Becoming a Hero:

Story structure points 9 & 10

When we left our protagonist, he’d just encountered his dark moment. He’s facing the bad guy (or whatever your antagonist may be) something horrible has gone wrong, his plan is in ruins—and everything is riding on what he does next. It’s hero time. But how does your protagonist actually become that hero? What is heroism—or more to the point, how do you create a climax that will make your reader’s heart pound as he roots for your protagonist, followed by a denouement that leaves him satisfied. And eager to go out and buy your next book.

The simplest way to approach The Climax is that it’s the scene in which the central story problem, which the hero has been working on from the start, is finally resolved. It may have—indeed it should have—turned and twisted and become more complex as the story unfolded, so it now seems almost intractable. But the hero calls on some quality of character he’s developed over the course of the story (this is the culmination of the character arc) and he overcomes all odds and wins the day. (Culmination of the story arc.) In a tragedy the protagonist loses—though if you’re writing any kind of commercial fiction you should know that this probably isn’t the best way to make the majority of your readers eager for that next book. But this heroic triumph is pretty much the standard ending in every novel…so why are some climaxes so much more satisfying than others?

One of my previous writing tips was about all the things you shouldn’t do in a climax: Rising to the Occasion: the climax of your novel. I wrote the tip that way, because the climax of any story depends so much on the plot that came before it, that it’s easier to list the things you shouldn’t do than to figure out what works. Right up front, I can tell you that the harder the struggle is, the more satisfying the climax will be. But how do you go about making it genuinely “hard?”

I think the first aspect of creating a satisfying climax is the depth and complexity of the protagonist’s character arc. The simplest fallback, which a lot of beginning writers use, is a character arc that consists of overcoming some fear. The hero is deathly afraid of heights/snakes/small boats/whatever, and the climax requires him to deal with his phobia in order to win. As a basic character arc it’s OK…but only OK, because overcoming fear is clearly the “right choice.” It may be hard for him to do, but that’s all it is. In terms of emotional intensity, overcoming fear is only about one step up from simply overcoming force with superior force—which is one of the many things that makes a climax fail.

Instead of having the protagonist choose between what’s hard, but clearly right, and what’s easier but wrong, you can force him to make the much harder choice between two wrongs. If you set the situation up so that the protagonist can’t possibly win it all, so that in order to succeed he has to permanently give up something he treasures, that sacrifice will make the climax resonate far more deeply than almost anything else an author can do. In fact, when I’m working with my PlotDoctors partner, one of the first things we look for in a climax is: What’s the sacrifice?

At this point it should go without saying that the importance of this sacrifice, whatever it may be, has been previously established in the story. In fact, the more set-up you’ve done for any aspect of the climax, the more it will resonate with the reader. I recently heard at a workshop that if you mention anything, any item or place three times, then it becomes a symbol. I’m not sure that’s true, but it is true that the more your climax attaches itself to things the reader has already come to care about, the more a threat to those things will matter. Which resonates more with readers—saving a school bus load of anonymous kids, or saving the hero’s young sidekick, whom the reader has been rooting for and come to love through the course of the story? Yes, a school bus of shrieking kids about to tip over the edge of the cliff can make our hearts beat faster. But one kid we love, struggling defiantly against the bad guy’s superior strength on top of that same cliff, that makes us feel admiration, affection and pity, as well as terror. A much richer mix. Things that are at risk in the climax should be things the reader has learned to care about, as deeply as you can manage.

And finally, it’s usually better storytelling if you actually make the hero pay the price of the his victory. Many authors have the hero make his sacrifice, believing it will be permanent…but then the author/fate intervenes, and he doesn’t really lose whatever he offered up. This not only feels like author intervention, it cheapens the hero’s nobility and lessens his heroism. Let him pay the full price for his victory—it makes both the victory and the heroism real. There is one major exception to this rule—if the sacrifice is the hero’s life, then it’s generally OK with the reader when a kindly fate reaches in and saves him. Because most people don’t actually like reading tragedies.

Another thing that I work on when I’m creating the climax of my story, is to be sure it’s “big enough” to match the story that’s come before it. If you’ve set up your ground work properly—making the story problem that’s resolved in the climax hard and complex, and requiring a big enough sacrifice—that shouldn’t be a problem. But if you’ve written an action story, with lots of fights, chases and derring do, then the climax has to be the biggest, most suspenseful fight—and also the one where the hero has to defeat his inner demons, along with the bad guy. If your book is about an emotional journey, then the emotional struggle of the climax has to be the most intense scene, where the hero faces a terrible conflict before he finds the courage to make the right decision. If it’s a romance, the climax must be the scene where the obstacles love has to conquer are far bigger than they were at any previous part of the story, before the hero and heroine finally choose each other. It sounds like simple common sense, but “big enough” something I work on in every novel I write. Because as someone once said, “It’s the beginning that sells this book, but it’s the climax that sells the next.”

The Denouement is the final act in the story structure. It’s a last wrapping up of the plotline’s lose threats. It’s the place where the reader can settle back, take a deep breath, and realize how the events of the climax are going to change the protagonist’s world. (Results of the story arc.) We also see how much the protagonist has grown and changed. (Results of the character arc.) And finally, it should give the reader at least a hint of what the protagonist’s future will be like. The denouement can be as short as a few pages, or as long as several chapters. But it’s function in the story structure is to cap off the story on a slow, relieved breath, and leave the reader feeling that the protagonist’s world will be better because this story has taken place—a last emotional beat of satisfaction.

I think one of the best examples of both climax and denouement is in the Harry Potter series. I spent several years wondering how J.K. Rowling could possibly create a climax big enough to match up to all those books—and she managed it brilliantly. First, it was an epic battle with all the good guys squared off against all the bad guys—and the good guys were out numbered and out-magicked. Secondly, it took palace at, and was a struggle for control of, Hogwarts—talk about a symbol! Hogwarts had been the core of almost all the previous books, the emotional heart of the story, and something every major character regarded as an essential part of their lives. If that battle had been set at any other place in Rowling’s world, it wouldn’t have been half so significant. And while we knew he wasn’t going to stay dead, Harry did offer up his life as the final sacrifice—and emotionally, it worked. And although Harry did come back to life, there were many other characters, characters the reader cared about, whose lives were lost.

Though some people disagree with me, I think the final scene at the train station, where Harry & co. are putting their own children onto the train to go to Hogwarts is a brilliant denouement. In the last scene of the novel, everyone is still too battered, too grief-stricken, for the reader to feel relieved satisfaction. Going years into a peaceful, prosperous future lets the reader see the life that the people who fought that battle had earned. And two of the most heroic fallen are honored by Harry naming his son Albus Severus. The whole scene leaves the reader happy, satisfied and at peace, in a way that ending the story with everyone still on the battlefield, reeling with shock, couldn’t.

Because the whole point of story structure, its purpose, is to take the reader on a satisfying emotional journey and then end it well. Authors who can do that become heroes to their readers, at least a bit. And they’ll sell book after book, knowing that those books will make their readers lives a little brighter. Which, for an author, is the ultimate happy ending.

Fall 2012

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