Confronting the Climax

Last week, I talked about how the ending is my first step when I’m planning a story. This week, I’m going to talk about my next step: the climax. I plan the climax right after I plan the ending, because when I get to planning the ending next week, where I start the story will have a lot to do with where the story is going, and where the story is going is not simply the ending.

 

In very simple terms, if the ending is the solution to the story’s main problem, then the climax is the moment when the protagonist confronts the problem. This means that the shape of the climax often dictates the shape of the ending. The climax is the time where all of the protagonist’s internal growth and struggles that they have experienced over the course of the story are put to the ultimate test. In many stories, the climax is the moment when the protagonist realizes how they have changed—even if that realization is not expressed until after the action of the climax is over. The climax should at the same time put the protagonist’s character growth to the test and be the moment when everything the story has been building towards comes to a peak.

 

So, for this story I’m planning, at this point, I have a basic plot idea and a protagonist. I have an idea of what my ending will be. It could be a very specific idea, a specific moment where I want my story to land, or it could be broader, the solution to the problem and a feeling I want to convey. If my thinking here is broader at this point, it will probably become more specific as I plan out the climax. Also, at this point, if I don’t have a concrete grasp of my protagonist, my antagonist, their separate and conflicting motivations, and the main problem of the story, I spend some time ironing out those details. More specific detail will come as I continue to plan, of course, but I need some basic, concrete information before I move to the climax, otherwise, planning the climax now doesn’t make any sense.

 

I realize that this can seem like a pretty backwards way to think about this, and other people may plan their stories differently and just as effectively. But this is the way my brain works, and it makes sense to me, so I generally run with it. Also, it is so much fun to invision the most intense moments of a story. Often, it is the climactic scene that is the scene that sticks with me while I’m writing the whole story, the scene that I can’t wait to get down on paper, the scene that I even sometimes regret putting on paper because now it isn’t in my head anymore.

 

When I plan out my climaxes, I again think about what kind of story I’m writing and what kind of climax it should have. If I’m writing a more literary story, the climax might tend to focus on the characters’ emotions rather than high-stakes action. But if I’m writing fantasy or even historical fiction, which is most of what I’m writing, a little high-stakes action might be the right way to go. Or, you can go the middle route, my personal favorite, where there is lots of action and lots of feelings.

 

After I’ve figured out what kind of climax I’m looking for, I look at all the elements of the story that I have outlined so far (whether that outline is in my head or on paper). I have the main character, their goals, their strengths, their weaknesses, their fears. I have the antagonist with all their goals and strengths and weaknesses and fears. Personally, I really like to have the bad guy and the good guy be evenly matched throughout the story, or else the bad guy is slightly stronger, and something changes in the climax that tips the scales in the protagonist’s favor. I have the main problem of the story, which may or may not be related to the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. For example, the protagonist and the antagonist could both be working to solve the same problem, but with opposing methods. I might also have side characters I need to consider, or other points of view I’ve been narrating from that I need to deal with. Finally, I have the setting, which is one of my personal favorite elements to play with. I’m going to talk about all of these things in much more detail in future posts—I promise—but it’s important to bring them up now because they all play a role in the climax. The best climax for my story, in my opinion, is the climax where all of these elements come together.

 

Finally, I want to look at a couple real-life examples of climaxes that work for me. Again, I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible.

 

One excellent example of a climax that works is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The Night Circus contains so many different elements and characters, most of whom the reader cares about. It has a phenomenal setting, and the antagonist isn’t so much the main characters’ teachers, but the game their teachers have forced them to play. In the climax, all of these elements come together. The climax confronts the problem not only of the conflict between the game the two main characters are playing against each other and their love for each other but also the tension over the fate of the circus, and all those who are part of the circus, when the game is over. And then the problems are resolved in an unexpected and intriguing but ultimately satisfying way.

 

I am also a big fan of the climax of The Hunger Games—the first one. It brings into play the rivalry between Katniss and Cato; Katniss’s regret, grief, and horror over the deaths of the other tributes, some of them at her hands; the romance between Katniss and Peeta that cannot possibly have a happy ending—not if only one of them can go home; Katniss’s confusion about her feelings for Peeta; and finally her desire to be more than a piece in the Capitol’s games. Here again, the book confronts a seemingly impossible problem and solves it in a unique way.

 

Finally, I am deeply in awe of Marissa Meyer’s climaxes for her Lunar Chronicles series, especially the climaxes for Cinder and Cress (I haven’t finished Winter yet so no spoilers please). In each book, as she adds more and more characters to the mix, her climaxes become ever more complicated, and yet they all work. She is also able to make each of our heroes—by the end of the third book we have a pretty large group of them—take significant action that is necessary for the success of the group in the climax. And I could keep gushing.

 

I’m having trouble thinking of climaxes that don’t work for me, mostly because climaxes are so important to endings that climaxes that don’t work are usually tied to endings that don’t work, and I already ranted about those last week. An important distinction I feel I need to make, though, is that a climax can define a character’s growth, and do so effectively, even if the ending of the book then invalidates that growth (my biggest pet peeve when it comes to endings). For example, it is not so much the climax of Mockingjay that ruins it for me. It is the moment when Katniss votes for another Hunger Games. It is not so much the death of certain characters in How I met Your Mother that drives me nuts, but Ted’s decision when he finishes the story. On the other hand, it is the decisions made in the climax of Allegiant that don’t work for me, and that just bleeds over into the ending.

 

But climaxes I love to read—and so climaxes I love to write—are complex. The protagonist is facing seemingly impossible odds. The solution is not obvious, but it’s also not so complicated that no one could figure it out ever. The protagonist needs to make some kind of choice that ultimately reflects their character growth. Something may be lost, but something else must be gained. The climax brings every piece of the story so far together. For me, if a story is a journey, the climax is the moment that every dark and twisting step has led towards. It is the moment where the protagonist stands and faces down their problem and their antagonist. It is the moment when the protagonist stands and faces a choice, faces their fears and hopes and strengths and weaknesses, and overcomes all of it. It may seem backwards, given that everything must lead to the climax, to plan the climax before I plan the beginning or the middle or most of the specific details, but for me it works. For me, the climax is integral to the ending, and if I can’t begin without an end in sight and a solution to the problem, then I can’t begin without knowing how the protagonist will confront that problem in the climax.

 

And now that I have my ending and my climax nailed down, I can begin.

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Journey to an Ending

November has arrived, which means once again, National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Unfortunately, I can’t count law school application essays towards my word count, so I have decided not to attempt to write fifty thousand words this month. Instead, I have set myself a much more reasonable goal of writing four short stories. But in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I have been playing with my basic concepts of stories that need revising and thinking a lot about how I plot my stories—short and long alike. Back in July, I wrote about how I outline stories, but now I really want to get into the meat of how I plot stories. And as I was planning this series of posts, I realized that I usually start with the ending.

 

I have no idea if this is how other people morph their idea stews into cohesive stories, but this is what I do. I start with a basic concept—a main character, possibly an antagonist but probably not yet, and the problem that main character is trying to overcome. Then, with this idea in mind, I jump straight to the ending. It’s sort of like I’m planning a trip. I can’t decide what route I’m going to take if I don’t know what the destination is. If I know the destination, I can plan the path I will take—where I will start, where things will probably get difficult, where I will pause to rest and use the bathroom and refuel my car and myself, where I will turn aside to get lost in the halls of cobwebby museums full of rare fossils that might give the whole trip meaning. Maybe this metaphor has gone too far. I can’t even drive. Yet.

 

My point is, before I set pen to paper or, in my case, fingers to keyboard, I need to know where I’m going. Many times, I don’t start a story until I have a last line in my head.

 

This isn’t to say that the ending I come up with when I am first planning a story will definitely be the ending I write when I get there. It could happen that I reach the ending and realize that I have been driving at something completely different all along. In that case, I revise my ending and do what’s right for the story. Other times I reach my ending and everything feels just right, and I write that ending, but then when I go back to revise the story, I realize that while the ending is right for the story I want to tell, the beginning or the middle or the character arc isn’t fitting in, and I need to revise that. So it doesn’t always work out the way I want it to, but that is the joy of storytelling: it is an act of discovering the story as much as transcribing it for others to read. But even if I change the ending, if I don’t start writing with an ending in mind, the story will inevitably be a mess.

 

So when I have my basic premise for the story, when I have my main character and my problem, how do I come up with an ending? And how do I know if that ending is the right ending for the story I am telling?

 

For starters, I have a running list of endings I have loved and endings I have hated in my head. When I’m trying to come up with the right ending, I start there. What kind of story do I think I’m telling? What books or TV shows or movies have I recently read or seen that might be similar to that type of story? How did they end? Did it work? Why? Did it flop? How come? What kind of ending can I come up with that will be better than what they did?

 

Obviously, this strategy can only take you so far. You need to be careful that you’re not copying endings from things you like or deliberately doing the opposite of something you didn’t like. For one thing, straight-up copying is bad. Most of the time, your story is actually pretty different from the material you’re drawing on for your inspiration, so copying their ending won’t fit. If your story isn’t different from the material you’re drawing on for inspiration, you have an entirely different problem. (Believe me—I’ve been there. Revise. Revise now.)

 

But I digress. Using a particular ending as a model—a baseline—is how I usually start. I look at how that ending was constructed, why it works the way it does—or why it doesn’t work—and I see if I can produce the same effect. Once I have analyzed other people’s endings to my heart’s content, I look back at my own story. In very simple terms, I think about the ending as the solution to the problem the main character is facing (this is different from the climax of the story, where the main character confronts the story’s main problem). Then I start brainstorming all the possible solutions to the problem, including the totally ridiculous solutions that could never actually work, the solutions where everyone dies (I don’t think I’ve ever gone with this one), and the solution where the main character walks away and leaves the problem unsolved—or gives in to the problem in some way. Usually this brainstorming is all in my head, but sometimes I write it out. When I can come up with no other possible solutions, I think about my story fundamentally. What do I want the tone to be? What do I want the main character to learn (if anything)? What is the story I am telling? I start crossing off endings that don’t work. Usually, I’m left with just a few possibilities, and I pick the one I like the best (I usually have a feeling by this point).

 

I don’t always use this whole process. Sometimes the ending I’m looking for is perfectly clear to me from the start. But when it isn’t, going through this process helps me clarify a lot about the story that I may not have thought about before, and ultimately, it’s a better story for it.

 

Finally, I want to talk about what kind of endings I personally like and what endings I hate. I will do my best to stay spoiler-free.

 

My biggest pet peeve about endings is when all the character has learned, all their growth and change, is invalidated. Think the ending of Mockingjay or How I Met Your Mother. Usually, this ending feels so far off the rails to me that it ruins how I feel about the whole book or season, sometimes even the whole series. I have been following these characters for so long at this point, and now they’re making a decision that makes everything that came before not matter. I feel cheated. I feel like I want to throw the book across the room. Often, there are aspects of the ending I would have been okay with on their own, but when it’s all put together, it just doesn’t work for me. I have a visceral reaction to these endings. At best, I’m disappointed. At worst, I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

 

Another ending I despise is the ending where either the protagonist dies or all the people around the protagonist die and the protagonist is left on her own in a wasteland of mindless destruction and grief. My one exception so far to this dislike is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and that’s because Death is the narrator, so I knew it had to happen at some point. Most of my dislike for this type of ending comes from the fact that I am fundamentally an optimist, and this depressing view of the world just doesn’t jive with my sunny outlook on life. I know, I know. I kill characters mercilessly in my own stories, and a lot of the time I enjoy a good character death. But only when that character death serves a purpose. When you kill everyone just to show that the world is rough, it doesn’t work for me. Also, as in another popular young adult dystopian trilogy, when you kill the main character for no good reason other than she’s nobly sacrificing herself for someone else I really couldn’t care less about, I feel like I’m wasting my time. Because I’m not reading the story for the interesting world. I’m reading the story for the character. And that was a dumb decision!

 

My favorite kind of ending, on the other hand, is like the ending of the TV show Leverage or Kristin Hannah’s book The Nightingale. It’s what I’m hoping the ending of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series will be (we’ll see tomorrow!). My favorite kind of ending brings all the pieces of the story together. It solves the problems of the plot in a satisfying way. It makes me feel like the characters have grown and changed in ways that matter. It is the sort of ending that makes me want to turn right back to the beginning of the book and read it all over again. It doesn’t have to be happy, and it doesn’t have to solve everything. In my favorite endings, there is at least one piece left for the reader to ponder, one more story for the reader to imagine. And while I always love a nice happy ending, my favorite endings are bittersweet. Because what is a happy ending worth—what is any journey worth—without struggles and losses that must be overcome along the way?