Monday, March 11, 2013

Problems with Your Story’s Climax

You’ve had a problem throughout your entire story. When your character formulates his or her last ditch effort to finally solve that 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.

It’s also the area of novels that can go terribly wrong. So today I’ll discuss common mistakes writers make when it comes to their book’s climax.

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? This is the result of not building up to your novel’s climax.

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, it happens almost to the sheer bafflement of the reader. And what a wimpy ride that is!

What does “build up” consist of?
Build up consists of the revelations and the plot-driven scenes that bring your character one step closer to the conclusion. An amazingly great example of this can be seen throughout the Da Vinci Code, as the main character, Robert Langdon, finds clue after religious clue, bringing him increasingly closer to the main conflict while raising the stakes—practically all of Europe is after him by the end of the novel.

A Climax That’s Too Short
This is the most common error that I see in both published and unpublished books. These are the stories where, as you get closer and closer to the end of the novel, you start getting nervous that the main conflict will never occur because 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 the climax is the epicenter of the story, and it is one of the last impressions your readers have of the story.

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 a 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/she/they must come face this obstacle. Without a climax, you never allow your reader to confront the problem during this moment of truth, and thus there is never a resolution.

Deus Ex Machina
This is an unsolvable problem that is resolved when a previously unknown piece of information is inserted into 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 to get your character out of that corner you’ve written him or her into.

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. Readers want your main character to overcome an obstacle because your main character is capable of overcoming it. They don’t want to find out that the main character only resolved the main conflict due to a default (such as a narcoleptic episode). Let your main character face his or her troubles head on and defeat them using his or her character strengths and overcoming his or her weaknesses.

Don’t disappoint readers who’ve faithfully followed your book by messing up your book’s climax. Make sure your book builds to the climax, make sure the climax is long enough to savor, and make sure your main character resolves the main conflict because of his or her inherent strengths and not because the antagonist was foiled by some other means. If you can manage this, you’ll leave your reader satisfied and with a positive last impression of your novel.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

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