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Story Structure – Part 11: Climax and Denouement

You can read the rest of the Story Structure series here:

Part 1 – Story Structure: Beginnings
Part 2 – Revisiting the Three-Act Structure
Part 3 – In the Beginning…
Part 4 – Propel Yourself into the Middle
Part 5 – Mushy Middle Syndrome
Part 6 – The Meandering Middle
Part 7 – The Wispy Middle
Part 8 – The Cramped Middle
Part 9 – The Art of the Subplot – Part 1
Part 10 – The Art of the Subplot – Part 2

I started this whole series on structure way back in May when I gave my intro to beginnings. Since then, I’ve written about beginnings, narrative intervals, the various kinds of mushy middles, and even subplots. Bet you didn’t realize you’d been hanging with me that long, did you?

So now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for—literally.

Climax and Denouement

By the time I get to the end of my stories, I’m so tired from worldbuilding, character building, plotting, making sure my intervals are right, and weaving subplots that it’s sometimes hard to muster that last push to finish the story on a high note. I’m here to caution you all—don’t miss the grand opportunity to finish your story leaving your readers satisfied, breathless, and wanting more all at once.

As authors, we focus a lot on our beginnings. We’ve heard so much about getting the reader’s attention and trying to entice agents and editors to request our manuscripts that we really concentrate on getting those first few chapters, pages, paragraphs, and sentences just right.
That’s all good, and you should do that. But don’t polish your beginning so much that by the end you let your reader down with a wimpy climax or too much denouement.

Dissecting What Comes Before “The End”

For the purposes of this article, let’s assume we’re talking about the last 25% of a book, maximum. It’s probably actually less than that. Somewhere around that 75% or so, you’ve given us the last plot point and set up your final conflict. Up to the very end, you should be building more tension and conflict.

Don’t let the tension fade too soon! Keep building the tension until your characters, world, plot, and readers can’t take it another moment. Weave questions into your reader’s mind. Will the heroine get there in time? Will the hero break down and tell the bad guy everything? Will Army X be trampled by Army Y, or will the cavalry arrive just in time? Will…?

You get the point. It’s not that you have to actually ask those questions in the narrative. You just need to build the narrative tension so that your reader asks them.

Once you’ve got all those questions firmly planted in the reader’s mind, it’s time to fire the guns.

I’ve been listening to the audio versions of the Jack Aubrey books, starting with Master and Commander (which is quite a bit different than the movie, but still awesomely awesome). (Side note: Captain Aubrey is so fantastic that every time he comes in conflict with an American ship, I find myself cheering for the British. I’m a bad patriot.) One thing that Captain Aubrey insists on is the Lord Nelson method of attack: Go straight at them, guns and all. He goes so far as to buy his own powder and shot so that his crew can practice running the guns out and actually firing before they have to go into a real battle. When they do go into battle, he knows that when he gives the order to fire, there will be much firing—and even better, much accurate firing.

That’s what you’re doing with your ending. That 75% to 90% or 95% is you loading your cannons, running out your guns, and maybe even lighting a fuse. At that 95% point, you fire—straight at them. Now, at your ending, you let all heck break loose.

This is the thing: Your climax doesn’t have to be long. In fact, it shouldn’t be long. Your climax, if it resolves all of those questions and has the proper set up, can be awesome even if it’s only a few paragraphs. Ideally, in a book-length work, it’s probably a couple of pages long.

Battles, sword fights, magic, whatever your climax entails—you’ve let everything explode. Now what?

Wrap It All Up

Now, the denouement. That’s a fancy word for “wrapping everything up.” The key to the denouement, I think, is not to ramble on or make it too long. You don’t need much here—you don’t need an epilogue or a Star Wars ending or anything like that. Just a few paragraphs will tie things up most of the time. At most, your denouement should be a few pages.

A Word About Subplots

One tricky thing about subplots is figuring out where fit into the climax. As with most writing-related things, it depends. If your subplots are so woven into your story that they need to have something to do with the end, then you have the challenge of tying off all those threads in those last few pages. If your subplots are that tightly woven into your main plot, it probably won’t be hard to do.

But what if your subplots are on different paths or in other directions? Maybe because you’re writing a series, you have a couple of subplots off in other places that you aren’t ready to finish off yet. Then you need to tie them up just enough before you come to the climax of your main plot. If you have multiple POVs, that’s probably not hard to do—just make sure the last time you visit the POV, you tie off your loose ends enough to satisfy the reader.

The key to endings, I think, is to satisfy your reader just enough that he or she thinks the story is done, but still wants to read the next installment or more of your other work.

In two weeks, I’ll look in more detail at specific things endings should (and shouldn’t) have.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Silus says:

    Mockingjay got ALL of this wrong.

  2. […] about adding subplots to your story, and then we’ll wrap it all up with a good look at the climax and denouement. VN:F [1.9.20_1166]please wait…Rating: 10.0/10 (3 votes cast)Middles – Part 5: Cramped Middles, […]

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