Rising to the Occasion:

The climax of your novel

Someone once said, “Your beginning sells this novel—but it’s your climax that sells the next.” Yet it’s more difficult to identify the ingredients of a good novel climax than it is to pinpoint what makes great opening, or a well-structured middle. In commercial fiction, any good beginning and middle will have certain common characteristics, which apply to almost any genre. A novel’s climax is so dependant on what’s happened previously in the story that any number of events can create a great climax—it doesn’t have to be a big fight scene, or a death defying chase that ends with the villain’s capture. In fact, in one of my favorite climaxes, a bunch of the protagonist’s employees sit down and have a quiet chat about him…and the reader realizes that everything she has witnessed in the proceeding 500 or so pages, fights, riots, fire and avalanche, were not at all what they appeared. (Niccolo Rising, by Dorothy Dunnett.)

No matter what form it takes—a battle to the death or a quiet decision to do the right thing—the climax must be the culmination of the main story problem your character should have been pursuing from chapter one. It’s where the boy overcomes the final obstacle that stands between him and the girl. Where the weak protagonist finds the courage to stand up to the evil boss/gang leader/popular girl…best friend? Where the hero summons that last ounce of strength, cleverness, or whatever virtue he possesses and the villain doesn’t, to beat those overwhelming odds. And because the climax is so completely dependant on the shape of the story it springs from, it’s hard to pin down what it should contain—but I can identify some of the things that make climaxes fail.

The climax doesn’t match the story. You see this most commonly in a quiet novel about tangled relationships…that ends with a car crash (or a kidnapping, or a natural disaster) and the protagonist suddenly finds herself struggling for survival. Even if the struggle for survival clarifies what’s been wrong with her relationships, and lets her find the self-confidence to resolve them, the sudden switch to action adventure usually fails for the reader, because it’s not what this novel is about. I know why writers do this; it’s because they don’t think that the protagonist simply figuring out the right thing to do and then doing it is sufficiently exciting—and they’re probably right. But the answer isn’t to suddenly tack on an action adventure finish, the answer is to put more and more pressure on the protagonist to make the wrong choice, so that making the right choice involves real sacrifice and strength on her part. A climax doesn’t have to be “exciting.” Dramatic can work just fine—in some cases, better than “exciting” ever could.

The climax consists of a simple battle of strength, which the hero wins. Adventure stories of all genres encounter a different problem. The big, action-packed final struggle is perfect for those genres, but if the protagonist wins that last battle simply because he’s stronger than the villain the climax will fail. It doesn’t matter if the battle is fought with spells, fists, or fleets of spaceships, if it’s just a matter of who has the most force at his disposal, then the novel loses. The way an action climax works is when the protagonist is facing overwhelming odds—the villain is stronger than he could ever be—but he has some other quality of character, something he can summon out of the depths of his own nature, that will allow him to win. “I know something you don’t know, Tom Riddle.” One of the best examples of this is in The Lord of the Rings, where two small hobbits, through sheer determination that good will prevail, defeat the greatest army of evil their world has ever known. After Sam and Frodo have dragged themselves across Mordor, expending every last ounce of strength, courage and love they possess to reach that volcano, they’ve earned their victory and the reader is delighted to see them achieve it.

If I was asked which is more important in a climax, drama or excitement, I’d have to say drama. The climaxes that readers remember longest are the ones that test the main character’s inner resources to the utmost—his super-fast draw, endless strength, or the fact that he has tons of cool magic at his disposal make him less interesting than if he’s slower and weaker than the villain, but still somehow summons up the courage, determination or cleverness to prevail. The harder the victory is, the higher the cost the hero pays for it, the more we admire him.

Someone else turns up to save the hero. This is the ultimate example of winning by superior force—and it’s not even the hero’s own force! By now everyone should know that the cavalry can’t come to the rescue at the last moment, that the hero has to rescue himself—but I see an amazing number of children’s and YA novels where adults step in at the end to solve the young protagonist’s problem. And being saved by grownups is even worse than being rescued by the cavalry.

Yet another way climaxes fail is when the protagonist—or the villain—suddenly starts acting in a way that is irrational or out of character to allow the hero to win. I recently saw the movie 3:10 from Yuma, and despite a few glitches (if they’re trying to hide in the middle of hostile Indian territory, why are they building huge campfires?) the compelling villain had me completely roped into the story…right up to the climax (spoilers ahead), where several people did things that were completely out of character and/or just didn’t make sense. I know the answer to all my caveats; the director thought that having the villain shoot all his own men was exciting—even though there was no reason for him to shoot more than one of them. He thought having the boy point a pistol at villain was dramatic—even though the kid then simply changed his mind and turned away, which was profoundly anti-climactic. He thought having the bad guy board the train was proving something to someone—even though this was a man who understood himself so well he had nothing to prove. (And the director liked the lighting effects of all those big campfires. And of course the reason they didn’t shoot the horses to stop the coach in the first place was because then we wouldn’t have a story.) But after a very short time these things add up to a big rational howl of, “He wouldn’t do that!” And you’ve blown the reader’s suspension of disbelief right when you need it most. Never have your hero (or villain) do something stupid or out of character just because it will make for an exciting climax—this is where they have to finally get it right.

(And don’t have them light big campfires when they’re supposed to be trying to hide, either!)

And finally, the climax should closely involve the culmination of the protagonist’s growth arc. It doesn’t always take place right in the middle of the climax—sometimes the protagonist learns whatever-he-needed-to-learn in order to go into that final battle armed for victory. Sometimes he figures it out right in the middle of the action, and can then go on to win. And sometimes it’s only in the battle’s quiet aftermath that he realizes he’s now grown into the person he needs to be.

There are probably many other ways to screw up a novel’s climax, but I can leave you with some final, positive tips. The climax is the resolution of what has happened in this story—it shouldn’t involve extraneous types of action, or people who show up to help the hero out. The protagonist should use qualities he has acquired in the story to solve his problems; he can’t just suddenly find the strength, he needs to be motivated by previous story events. The protagonist must be primarily involved in solving the problem—the more pain, effort, sacrifice, grit and drama it takes, the better your climax will work.

And a hard-working climax will help sell not only this book, but many books after that—which for a writer, is the ultimate happy ending.

Spring 2008

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