After Despair: Writing Diagnostics X(b)

Wesley in the "Pit of Despair." (Image from THE PRINCESS BRIDE 1987 courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

In the previous entry, I covered climax structure, steps 1 through 4, and left off in the Dark Moment, which I said should never be rushed.  Have you waited long enough for what comes next?

STEP 5:  The Reversal.  Now despite steps 1-4 making it appear as though the protagonist is going to lose, we don’t really want that to happen.  Most commercial fiction is, after all, about positive endings.  So in this next-to-last step of the climax, there’s going to be a reversal of some kind that flips the situation.


Image FORT APACHE 1948, directed by John Ford, courtesy of RKO.

In older yarns, the cavalry (or whatever version of deus ex machina) showed up just in the nick of time.  However, in today’s fiction it’s considered a cheat if someone else rescues the protagonist from a tough spot.  So the protagonist has to have a trick up her sleeve, or be tougher or more determined than the antagonist, or have sent for help, or have the cell phone on and transmitting the villain’s threats to the FBI agents that are standing by, etc.

It is usually necessary for a writer to plant the seeds of the reversal much earlier in the story, so that when it happens the reversal is unforeseen by the reader but entirely plausible.  Easy enough to do in revisions.

Example:  in Pretty Woman, the reversal comes because Vivian is stronger than Edward.  She holds out longer than he can, and he surrenders, realizing that he’s sufficiently in love with her to go after her.

Image from ROMANCING THE STONE 1987, 20th Century Fox

In Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder is grappling with the villain at the edge of the crocodile pit.  The reversal comes when she grabs his cigar from his mouth and burns him in the face with it.  He releases her, staggers off balance, and falls into the pit.  She is not physicially strong enough to overpower him in hand-to-hand fighting, but she’s used her wits superbly.

In Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi, Luke’s earlier attempts to reach his father finally come to fruition when Darth Vader turns on the Emperor and saves his son’s life.

Keep in mind, however, that the reversal will seem cheap without a well-done Dark Moment.

STEP 6:  The Reward.  This conclusion of the story is sometimes known as the denouement or the wrap-up.  It’s where poetic justice is handed out, based on what the characters deserve.  This stage of story climax is all about making sure fairness prevails.

So how brave or foolish has the protagonist been?

How ruthless has the antagonist been?

What should happen to each of them as the story concludes?

A writer has several options.  If the protagonist has grown and improved and risked much during the course of the story and has saved the day, then this character will obtain the story goal plus extra rewards.

Often winning the heart of the love interest is presented as one of the rewards.

If the protagonist managed to save the day but made several mistakes and could have done much better, then the character will obtain the story goal but may lose the love interest or see very little additional reward.

If the protagonist has thrown away chances and trampled over others and devolved as a character, he or she will lose the story goal.

Options for the antagonist are equally varied, but instead of “reward,” think in terms of “punishment.”

The antagonist is supposed to lose his or her story goal.

If the antagonist is a charming rogue, or helped incidental minor characters, or showed redeeming qualities in the course of the story, then the antagonist will lose the goal but escape capture.

If the antagonist is a villain, he or she will lose the story goal and be punished additionally, perhaps incarcerated or even killed.

Example:  in Ken Follett’s WWII thriller, The Key to Rebecca, the hero prevents British plans from falling into Rommel’s hands, saves his son’s life, and gets the girl.  The villain fails to steal the plans and is incarcerated in a tiny, windowless cell where his acute claustrophobia drives him mad.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara finds out too late that she loves Rhett instead of Ashley and she pays for her many mistakes by failing to stop Rhett from leaving her.

In the Sidney Sheldon novel Rage of Angels, the protagonist survives the climax with her life intact, but because of her mistakes she has lost her integrity, lost her lover, lost her career, lost her son, and is left walking down a snowy street at dusk, with nothing.

Some novels cover these six steps in a couple of scenes separated by a sequel.  Others take two, possibly three chapters.  Still others, such as the Dick Francis mystery Whip Hand, spend the second half of the novel spanning the climax.

Certainly in the writing of any story, whatever its length, the climax requires revision and possibly several drafts to get everything exactly right.  But in terms of evaluating a story premise — which is what this diagnostic series has been about — it’s important to look at story climax in terms of being a destination.  Chances are in your working synopsis or outline, some of these steps will be rough or vague.  Go ahead and sketch them out.  They will change and adapt during the actual writing of your rough draft, but thinking ahead through these steps will help you focus on where your story is going.  And you are much more likely to get there.

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