Friday, November 9, 2012

Building Your Novel: The Climax!!!

In previous posts, I’ve talked about setting up conflict and building tension through the middle of the story. 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 girl is about to date another guy. 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.

In The Well of Sacrifice, the high priest throws Eveningstar off a cliff into a sacrificial pool. If she can survive and get back to the main temple in secret, she can confront the high priest with new status as a messenger from the gods. But the penalty for failure is death—the highest stake of all.

In my Haunted series, each book takes place in a new location where the ghost hunter TV show is researching a ghost. The shoot will last only a couple of days. If Jon and Tania don’t figure out how to help the ghost within that time, they’ll lose their chance. I gave this challenge added importance through backstory—they had a little sister who died, so the idea of someone being stuck in an unhappy ghostly state has special resonance.

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 blow up the 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 they finally kiss. In the 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. In my mystery/suspense novel What We Found (written as Kris Bock), Audra would be perfectly happy to leave the murder investigation to the police – except the killer seems to be targeting her. She has to find out who's responsible before she becomes the next victim. In Whispers in the Dark (also written as Kris Bock), the heroine stumbles into a dangerous situation by accident, but once she's there, her life is at stake, and so is the life of the man she's starting to love.

This works for some nonfiction as well, especially biographies or memoirs. In Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker, the book I wrote under the name M.M. Eboch, the true story had a natural ticking clock – the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, where Jesse could prove himself or fail.

Study some of your favorite books. Is there a “ticking bomb,” where the characters have one last chance to succeed before time runs out? If not, how would it change the book to add one?

Now look at your work in progress, a completed manuscript draft or outline. Do your characters have a time deadline? Do you wait until the last possible moment to allow them to succeed? If not, can you add tension to the story by finding a way to have time running out? 

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. 

To make the climax feel fast-paced, use mainly short sentences and short paragraphs. The reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, giving a sense of breathless speed. (See my posts on Cliffhangers.)


  1. I love a good ending. And I feel cheated if it's too convenient. Or if a heroine is "rescued" by a hero. Those sort of bug me for some reason. I prefer if a heroine/hero saves the day by digging in and pushing their limits. Completely agree with the 'short sentences and short paragraphs.' This is not the time to go into a long description of how the mountains look or how the bubbling brook sounds.

  2. Thanks! And yes, Karen, the heroine should rescue herself. Even in romance novels, today the heroine has to be the star of her own story, and that means not waiting around for rescue. It's all right if she and the hero take turns rescuing each other, or work together, but your main character should always play a major part in the climax.