Guest Article: Endings and Climaxes

22 Apr

Hey everyone! After the big discussion on writing climaxes and endings last week, we’re happy to present a guest article by Kat Zhang on just those issues!

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Endings and Climaxes

by Kat Zhang

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So you’re 50,000 (or 100,000—or even 150,000!) words into your latest manuscript. Things are going well: your main character is lovable, the plot is engaging, troubles have piled up, and your heroine is in over her head. The foremost question on any sane reader’s mind is What’s going to happen next??

Wonderful, right? Except you, as the writer, are scratching your head and pondering the exact same thing. What is going to happen next? In order to build suspense, you’ve put your heroine in a seemingly impossible to fix situation. Maybe the love of her life thinks she’s killed his dog and won’t return her calls. Maybe the Big Bad has kidnapped her parents and hidden them in a top-secret lair in Madagascar. Or maybe she just needs to gather up all her strength and defeat the Forces of Evil. For the third time. With a toothpick.

Not the last one? Okay…

Whatever your heroine’s problems are, yours as the writer is how to end your story satisfactorily. In many ways, this is the most important part of your story. It’s certainly what’s going to be freshest on your reader’s mind when they close the book, and there’s nothing more frustrating than 300 pages of build-up only for all the tension and drama to leak out the last chapter like a squeaky balloon (Breaking Dawn, anyone?). No, you want your book to end with a bang!

The trouble is, endings are what most writers have had the least practice with. I don’t know about you, but I have so many orphan first and second chapters laying around, I don’t know what to do with them! So for everyone close to plotting out the last few chapters of your novel, here are some quick tips.

First of all, avoid the Deus Ex Machina. I tend to agonize over this myself. Many times, it’s a matter of opinion what counts as a Deus Ex Machina and what doesn’t. Think about the first Harry Potter book. There’s little Harry, facing the most powerful and evil wizard in the world, and what saves him? His mother’s love? What?

But it works. Why? One reason is buildup. This seemingly sudden savior was first mentioned in chapter one, and it actually answers other questions raised in the book, such as why Harry was left to his aunt and uncle. It doesn’t hurt that Harry has already been saved by this love once before, as a baby.

If you’re going to bring in something at the last second, make sure to foreshadow it first. Foreshadow it enough so that it seems slightly obvious to you—I’ve learned that if it seems very subtle to the writer, it generally goes over the majority of the readers’ heads. Will a hidden knife prove essential to the climax? Mention the heroine using it to peel an apple in the second chapter, or have her almost forget to pack it. Layer it in between other, seemingly more important things, and your readers will almost forget about it until your protagonist triumphantly pulls it out during the last battle.

The second reason the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone works is the fact that Harry has worked so hard already. The last few chapters are all about him, Hermione, and Ron braving challenge after challenge to reach the last chamber. Tellingly, both his friends are left behind during the course of this journey, leaving Harry to act on his own at the very end. So even if the final “attack” against Voldemort is taken out of his hands, we as the readers don’t feel like we’ve been ripped off because Harry has already proven himself worthy of the victory.

Finally, don’t forget the denouement. Derived from the French word meaning to “unknot,” the denouement is often left out of discussions concerning plot structure. But that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant! The denouement takes place after all the major action is over. It allows everyone (characters and readers alike) to take a deep breath, recollect themselves, and take one last look around before the ending forces us to say goodbye. Sometimes, this takes the form of an epilogue, but that needn’t always be the case.

What makes for a great denouement? Well, it’s a good time to show How Things Have Changed, and unless the fact that nothing has changed is the point of your novel, things should have changed! If nothing else, your characters should have developed. Think about the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (I’m talking about the movie here—apologies to the book enthusiasts!). The return to the Shire is one big denouement. Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry sit among the other Hobbits, home at last after grueling adventure. Everyone else is happy and celebrating, but these four are in what seems to be their own little bubble. Their travels have changed them. They can never again be as innocent as their friends. (On a happier note, Sam gains the courage to ask out that pretty little hobbit lady he’s been eyeing!)

To summarize:

  1. The ending should not happen out of nowhere. Even if you intend it to shock your audience upon first reading, they should be able to go back over the body of the novel and think to themselves “Ah—there’s a hint in chapter three that this would happen!”
  2. If there is a happy ending, your main character must have earned it through her own actions and growth.
  3. Allow for reflection and proof of growth/change in the denouement.

A lot of work has gone into a novel before an ending can be solidified. But for most, tacking on a figurative or literal “The End” after the last few words is really just the beginning of another few months or even years of editing. Don’t let this overwhelm you—celebrate your accomplishment! Jump up and down a few times! Finishing a first draft is a great accomplishment, and if you’re not in a big hurry to perfect this particular manuscript, it may be a good idea to take a short break to work on other things. That way, you’ll be able to approach your editing with a fresh eye.

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Kat Zhang is currently an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing, who spends all her free time furiously editing her YA novel, HYBRID, to get it in shape for querying. She’s currently finishing a series about a three week trip to China on her blog, but will soon switch over to more writing related topics.

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13 Responses to “Guest Article: Endings and Climaxes”

  1. Victoria Dixon April 22, 2010 at 7:24 AM #

    Great post, Kat and I love your blog. 😀

    • Kat Zhang April 22, 2010 at 8:09 AM #

      Thanks! I’m glad you like both the post and the blog.

  2. Rowenna April 22, 2010 at 9:54 AM #

    Great point that the protagonist needs to earn their happy end–I think it’s one of the biggest letdowns when things just kind of whiffle out and the character is along for the ride.

    • Vanessa April 25, 2010 at 12:50 AM #

      I totally agree!!

  3. Kat Zhang April 22, 2010 at 11:51 AM #

    Yes, that’s exactly what I mean! I scrapped my first complete novel because the ending played out along those lines, no matter how much I tried to re-write it. But when you can get the ending to fall into place perfectly–the culmination of all your protagonist’s growth and change, then it’s like finding the last pieces of a 1000 piece puzzle.

  4. Adventures in Children's Publishing April 22, 2010 at 12:20 PM #

    Thanks so much for this post. It’s really important advice, and I’m going to put a link on our blog about this one.

    • Kat Zhang April 22, 2010 at 1:13 PM #

      Thank you for the link!

  5. Vanessa April 22, 2010 at 4:57 PM #

    Kat, this is such a great article!!! I loved it!

    I totally agree with endings; the amount of times I’ve been stuck trying to figure out how it ends has been numerous! I’m so happy that you mentioned denouement and the Deus Ex Machina!

    Also, loved how you talked about foreshadowing and buildup. Breaking Dawn certainly was very disappointing to me… I wanted an epic battle and got NOTHING!

    • Kat Zhang April 22, 2010 at 5:17 PM #

      I’m glad you liked it, Vanessa! I love a good denouement, haha. It’s like a sigh after holding your breath all the way through the climax. Also, the word “denouement” is just pretty darn cool 😉

  6. Judy Lin April 22, 2010 at 10:20 PM #

    A great article! I’ve been struggling with the opening of my new project for the longest time, but I think it’s also important to outline in order to lead up to that final end. I’m struggling with two endings right now, so your post was extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kat Zhang April 22, 2010 at 10:32 PM #

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Judy, and wish you the best with your project 🙂

  7. Gabriela da Silva April 23, 2010 at 12:25 PM #

    Very interesting post! I only disagree with you on Harry Potter – I never did find Mom’s Love to be very satisfying :p

    It’s funny just how many books out there suffer from the Squeaky Balloon Syndrome. The best I can think of right now is graphic novel Y: The Last Man. We spent years reading it, the writers toyed with the idea that the entire thing was due to a curse, a conspiracy, venom, aliens… and at the end we get some kind of nature-don’t-like-no-clones-yo thing. SO disappointing.

    Me, I find denouement to be very very important – perhaps as important as the climax! Since you mentioned the LOTR movies, I’ll comment on the book – the denouement there serves in fact as a second adventure. Not only does it show the characters that Things Have Changed in their hometown, it serves to show the *homewtown* that the characters have changed.

    Take Sam. In the movie, he gets courage to ask Rosie out.
    In the book, Rosie is the daughter of one of the richest landowners. Sam is an assistant gardner – he might be in love but it just won’t work.
    But when he returns, proves his new-found “nobility” (in fighting, planning and restoring the Shire) he is allowed to court and marry her.
    Which leads to a second denouement – Frodo’s parting and Sam coming back. “I’m home.”
    I don’t think there’s a more perfect ending to an adventure book…

    Great post, I really enjoyed reading it!

    • Kat Zhang April 23, 2010 at 2:03 PM #

      Thank you very much, Gaby! I was going to talk about the LOTR book denouement, which, like you said, really takes it very seriously, but I was afraid it would take too long to explore everything. You have done a great job of summing up the important parts here, though!

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