I’ve seen a few disappointing climaxes in client’s stories recently (cue childish giggling), so thought I would share some ideas to make sure your story climaxes are as satisfying as possible (cue more giggling).
A little disclaimer: previous clients – please don’t worry that I’m talking about you. I will NEVER reference specific stories and I only share topics that I find myself returning to on several occasions.
The climax of any story is the moment that writers and readers alike are working towards from the first page. It’s the culmination of whatever was kicked off with your inciting incident being wrapped up in some way. It could be an epic battle, a gentle kiss, a jump from the back of a train, a step towards self-acceptance and change… there is no one thing that constitutes the perfect climax to a story, but I think we all know when one hasn’t quite hit the mark.
We walk away from a story feeling distinctly MEH. So much was promised, and we were let down. Sadly, I’ve read a few published novels recently that have left me feeling this way.
The perfect climax for a story is hard to get right, but it’s so worth the effort of rewriting and editing. It’s the difference between becoming an author that readers will return to, or one that they will pass by next time. A good climax makes the story. Please don’t get too mad at me if you totally love Lost, but how many people now loathe that series because the ending was so appallingly bad? But how many people love Schitt’s Creek because that ending was everything we needed it to be?
There are a few things I’ve noted cropping up repeatedly in my client’s work that mean their climaxes fall flat. This is not an exhaustive list, but it could help you to round out your story’s climax if it’s not quite there at the moment
- THE CLIMAX IS RUSHED
Simple, but so easily done. You’ve battled through writing most of a book, all those pesky threads are coming together, you’re so close to ending this beast – so you don’t give the climax the time and space it deserves. It would be kinda like if at the end of The Lord of the Rings after you had all this epic set up and Sam literally carrying Frodo up the volcano thing, it ended with a line like:
‘And Frodo threw the ring into the lava and he and Sam walked home.’
No. Nooooo. Firstly, we need that final battle with Gollum, the final battle within Frodo himself. We need to see all the gore and pain and heartbreak of those final moments. We need to linger with this final, pivotal scene because we’ve been building towards it for so long.
Now, your book may not be the final in a series of fantasy epics, but the principle applies. Linger with your climax. Think of all the threads that have led there and make sure they are all tying together. Think about your characters – what do they need to achieve as they cross this final hurdle? What have you been making readers want for the past 200 pages and are you going to give it to them?
2. THERE AREN’T ENOUGH THREATS
Apparently I’ve decided to hinge this thread on The Lord of the Rings. Oh well.
Imagine if Frodo had a mission to get rid of the ring because it turned people invisible and that seemed a bit weird. He went for a camping trip with some friends and they encountered some barriers but eventually got to the big old mountain and threw it in. The end.
What a boring arse story. Without the threat of THE ENTIRE WORLD THEY KNEW BEING DESTORYED there is no real point to the quest to destroy the ring. Even apart from this big threat – there are lots of little personal threats throughout. Threats make the stakes high, and stakes need to be high for readers to feel invested in the climax of a story.
Again, you might not have THE FATE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD at stake in your story, but there has to be something significant that your character stands to lose if they don’t achieve the thing the story has been working towards. If they’ve got nothing to lose, then why should your readers care about what the character is doing? Another reason readers will struggle to care about the climax is if…
3. YOUR MAIN CHARACTER’S AIM IS UNCLEAR/THEY LACK AGENCY
Handily, I did a whole blog post all about agency last year. You can read that here.
Agency is your character needing or wanting something and then taking steps towards achieving it. Sometimes, it’s hard to spot when your novel lacks agency because stuff is happening – but is this stuff caused by your main character or happening to them?
Ideally, you’ll have a good mix of things that happen to them and things they make happen, but the climax needs to be hinged on the aim or goal or wish your character has been fighting towards working itself out in some way.
Imagine if Frodo got to the bad mountain and he said he couldn’t climb it so Sam plucked the ring out of his hand and threw it in the lava for him. That would have been soooo unsatisfying. It had to be Frodo that threw the ring in. It was his aim, it was his goal to achieve.
4. TOO MUCH INFORMATION HAS BEEN WITHHELD
I think we’ve all read those novels, and crime is a genre that is particularly guilty of this, when you get really close to the end of the novel and you’re suddenly blindsided with all this information that was withheld throughout.
It’s really annoying! You’ve spent the whole novel with your brain engaged, following the clues, tracking suspects, and then it turns out it was their long lost aunt WHO YOU WERE NEVER TOLD ABOUT who stole the manatee.
Characters developing skills that have been in no way hinted at during the novel, relatives popping up who have never been mentioned, new creatures suddenly charging in to save the day – they might make for a dramatic finish, but probably one that will leave readers unsatisfied.
Leave hints at anything important that’s going to happen in the climax throughout the novel. The ending is not the place to introduce a whole load of new info, but rather a place to piece together what you’ve already got. This is similar to another type of disappointing climax:
5. A TWIST THAT CANNOT BE TRACKED
Frodo gets to the top of the mountain, he goes to throw in the ring, and suddenly Sam turns on him. He pushes Frodo into the lava and takes the ring for himself, becomes the new dark lord or whatever, and becomes best mates with an orc.
Um, no. No, thank you. Sam has been set up throughout the novels as the most pure and loyal individual who has ever lived. His every action is to the benefit of Frodo, apart from a few mistakes that he heartily regrets. There would be no way, if he suddenly turned on Frodo at the end, to track that twist back.
Readers should be able to read books with twists at their climax and spot all the little warning signs along the way. That’s what makes the best twists brilliant – we didn’t see them coming but we should have, and then we can go back and spot all the hints and feel very clever. An unprecedented twist will leave readers feeling alienated – they haven’t been included on the fun
6. THERE ISN’T ENOUGH CONNECTION WITH THE CHARACTER
Now, there is a lot of discussion about how difficult it is to make a character who is relatable for everyone, since we all have such different backgrounds, but connection isn’t really about relatability. It’s not even really about likability.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a short dude with hairy feet. I don’t know what it’s like to go on a horrible camping trip with a load of other people and fight off the urges to wear a weird ring. I don’t know what it’s like to climb a mountain, fight orcs, or even have a second breakfast.
I do know what desperation and fear feels like. I have friends I would do anything for. I have things I care about and fight for. I feel jealousy, fight impulses, and can empathise with looking at a task and feeling there is just too much to be done for one person alone
Your character doesn’t have to be exactly like the reader or even someone they would want to be friends with, but there does have to be something about what they’re experiencing that will draw the reader in. There are universal things that make us human – love, hope, joy, pain, fear, sadness – and depending on the genre and age group you’re writing for, your novel will tap into one or more of these. Write about them authentically, and readers will care about your characters and the culmination of their journeys.
And that’s it! All my thoughts about disappointing climaxes. I’ve had to be very sensible for almost this blog post, so I think I may go lie down now.
I love working with other writers – making sure their climaxes and all other elements of their stories shine. Take a gander at my editing services and get in touch if you’d like kind and thorough feedback on your words.