The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. To see part one, Beginnings, click here. For part two, Middles, click here.
A satisfying climax comes from one thing: Protagonist confronting Antagonist, preferably face to face, and winning. What they win and how depends on the stakes and the goal, of course, but getting the girl, defeating the evil empire, getting the job, stopping the takeover, etc. are all valid and potentially satisfying wins for us. Make them count but give us the satisfaction of watching the win. That’s what all the pacing and suspense has been all about: getting us to this moment. So make sure the moment counts and is emotionally and dramatically rewarding for us. This does not mean every story must have a happy ending but it explains why many often do.
The climax needs to be played out dramatically. Don’t let it happen off screen. We need to witness it. It needs to be the ultimate dramatic conflict that unfolds before us as a scene. Make sure you plan accordingly and write it well. Anything less will be a letdown from all the anticipation you have created. How would you have felt if Luke never faced off with Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars? If Frodo had never destroyed the ring in The Lord of The Rings? Or if Harry Potter had not confronted Voldemort? I imagine your feelings about any of these stories would be very different. Would you feel satisfied? Seeing the protagonist overcome their imperfections and obstacles and win is a bit part of the satisfaction of good storytelling. And you just don’t get the same affect if you tell us how it ended rather than showing us by letting it play out as overt drama. Watching the confrontation is the payoff readers have been waiting for so give it to them.
In preparing to write your climax, it is important to revisit the earlier story and make sure you have set it up correctly and put all the necessary pieces in place needed to make it feel satisfying and complete. Go back and look at your set up for major reveals. When, where, and how do you ask what questions? Is there enough foreshadowing? Note areas that need work and potential revisions you can make during editing. Don’t stop and do it now. That will interrupt your writing pace. But make sure you correct course in what you write ‘til the end and note what you can go back and fix later to make it better and where to do so. Are your three acts clear in each plot line and arc? Do the characters show growth and change? Double check to see you are on track and look at how you can improve things for better pacing and suspense in your book both going forward and later in editing.
In addition to looking at the questions, foreshadowing, plot arcs, and character arcs, don’t forget to also consider emotional arcs. Because good endings satisfy don’t just wrap up the pieces logically and neatly on the outside, they also satisfy our inner selves: our emotions. Donald Maass writes in Writing The Breakout Novel: “Why do endings disappoint? Often it is because they are rushed; that is, because the author has written it in a hurry due to fatigue or due to a looming deadline, perhaps both. Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy.” The secret, Maass suggests, is to allow your protagonist the possibility of failure until the very end; maintaining the possibility that he or she can fail. He goes on to say “construct the plot so that its conflicts, inner and outer, all converge at the same time and place…A great storyteller leaves us in suspense right up to the final moments. Success is never sure; in fact, failure seems the far more likely result.” The satisfaction is in the protagonist rising to the moment and somehow overcoming the odds to succeed. Without that, victory is hollow, the ending emotionally unsatisfying and lacking in depth.
In her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, Kress suggests four things good climaxes must accomplish:
- Satisfy the view of life implied in your story.
- Deliver emotion. Readers should feel what the characters feel. If characters feel nothing, the story has not ended yet.
- Deliver an appropriate level of emotion. As discussed above, it’s not just any emotion but emotional fulfillment readers are seeking, and that means we need to have been conflicted and unsure until the very end how it might go; if the protagonist can possibly succeed.
- The climax must be logical to your plot and story. This last one may seem obvious but we’ve all encountered those endings that were meant to be surprises and twists but seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving us frustrated and feeling unfulfilled. Kress says, “the climactic scene must grow naturally out of the actions that proceeded it, which in turn must have grown naturally out of the personalities of the characters.” A satisfying climax is intimately tied to satisfying character arcs—characters we care about, root for, and want to see grow into better people. A climax must not be coincidence either. It must pretty much be inevitable, even if we doubt it will happen right until the end. Kress suggests asking yourself: “If the protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way?” The answer must be “No” if your ending is to be convincing. If it could happen that way for anyone, your ending will fail.
Who else but Luke Skywalker could have used the Force to visualize the exact target and destroyed the Death Star? Who else but Frodo could destroy the ring? I can’t imagine those endings coming out any other way, can you? And the same should be true of your climax. Ultimately, the whole story is like an arrow pointing to a specific climax and how you write it ensures that reader’s expectations emotionally and mentally follow the arrow to the exact place you lead them. That’s the only way you can ensure they’ll be satisfied with your climax.
Everything after the Climax is called the Denouement—the wrap up of the story. In most cases, the denouement is fairly short and concise, providing confirmation of closure for the characters and plot by revealing their emotional and physical fates after the climax. This is especially true for any characters not involved in the climactic scene. The denouement should give readers just enough information about the characters that they feel the story is really over and satisfy reader curiosity. So the denouement is the place to wrap up any pesky unanswered questions still hanging from earlier in a book. All except the few left over to point us to the sequel, that is (if there is one). Readers don’t want to be left hanging. They don’t want to decide for themselves, either. Readers want to know what happens definitively to the characters they’ve cared enough about to stick with the story, so make decisions and give it to them.
The general rule is, according to Kress, “the more subtle and low-key the climax in action and tone, the briefer the denouement should be.” Don’t drag it out and leach all emotion from the climax. Get it done and keep it short so it doesn’t seem too anticlimactic. The other key is to dramatize. Show what happens to your characters in action, don’t just tell us. But keep it low-key enough that it doesn’t detract from the power of the climax.
To demonstrate, let’s look at the denouements from two of the stories we looked at in the beginning of this chapter. First, The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks:
Standing on the porch, with autumn in full swing, I find the crispness of the evening air invigorating as I think back on the night of our wedding. I can still recall it in vivid detail, just as I can remember all that happened during the year of the forgotten anniversary. It feels odd to know that it’s all behind me. The preparations had dominated my thoughts for so long and I’d visualized it so many times that I sometimes feel that I’ve lost contact with an old friend, someone with whom I’ve grown very comfortable. Yet in the wake of those memories, I’ve come to realize that I now have the answer to the question that I’d been ponder- ing when I first came out here. Yes, I decided, a man can truly change.
Remember the universal questions asked right at the opening: “Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundaries of our lives?” Here we see that the character has found the answer he sought. We’ve seen it dramatized through events in the story and particularly the climax, but the denouement just serves to confirm the character’s recognition that he gets it now clearly. He’s found the answer.
What about Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand? It ends as follows:
In the kitchen, we made hot chocolate, stared over the rims of our mugs at each other as the radio in the living room updated us on the weather. The snow, the announcer told us, was part of the first major storm system to hit Massachusetts this winter. By the time we woke in the morning, he promised, twelve to sixteen inches would have fallen. “Real snow,” Angie said. “Who would’ve thought?” “It’s about time.” The weather report over, the announcer was updating the condition of Reverend Edward Brewer. “How long you think he can hold on?” Angie said. I shrugged. “I don’t know.” We sipped from our mugs as the announcer reported the mayor’s call for more stringent handgun laws, the governor’s call for tougher enforcement of restraining orders. So another Eddie Brewer wouldn’t walk into the wrong convenience store at the wrong time. So another Laura Stiles could break up with her abusive boyfriend without fear of death. So the James Faheys of the world would stop in-stilling us with terror. So our city would one day be as safe as Eden before the fall, our lives insulated from the hurtful and the random. “Let’s go in the living room,” Angie said, “and turn the radio off.” She reached out and I took her hand in the dark kit- chen as the snow painted my window in soft specks of white, followed her down the hall toward the living room. Eddie Brewer’s condition hadn’t changed. He was still in a coma. The city, the announcer said, waited. The city, the announcer assured us, was holding its breath.
Progress, Lehane implies, may not change the past, but it bodes well for the future. There is hope. There is a sense of movement in a positive direction. And there is a sense of renewed safety and reassurance that all will be well. For a book that started with the uncertainty and wistfulness of the random shooting of an old classmate, that makes for a pretty decent denouement if you ask me.