: Story structure points 7 & 8

When we left our hero, he had just committed to doing whatever it takes to win the day—but how? The answer to that question will constitute the last long stretch of story before the climax takes place.

The Ramp-Up to the Climax will almost certainly be shorter than the upward arcs in the first two thirds of the story, but it should be more intense. By now your protagonist knows the nature of his adversary, and in the beginning of the final third of the book he’ll be making his final plan of action, and assembling everything he needs to win. And it doesn’t matter whether that victory is blowing up the bunker where the mega bomb is being built, or getting to the prom and winning the hot boy from the clutches of the rival girl. The ramp-up is also often a the place where sub-plots are wrapped up, as allies commit to joining the hero and he settles whatever personal issues might impede his victory. He pays the price to gain whatever tools he needs. He makes the sacrifices he was trying to avoid before he committed.

You should also make certain that all the tools and allies being assembled in the ramp-up are things that have been introduced in the first 2/3rds of the story. Nothing can conveniently appear to help the hero out—it’s all been established previously, ready for the protagonist to claim when he finally moves toward the climax.

To me, when I’m writing it, the ramp-up feels like a cog railway, each jerk of the cogs driving the huge load inexorably up-hill. Any diversions from this straight upward movement will be very short—and they’d better matter intensely to both the protagonist and the reader or they’ll dissipate the suspense you’re building.

By the time your hero goes into the climax, the reader should know exactly what his plan is, what the stakes are, and how everything has to work for the plan to succeed.

So of course something goes wrong, creating The Dark Moment. A necessary ally turns traitor. One of the tools he’s paid so much for fails him. And the antagonist, who or whatever that may be, should turn out to be stronger, smarter, and harder to beat than anticipated. The dark moment can happen right at the beginning of the climax, or you can let the hero’s plan run for a while before it all blows apart. But whatever it is that goes wrong, something must—because no matter how complex and difficult it might be, if the hero’s plan to win goes smoothly then his victory in the climax will seem “too easy.” And your climax will disappoint the reader.

Like the tools and allies the protagonist uses to build his plan of attack, the thing that goes wrong also must be something that was previously set up in the story. The bad-guy’s secretary, whom the hero seduced to our side, is either true to her (previously established) mercenary nature, or has been receiving letters from the sister the bad guy kidnapped for a hostage. We already knew that the dressmaker who promised to have the perfect dress finished in time for the prom works for a shop owned by the rival girl’s father—so it’s no great surprise that the dress, delivered at the last minute, is a clownish catastrophe. The protagonist may not have seen it coming, but the reader has to be able to say, “Ah, I should have known that would happen. It makes sense.”

But while the reader might have anticipated it, the thing that goes wrong is something the protagonist didn’t see coming—and it throws his plan into chaos. And because the reader is fully informed of the plan, how necessary each part is, how they all hinge on each other, when the plan goes wrong and the dark moment comes, the reader should feel that it will now be impossible for the protagonist to win.

Which is why, in the climax, the protagonist must become a hero—but that will be covered in the last two story structure points: the climax and the denouement.

Summer 2012