Climaxes can be the most memorable part of a novel. It’s the moments when your characters’ futures are decided. Everything has been brought together for a final struggle and…personally, my writing usually stalls right about then.
And I think it’s partly because of the nature of a climax. Just before the climax, you get to where you can see the ending. It’s right there before you–all the resolution and denouement, with its wrapping and bows, its tears or laughter, just waiting for you–but you have to cross the bridge of the climax first.
And the bridge isn’t usually as short as it seems. It takes a lot of work and it can get discouraging. So, to help simplify things, here are six elements of great climaxes (and why I usually take a break, gathering my creative resources before I plunge in).
- A Change in Pace. Time tends to stand still during the climax (“the watched pot never boils,” and your characters are watching “the pot,” waiting to see if they can destroy the ring of power, escape the evil villain, or get the guy of their dreams) so there should be a shift in how time is perceived. Alexandre Dumas provides a great example of this in Twenty Years After, the sequel to The Three Musketeers. They’re trying to rescue a prince from an escape-proof prison. The means of escape have been established, and now we’re just waiting for the moment of execution.
And suddenly, everything starts slowing down. Before, there were swaths of summarization as we were informed of how the prisoner spent his days, but now, we get to live each moment with him as he worries and frets, as he keeps up the deception regarding his “hatred” for one of his guards (who is part of the conspiracy to help him back to freedom). When it seems that all might be lost, we are there.
- Details. Due to the change in pace, your characters should notice more during the climax (which means you have to write more). The smells, the sounds, the feelings–these will be things they’ll relive in nightmares (or dreams) for the rest of their lives. Think back to memorable moments in your own life, good or bad, and you’ll find details that stand out: the feeling of rain on your face, the smell of salt, the rush of your pulse, the color or texture of what someone else wore, etc. You might not remember everything, but certain elements will stick out, and it should be the same with your narration.
- Delays. Good climaxes are never short: the bridge keeps stretching out, the end just out of reach, as new, unforeseen complications emerge. Even when you’re dealing with a romance like Pride and Prejudice (and its relatively less-tense climax), there are delays. Darcy comes over with Bingley, but no, he doesn’t say a word. He just sits there, looks a good deal, and then departs, leaving Elizabeth (and the reader) in agony of confusion and suspense. How does he feel? Why has he returned? We hurry on to find out.
- Action. The climax can’t be boring, so even as their are delays, their should be accompanying action. Elizabeth can’t be given too much time to wonder what Darcy is up to before she encounters him again. The prince can’t be completely foiled in the escape plan, putting it off to another day, or it wouldn’t really be the climax of that episode. So you have to keep the pace moving along, despite delays and the stretching sensation of time. Things have to keep happening.
- Convergence. Everything before this point should be inevitably tied to the climax (or, all roads should lead to…the climax bridge). This is primarily an editing thing, but you can write with the climax in mind, dropping hints and setting up foreshadowing so long as you know what’s going to happen in the climax (which only works if you plot things out…but more on that under the “P” for Pansters and Plotting).
- Conflict. As I said before, the climax is where the last struggle takes place. Your character is fighting the antagonist for the last time (at least in this book), and whether that antagonist is a person or a force–dangerous weather, an escape-proof castle, pride, prejudices, an evil dragon, etc.–the antagonist has to be present in the climax. All its strength should come to bear for one last push…and then you get to award the victory to one of the two combatants.
Hopefully, this little list will help remind us what it takes to get from “this side of the climax” to the other, the delightful end of the book. Just writing it has helped me focus on what I need to do in my own novel. Now I just need to sit down and do it. 🙂
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by kblount, Creative Commons