[This post is adapted from a chapter in You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers]
If you’re a writer or a reader (or both), you probably know about story climaxes. The climax is the most intense point of the story. It’s an exciting, dramatic challenge, where the main character must finally succeed in her goal, or fail with terrible results. You want the climax to be the most dramatic part of the story, so the reader walks away satisfied.
But first let’s look at the moment right before the climax. My brother, script writer Doug Eboch, points out that movie plots have a moment of apparent failure (or success). However the movie ends, “There needs to be a moment where the opposite appears to be inevitable. So if your character succeeds at the end, you need a moment where it appears the character will fail. And if your character fails at the end, you need a moment where they appear to succeed.” (Doug’s full essay is in my writing craft book, Advanced Plotting.)
I wondered whether Doug’s point held equally true for novels. Looking through a few of the books on my shelf, certainly the climax includes a crisis point where the reader may believe that everything is going wrong and the main character could fail.
In my paranormal adventure The Ghost on the Stairs, Tania is possessed by a ghost and her brother Jon isn’t sure if he’ll be able to save her.
In my historical drama The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar is thrown into the sacrificial well, a watery pit surrounded by high cliffs, and realizes no one will rescue her.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, the lion Aslan is killed and the good army is losing their battle.
In Eden Unger Bowditch’s first Young Inventors Guild book, The Atomic Weight of Secrets or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black, Faye tries to escape the clutches of the mysterious men in black when her parents seem to have completely abandoned her. She jumps from the car and runs but is quickly grabbed and brought back to be taken and deposited bodily, on the ground, outside the farmhouse. How can she possibly escape now, when the men are watching her closely?
In mystery or suspense novels, this may be the point where the bad guy has captured the hero or is threatening to kill him. In a romance, this is the point where the couple is farthest apart and we wonder how they’ll ever resolve their differences to live happily ever after.
Does your story or novel have a crisis point, a moment at the climax where readers truly believe the main character could fail? If not, you may want to rethink your plot or rewrite the action to make the climax more intense and challenging. The happy ending is only satisfying if it is won at great expense through hard work. In literature as in real life, people don’t always value what comes easily. Success feels that much sweeter when it can be contrasted to the suffering we’ve had to endure.
Finally, at the climax, the main character must succeed or fail. You’ve built to this point with your complications. Now time is running out. The race is near the end. The girl is about to date another guy. The villain is starting the battle. It’s now or never.
However you get there, the climax will be strongest if it is truly the last chance. You lose tension if the reader believes the main character could fail this time, and simply try again tomorrow.
In The Well of Sacrifice, the high priest throws Eveningstar off a cliff into a sacrificial pool. If she can survive and get back to the main temple in secret, she can confront the high priest with new status as a messenger from the gods. But the penalty for failure is death, the highest stake of all.
In Dianne K. Salerni’s middle grade fantasy adventure, The Eighth Day, Jax has failed to protect his liege lady from being used in an evil ritual to destroy seven days of the week. The person he hoped would save them both, his guardian, has just been delivered bound and gagged for use as a human sacrifice by somebody Jax thought was on their side. Jax has one last, desperate idea, but his hands are tied behind his back and he can’t implement it.
Movies are well-known for this “down to the wire” suspense, regardless of genre. In Star Wars, Luke blows up the Death Star during the final countdown as the Death Star prepares to destroy a planet. In Back to the Future, Marty must get his parents together before the future changes irretrievably and he disappears. He’s actually fading when his parents finally kiss. In the romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie decides whom she really loves as she’s walking down the aisle to marry the wrong man. The technique works just as well for books and stories, and you’ll get the most suspense if the stakes are high.
Don’t rush the climax. Take the time to write the scene out in vivid detail, even if the action is happening fast. Think of how movies switch to slow motion or use multiple shots of the same explosion, in order to give maximum impact to the climax.
To make the climax feel fast-paced, use mainly short sentences and short paragraphs. The reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, giving a sense of breathless speed.
Study some of your favorite books. Is there a “ticking clock,” where the characters have one last chance to succeed before time runs out? If not, how would it change the book to add one?
Now look at your work in progress, or a completed manuscript draft or outline. Do your characters have a time deadline? Do you wait until the last possible moment to allow them to succeed? If not, can you add tension to the story by finding a way to have time running out?
You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.
Hot Tip: When you buy a paperback (or if you purchased one in the past), the Kindle eBook should automatically be set to $0.00. Even if you do not have a Kindle, you can get a free Kindle app for your computer. You Can Write for Children lists many websites and blogs among the resources; with the e-book version, you can click to go directly to the sites. So pick up your paperback copy for easy reading and markup, and get a free Kindle copy for quick clicking!