We tend to look for high points in our lives, and especially in our stories: things that tell us life is moving forward, going somewhere…and that we can’t go back. Events that tell us things have changed, preferably for better—and these events are climaxes.

I think writers tend to obsess over climaxes: are we building up to them properly? Is there enough tension leading up to them? Are they anticlimactic?

The truth is that not every climax is equal. Some stories are studded with significant events, and others just meander along, going from one minor peak to another. Here’s a look at some of the structures in stories:

Punctuated Equilibrium, or The Rebellion and The Empire Taking Turns
This one is used over and over in Star Wars. The heroes do well, winning a major battle or overcoming a significant challenge—and then their enemies strike back, dealing them a shuddering blow. Finally, the heroes rally and gain victory once more.

It happens in the series overall, but it also happens, in microcosm, in the movies themselves. In Star Wars IV: A New Hope, the heroes slip away from Tatooine, beating the Empire. But then the Empire destroys Alderaan, sucking the heroes into the Death Star, and they lose Obi-Wan. The Rebels get revenge, though, and destroy the Death Star and all is well…until the next movie, that is.

Punctuated Equilibrium stories have big events. We build up to one, then have a short time of Falling Action (this has nothing to do with dead bodies or autumn; it’s what happens right after a climax, when everyone picks up the pieces, giving the reader or viewer a chance to catch their breath before building to the next climax). Then we start building to the next big event as the plot thickens.

The “taking turns” is not always as neat and reciprocal as in Star Wars; sometimes things go from bad to worse to worst before the heroes get a turn, scoring a point for their side, but there is necessarily a give-and-take. If one side wins all the time, the reader tends to get bored or depressed. The struggle is what engages the reader, and the reader likes a good, close fight.

The Romance Saga, or Much Ado about the Smallest Things
This is the story structure that one finds in Jane Austen’s novels, and Charles Dickens’, and Anthony Trollope’s, and many others. It is the everyday life kind of story, where one minor climax follows another. The characters spend most of their time living, rather than rushing from one major event to another. That being said, there are climaxes.

Pride and Prejudice is an excellent example: Bingley comes to Netherfield. Jane goes to Netherfield and becomes ill. Elizabeth goes to Netherfield. Bingley leaves Netherfield. Elizabeth goes to visit Mrs. Collins. Darcy proposes to Elisabeth. Each climax has minor events that flow out of them as the action rises and falls, as steady and unremarkable as breathing…and yet the story is going somewhere. It’s just a far gentler pace.

The Climax in Reverse, or If We Could Turn Back Time
This is the murder mystery story structure. The biggest event—someone killing someone else—has already happened, and now we are trying to figure out the pieces of what happened. There are climaxes along the way as the detective pieces together clues and one things leads to another, but the climax we are leading to is just a mirror of the one that already happened: the exposure of the criminal who did the act, and how he or she did it, and why. The story is mostly about the past, not the future.

Plot Mashups, or All Things for All People
Sometimes, we get crossover breeds of stories. Punctuated Equilibrium stories that happen to have an assassination mystery thrown in (think Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) or Romance Sagas that deal with big climaxes, where the characters’ lives naturally lead from one big climax to the other (think Celebrity Reality shows: Drama, Drama, Drama). And there are Romance Sagas with mysteries (like The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton), where we follow present-day characters who are unraveling the past, trying to understand what became of their ancestors and why.

In Conclusion…
Whatever your climax style, don’t try to put your story in a different mode. While Mash-Ups sometimes work, you often lose your story’s voice and charm by trying to reach too broad an audience. Everyone likes a good story—so go ahead and tell it, without worrying if it is boring, and breathless, or retrospective. It’s your story, and if you like it, it can’t be that bad (more on editing and being your harshest critic another day). 🙂

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren
Photo: Hot Air Balloons by anieto2k, used per http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

One thought on “Isn’t It Climactic? The Structure of Stories

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