I've been discussing building a strong novel. Of course an important part of the novel is the climax, the big ending. You want the climax to be the most dramatic part of the novel, so the reader walks away satisfied. But before we get to the climax itself, let's look at the moment right before the climax. My brother, script writer Doug Eboch, has this to say about movie plots:
“There’s one other critical structural concept you need to understand. That is the moment of apparent failure (or success). Whatever the Resolution to your Dramatic Question is, 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.” (The full essay is in my writing craft book, Advanced Plotting.)
I wondered whether this held equally true for novels. Looking through a few of the books on my shelf, certainly the climax is a crisis point where the reader may believe that everything is going wrong and the main character could fail.
In 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 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, the lion Aslan is killed and the good army is losing their battle.
In adult 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.
Next week I'll talk about the climax itself.
See Doug’s entire 4000-word essay covering all the dramatic story points of three-act structure, plus much more, in Advanced Plotting. Buy Advanced Plottingfor $9.99 in paperback or as a $4.99 e-book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or in various e-book formats from Smashwords.
Douglas J. Eboch wrote the original script for Sweet Home Alabama. He teaches at Art Center College of Design and lectures internationally. He writes a blog about screenwriting at http://letsschmooze.blogspot.com/.