should be taking the reader up and up. As each piece of the puzzle is slowly put together, these bits of information build on each other, until you hit the climax, where everything comes to a head. And just as the most exhilarating roller coasters start at the most daring of heights, so too should your novel. 

When a writer does not appropriately build up to that climax, the result is not nearly as exhilarating—what a wimpy ride that is! 

What does “build up” consist of?
For those of you who are baffled by this term, build up consists of the revelations and scenes that bring your character one step closer to the climax. A amazingly great example of this can be seen throughout the Da Vinci Code, as the main character, Robert Langdon, finds clue after religious clue that brings him increasingly closer to the main conflict, all while raising the stakes—practically all of Europe is after him by the end of the novel. Even if you’re writing about a topic you feel is totally different from this, the same logic still applies.

A Climax That’s Too Short
This is the most common error that I see in both published and unpublished books. These are those stories where, as you get closer and closer to the end, you start getting nervous that the main conflict will never occur—after all, it cannot possibly resolve itself in the five remaining pages.

Short climaxes are usually paired with those that have no buildup. This is because writers know they have to wrap the story up, but they don’t quite know how to make that transition. The result is a slapped-together ending that surprises and disappoints you. This can be lethal to a book because it is the epicenter of the story, and it is one of the last impressions your readers have of your book.

Never Reaching the Book’s Climax
This occurs most often with writers of memoires and literary novels. You’ve been going along for four hundred pages, developing this complex character and their struggle, . . . and then the book just ends.

No fiction novel is exempt from inserting a climax. That’s what makes a story a story—a journey propelling your characters towards this moment where he or she must come head to head with this obstacle. Without a climax, you'll never allow your reader to confront the problem during this moment of truth, and thus there is never a resolution.

Deus Ex Machina
A dues ex machina is an unsolvable problem that is resolved when a previously unknown piece of information is inserted into the story. Something that is unbelievable given the scope of the story.

Here’s an extreme example: Your main character is running away from a villain who is quickly catching up to him. The main character is chased into a corner, and there’s nowhere for him to go. Just as your villain is about to strike, he slumps over—he’s narcoleptic.

While this example is extremely far-fetched, perhaps it wouldn’t be if I’d said that the villain suffered from a massive heart attack or a stroke—or that a police officer walked by and stopped the villain. These are (in this case literally) solutions devised to get your character out of that corner you’ve written him or her into.

While any of these things could be possible, and while these solutions are sometimes employed in the middle of your book to demonstrate how close the main character came to death or some other trouble, they are inadequate and dissatisfying solutions during your book’s climax. This is because readers want your main character to overcome an obstacle because he or she is intrinsically capable of overcoming it. They don’t want to find out that the main character succeeded due to a default such as a narcoleptic episode. Let your main character face his or her troubles head on and defeat them using character strengths and overcoming weaknesses.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

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