When it comes to writing, there are no shortcuts. Chris Eboch returns to talk about setting up the most critical part of your story.
Welcome back, Chris!
Since I’m writing for Romance University, I couldn’t resist the pun in the title. I’m not talking about that kind of climax, though, but rather your story climax. I love talking and writing about story structure, something I cover at length in my new book, You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. The points apply to writing for adults as well, even in books that include the other kind of climax. So let’s look at the build up to the climax!
At its most basic level, a story should have three parts: beginning, middle, and end:
- The beginning introduces a character with a problem or a goal. (In a romance, this could be two characters with the same or differing goals.)
- During the middle of the story, the character tries to solve the problem or reach the goal. She probably fails a few times and has to try something else. Or she may make progress through several steps along the way. She may even realize her original problem is not her true problem. She should not solve the problem on the first try, however.
- At the end, the main character solves the problem herself or reaches her goal through her own efforts.
But that simple structure gets more complex if you study it in more detail. 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. Before you get into that powerful climax, you want to set it up properly – we could consider this foreplay!
The Crisis Point
My brother, script writer Doug Eboch, who blogs at Let’s Schmooze – Doug Eboch on Screenwriting, 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 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 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. Even if you know the book has to have a happy ending, here you wonder how it could possibly happen.
For example, in my romantic suspense novel Whispers in the Dark, the heroine is an archaeologist who discovers mysterious happenings while working at a remote Native American site in the Southwest. When the bad guys arrive, she flees – right off the edge of a cliff. She’s injured, alone in the dark and rain, and pursued by one villain, while the man she loves is at the mercy of the others. Fighting her way back from that won’t be easy!
Of course, in a romance without suspense elements, the crisis point might not involve such physical action. It might be a time when one or both of the main characters decide to walk away from the relationship, or where it seems impossible that their goals should ever be compatible. The trick is to make failure seem inevitable.
Does your story have a crisis point, a moment leading into 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 love interest is about to date (or even marry) someone else. 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.
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 my brother’s 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.
Tip: 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.
Study some of your favorite books. Is there a moment of apparent failure, where “all is lost”? If not, how would it change the book to add one?
Now look at your work in progress or outline. Do you have that moment of apparent failure? If not, can you add tension to the story by adding one?
Have you ever thought about the moment of apparent failure? Have you used it instinctively without knowing why? What movies or books offer a great example?
This essay was adapted from a chapter of You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, which is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.
You Can Write for Children Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else.
Whether you’re just starting out or have some experience, this book will make you a better writer – and encourage you to have fun!
Chris Eboch has published more than 30 books for young people. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.
As Kris Bock, Chris writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com, sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter, or visit her Amazon page.
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