Most Common Mistakes Series, Pt. 47

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 46: Anticlimactic Endings

Here’s how to write books readers will love–and yet still end up hating you for. It’s easy. All you have to do is divebomb out of your brilliance and into anticlimactic endings.

On some level, anticlimactic endings are pretty self-explanatory. They’re endings with no bang in the end. They’re endings that evoke a yawn from readers instead of a frenzy of page-turning. Instead of being one of the most satisfying parts of the book, they end up being one of the most disappointing.

Jurassic Park 3 anticlimactic endings

And the scariest part of all this? The better readers like the rest of your book, the more it matters to them that the end fulfills all their hopes (conscious, emotional, and otherwise) for the story. In short, you gotta get this right.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on a concept that is actually surprisingly vague when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of actually preventing it. All those definitions of anti-climactic endings up there in the second paragraph? They don’t actually tell you much about the factors that create anti-climactic endings, or the even more crucial factors that contribute to preventing them.

But never fear. That’s what this installment of the Most Common Writing Mistakes series is all about.

2 Ways to Ruin an Awesome Story With Anticlimactic Endings

Anticlimaxes come in two distinct–and surprisingly diverse–flavors of ruination.

Ruination #1: The Fizzle

When we think of anticlimactic endings, this is what we think of most often. There you are, eagerly turning pages, slavering to find out what happens next–only to slowly realize, with each turned page, that, apparently, nothing is going to happen.

No confrontation between characters. No showdown in which the protagonist must make hard decisions about the desires and goals he’s been pursuing all book long. No turn in the plot. No nothing.

Instead, the characters just meander their way through the last bit of the story. Either whatever it is they want ends up falling effortlessly into their laps (hello, deus ex machina). Or they sadly and passively reconcile themselves to a life without whatever it is they wanted–and they keep drifting right off into the sunset.

You know how Sully looks in Monsters, Inc. after he’s banished to the Himalayas and he keeps opening and closing the door, in panicked disbelief? That’s how readers are going to be treating the back cover of your book if you leave them with such a fizzle of an ending. That’s it? That CAN’T be it! There muuuuust be more!

Pixar Post - Monsters Inc Banished Door Slam

When they finally get over their disbelief, they’re probably going to be mad enough to start beating on their best friend too, just like poor Sully.

Ruination #2: The Cliffhanger

Yep, you read right. The cliffhanger ending is often way too guilty of also being anticlimactic. At first glance, that may seen counter-intuitive. After all, anticlimaxes, by their very nature, are flat and boring, while cliffhangers are supposed to be notoriously exciting.

Cliffhangers are, of course, the domain of the series. Since the story continues on into the sequel, the point of the cliffhanger is to hook readers into wanting to read that next book. That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing.

But here’s the problem.

Some authors fail to understand the principles of a good cliffhanger. Instead of creating an organic hook for the next book at the end of the current story, they instead use the current story’s own climax as the hook.

In this scenario, you’ve got readers eagerly turning pages, slavering to find out what happens next, only to turn that next page in anticipation of the climactic showdown and–it’s The End.

I recently read a well-known YA series that pulled this trick at the end of its second book. I literally did a double take. What? It’s over? There’s no climax? None at all?

Sad, but true. The short lesson here is: never compromise the wholeness and structure of your current book in an attempt to lure readers into the next. My desire to know what happens next probably won’t outweigh my belief that you really have no idea how to write a good story.

5 Ways to Cap an Awesome Story With an Equally Awesome Ending

Enough of what not to do. You’ll be able to avoid the previous two mistakes as long you’ve got the following five necessities checked off your list for your story’s climax.

1. Timing: The Climactic Turning Point Begins Halfway Through the Third Act

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165Timing is important. Within the structure of your story (which I teach, in-depth, in my book Structuring Your Novel), your Climax is going to comprise the last 12-10% of your book. It’s going to begin halfway through the Third Act, which means its beginning is the turning point in the middle of this final act. To avoid the anticlimactic cliffhanger, make sure you’re not trying to end your book with the climactic turning point (which is what that unfortunate YA book did).

2. Prioritize Your Antagonistic Confrontations: Most Important Last

Here’s something important to understand about the sequencing in your climax: you don’t have to save the biggest for last, but you do need to save the best. You may actually end up using your biggest fireworks in the earlier parts of the climax. For example, if your climax features a battle, that battle will be at its biggest in the beginning when the two armies clash.

But then the conflict needs to funnel down to a single point: the confrontation with the main antagonist. This will be a more personal confrontation and, as a result, a more intimate one. Often, it will end up being mano a mano between protagonist and antagonist. This results in a comparatively quieter confrontation, but because it’s the one readers have been waiting for, the stakes will be higher than ever. Always end your climax with the confrontation between your protagonist and your most important antagonist.

3. Solidify Your Climactic Moment

The Climactic Moment is the moment when your story’s conflict ends. Sometimes this moment will be blatantly obvious: Prince Humperdinck surrenders (removing the last obstacle between the protagonist and his goal), and Westley gets to ride off into the sunrise with Princess Buttercup (ending his story-long quest to obtain his goal).

Westley Princess Bride Ending Cary Elwes

Sometimes, however, the Climactic Moment can be a little less definitive. This isn’t immediately a bad thing (as you’ll discover if you start trying to identify the Climactic Moment in your favorite movies and books). What is a bad thing is when that Climactic Moment is vague to the point that readers aren’t even sure they’ve read it. Your Climactic Moment is the dot at the end of your story’s exclamation point. Make sure it stands out.

4. Bring Your Story Full Circle: Answer the Beginning’s Dramatic Question

A story–even if it’s part of a series–must be whole unto itself. What that means is that it must be framed within a dramatic question. This is the question at the heart of your story’s conflict. Will the good guy escape the bad guy? Will the guy get the girl? How will the war affect the people who fight in it?

This question is asked by your Inciting Event and must be answered by your Climactic Moment. If you haven’t answered that question, then your story isn’t over. A series will often offer an overarching dramatic question, which will be raised in the first book and not answered until the final book. But each book within that series will also offer its own individual dramatic question, which must be answered in that book.

5. Include a Resolution to Demonstrate Character Reactions

The Resolution is the scene(s) that takes place after your Climactic Moment. It’s not actually a part of the climax, but, in 9 out of 10 stories, the Resolution is going to be an important factor in making sure your climax achieves its full emotional impact.

Readers need the chance to see your characters’ reactions to the the events of the climax. This helps put the conflict and the Climactic Moment itself into context. Just as importantly, it helps ease readers out of the world of your story and into an emotionally tranquil and satisfied mindset for closing that back cover.

Not all stories will require a Resolution. Some deliberately end right after the Climactic Moment for emphasis or even shock value. But that is a technique to be used with care–and, for my two cents’ worth, never as a hook into into a sequel. More often than not, that’s just going to make readers mad.

It’s a truism among writers that your story’s beginning will convince them to read this book, but your story’s ending will convince them to read your next book. This is true for every book you write, not just those within a series. Strive to leave readers with a wonderful impression of your story, your characters, and your writing. One of the best ways to do that is by following the above tips–and avoiding anticlimactic endings just as assiduously as you do the coughing checkout clerk during flu season.

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Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you find is the greatest cause of anticlimactic endings in the stories you’ve read or watched? Tell me in the comments!

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 46: Anticlimactic Endings

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Kinza Sheikh says:

    Can’t agree more on the cliffhanger endings. More often than not, a good ending with the books conflict tied together coherently will made me strive to read the next part of it.
    In the frenzy of NaNos, I had wrote my ending just as it had came. And know full well it needs a lot of work, this post will surely help me at that point. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m mulling a post I’m going to write one of these days on re-readability. So many of our favorite stories are ones we’re willing to visit time and again–even though there’s no longer anything surprising in the journey. We’re obviously not re-reading because we need to discover what’s going to happen next; we’re re-reading for sheer love of the story. That’s the kind of love we need to inspire in readers to get them to read on to the next book.

      • Jim Tucker says:

        You are so very Kind, too.

      • By all means, pleas do that!

        You make some excellent points in your post. I’m working within the bounds of a series myself and I find myself trying to close my main thread but leave another one or two open to carry my readers into the next book. So far it’s worked. What’s interesting to me is in Book 4 I left a murder unsolved and seemingly unsolvable. It was mentioned by my law enforcement characters in Book 5 but, in Book 6, to be released later this week, it pops back up.

        I think, by leaving THAT murder as seeming to be unsolvable in the 4th book I handled it okay. The readers got their climactic ending and I got a hook to use in a totally new way for continuing readers.

        We’d all like to think our books are re-readable. I have at least a dozen favorites of my own that I’ve read multiple times but none of them are straight mysteries aside from works from masters like Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. I’ve reread those just to marvel at the way they put a story together. I look at them more from a writer’s perspective than that of a reader.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Writers sometimes lament that their writing mindset makes them too hyper-aware to enjoy stories like a normal reader, but, like you, I find just the opposite to be true. Understanding how stories works only gives me that much more to appreciate about great books!

      • The Dramatica guys say that about films: it’s a good story when you rent the video over and over

      • Kinza Sheikh says:

        I was re-watching an anime recently as a mean to reward myself to win NaNo. 😀
        And as you have taught us, focused more on the stuff that made it so intriguing in the first place to make me come back to it.
        I think the thing that inspired me most in it was the way the author evoked emotions. The characters who cared so much about each other, the way they acted instead of just talking.
        But for the most part, it was really thick with backstory. I was intrigued to see that the protag had had a complete positive change arc before even the story began. But that brought him to a new lie, and when the actual story starts.
        From fourteen year old younger brother of the protag, to his [Spoiler Alert] centuries old father. Everyone added their lies in the plate and had an intriguing journey of a positive change.
        So I think making a good relationship between readers and characters make that happen. That’s my opinion.
        I am talking about Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood by the way. If anyone is curious. 😀

        • Whenever I watch or read a story, I’m always trying to figure out *what* about it made it work (or not work) for me. It’s the ones that break the rules and are still wonderful that are always the most interesting study.

      • That is a great idea. I re-read several of the books I have, it will be WHY this occurs

        • Kinza Sheikh says:

          Yeah, I found the idea here in this blog. And have been looking through all the stories that still inspires me and ask myself why. This particular anime used to be such a favorite of mine. I was afraid to re-watch it, what if with my newfound story structure knowledge ruin the magic?
          But I am more awed now. It is actually more fun to contemplate how the writer might had gone through the story, how might had she thought of rising stakes. Where the plans might had came from.
          Best of all, two of my characters were inspired by my all time favorite which was a side but important character in this anime, and the re-watch has gave me so many ideas how I can expand them in my edits. 😀
          Ah! life of a writer. 😉 We are always working in our brain.

      • On the other hand, re-readability is also generated by good writing. Sometimes the texture of the writing is the thing that draws readers back time after time. It makes a case for the author making sure that there are no mediocre passages in a novel. Similarly, one of the reasons that I will watch the same movie several times is because I forget the exact sequence of the plot or how each element is played out. It’s the same with books. I’ll re-read a novel several times because the plot is intricate and complex and I want to find out what happens next (again)!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          This is true. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a case in point for me. I’ve read it three times, and every time I read it, I appreciated it more.

        • Kinza Sheikh says:

          I am still new in understanding writing and re-reading stuff with a writers hat. Maybe soon, that will start happening. 🙂
          I sure am dying to revisit a lot of old books and movies to see what made me favorite them and how those writers did that. Thus the reason I re-watched this anime.

  2. I love cliffhangers. But you’re absolutely right. It’s difficult to pull them off. A fine brush isn’t enough to paint a masterpiece. It needs a master artist to accomplish something so delicate and pure.

    I think it’s related to Flash Forwards. Can Flash Forwards be considered as the inverse alternative of cliffhangers?

    I was thinking ’cause with cliffhangers, we don’t know what happens next. We know probable cause, but not the outcome.

    While with Flash Forwards, we know the outcome, but we don’t have the exact details of how and/or why the event occurred. Either way, we’re trying to grasp one part of the equation whether it be the event itself (what happens next) or the reason/cause behind it (how the events unfolded to reach that particular point on time).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Flash forwards are a totally legitimate technique, but like so many things that skate on the brink of “gimmickry,” they have to be used with extreme care. I’d have to say, they’re used less than skillfully 90% of the time, and almost always for the simple reason that the hook they present usually turns out to be far less exciting or dangerous than the audience is led to believe.

  3. Would it be better to not ask which YA book you were reading? 😉

    This post is timely, because right now I’m having trouble with the ending to my WIP. It’s hard because the protagonist is a horse so there’s never been any real character arc. I’ve also decided that the third plot point should have been the climax, so I’ve got some rearranging to do.

  4. Jim Tucker says:

    The best example I’ve ever seen of the exact opposite of an anti-climax, if I’m understanding the meaning correctly, is the final scene in Butch and Sundance! (Can you say, “Geronimo”?)
    Perhaps the most anti-climatic, oh, too numerous to name, are any time a superhero (e.g., Superman, oft times Batman, and most others in the Marvel and DC multiverses) save the (girl, city, country, continent, planet, solar system, galaxy, etc.) and then sit around like nothing happened, just another day at the office, and schmooze.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a great example of a story that basically breaks all the rules. It doesn’t even include the Climactic Moment, but because of the nature of the story and the fact that the implication of what *will* happen is so obvious, it ends up working beautifully.

    • Joe Long says:

      That the Avengers went home and schmoozed after the attack on Zokovia in “The Age of Ultron” became a major premise for “Civil War”. Although the villain was defeated and total disaster averted, still many people died in the process and the survivors didn’t take kindly to the super heroes returning home as if that hadn’t happened. The character thought that there should be consequences.

  5. Well, it looks like I’ve avoided all the pitfalls in my ending 😀 It’s always nice to confirm that I’ve done something right (at least from my point of view).

    I’ve always struggled with endings. For years I never really knew the ending. I kind of had a goal, but nothing solid; the story would meander around and oftentimes never be finished. Now that I’m planning my books out, it’s definitely easier to put all the pieces in place for a satisfying end.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One of the best ways to find the right ending for your story is to figure out what question is being asked in your beginning, both on the plot level and the thematic level.

  6. The cliffhanger one is definitely a really sticky area… It’s definitely true that cliffhangers have to be done right or they just leave you unsatisfied. But I also see a lot of the reverse: where you have a series where each book ends completely resolved to the point where it could be the series’ end… until you start the next book and everything falls apart again.

    I think it’s just one of those many many areas where you have to have the right balance. Resolution is important, but you still need to need the next book.

    • They tied the ends too neatly, agreed. I’ve been contemplating writing a series, and I’ve been thinking about how the good ones work.

      Generally in the better series there are two arcs in play, as the protagonist has an external problem, and an internal problem. External: Fight the monsters. Internal: try and have a love interest while saving the world. Each book would advance one or the other of those arcs. Maybe the Big Bad is fought and defeated in books 1-3, but the love interest gets trapped in a portal to another world at the end of book 3 and must be rescued, which sets up the next book or trilogy of books. The series doesn’t end until both arcs are resolved.

      If everything is resolved from one book to the next then a series is too episodic, too much like a sitcom where nothing that happens matters or affects the next episode.

      To KM: I hope you do follow up on re-readability. That is the standard by which I’m going to cull my paper books. Have I re-read it? Does the story and its characters stay with me? Sometimes I re-read strictly as a writer, to see how an author built the mystery over the course of the series, etc. But its the readers I want to appeal to.

    • Actually, Katherine, that’s a really good point. Readers are generally pretty willing to suspend disbelief on episodic mayhem (after all, how many times can one superhero save the same city?). But this is why overarching plot lines work so much better in most instances: it ties all the little conflicts together in a way that makes them seem not so coincidental.

      And Jamie: Yes, definitely wanting to do that re-readability post. Still mulling on its factors though!

  7. I agree with you about a bad ending ruining a perfectly good book. I think it’s so much harder to write a good ending than to write a strong beginning, and yet, writing a good beginning is emphasized so much in writer’s circles.
    One thing I’ve been doing lately is noticing the last lines of books. I read one recently where the last line was actually a restatement (on a more positive note) of the very first line of the book. Now that was a satisfying read!
    You made some great points here. I really need to work on that mano a mano thing. I am definitely too nice to my characters at times.

    • Personally, I love that technique of circling back around and having the last line mirror the first line. It was something I finally got to do in my own writing for the first time in Storming.

      • Joe Long says:

        This was done on the TV show, “Homicide” Life on the Streets.”

        The first episode of the show opened with Det. Tim Bayliss’ first day on the job in Homicide, carrying in a cardboard box of personal belongings with which he assembled his desk. All the other characters were shown in the moment of any other day of their life. He was the innocent newbie subjected to hazing. His first case was the murder of a young girl. The veteran detectives at the crime scene were eating sandwiches and joking around, while Bayliss had to keep from vomiting. He out a picture of the girl on his desk. A couple years later, her case still unsolved, he put the picture in his drawer.

        When the show ended six years later, his character had changed markedly. He murdered a suspect who was released on a technicality, then went back to the office, put the picture of the girl in the garbage, and the rest of his belongings in a card board box and walked out while everyone else continued their day.

        His character’s role reminded me of Ishmael in Moby Dick.

  8. I don’t mind minor cliffhanger teaser endings–as long as the main thrust of the book is wrapped up. It’s probably why The Empire Strikes Back is one of my all-time favorite movies, even though it “technically” has no beginning and no end. This is especially true in series. (What the point would be if the book is a standalone I cannot fathom–that’s just mean of the author, and a serious reason to never read them again!) For me, I almost expect minor cliffhangers in the series books I read. Does it keep me coming back for more? Absolutely! As long as it’s not heavy-handed and the author is keeping things fresh, at least.

    • Empire leaves a *lot* hanging, but it definitely still frames its individual plot: it’s all about Luke’s conflict between his past/ his father’s legacy and learning to become a Jedi. It begins when Obi-Wan tells him to go find Yoda and ends when he chooses (he thinks) death over accepting Vader as his father.

      • I was quoting the director for the film from the Star Wars documentary a while back…he said Ep. 4 was the beginning and Ep 6 was the end, and Ep. 5 is the 2nd act. 😉 I do think there’s some beginning/ending in Empire, but it’s less defined to me than it is in Ep. 4 or other movies.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Ah, yes. In that sense, it’s definitely true–as it with most trilogies that have an overarching storyline. But each episode is still a complete narrative arc unto itself.

        • The really interesting thing about the original Star Wars films is that the “end” of Empire Strikes Back is actually the beginning of Return of the Jedi, when Luke, Leia, Lando and the droids finally rescue Han from Jabba’s Palace. Return of the Jedi proper doesn’t really get started until almost 40 minutes into the movie.

  9. A botched ending on a good story is the worst. By then it’s too late to throw the book across the room, because you already LIKE it. Really the only satisfactory option at his point would be to hunt the author down and throw HIM across the room, but that’s illegal.
    Sigh.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. That’s actually very true. I *do* forgive horrible endings if I’ve loved the book all the way up to that point. But they still make me very disgruntled.

  10. I just found your site, I can’t wait to dig in and read everything! I am working on my first novel and need inspiration! 🙂

  11. Hi there,

    Excellent post!

    My question is regarding a novel with dual timelines. So far for me structuring every beat of my current work in progress has worked out well, each plot point, midpoint, so on so forth falling one after the other. Past timeline midpoint first, for example, present second. For the climax/resolution of the novel, however ….I’m just beyond stumped because the climax for each timeline works out brilliantly, but as far as resolutions, it’s just not working.

    The present resolution works out for me because it has a purpose that ties into the next book/books/series thing.

    The past also is supposed to tie in to the next book as well but it feels like I’m trying to tack something on so the reader has enough information of what happens from the point of climax (battle) to not be left in the lurch after said battle, with her situation and other characters as well. But I also can’t justify not having this stuff tied up, and I’m not quite sure I can justify having a resolution for one timeline and not the other so I’m not even sure how to begin thinking about this.

    Frustrating.

    Thank you ahead of time for any advice you might have to offer on this 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When using dual timelines, you’ll usually (although certainly not always) find that the present-day climax becomes, in essence, the resolution to the past-day conflict. Usually, what’s happening is that the mysteries of the past all become clear in the past-day climax, which then sheds light on the present day and ties back into that narrative. Suddenly, the entire present-day narrative takes on a new light thanks to the readers’ understanding of what happened in the past-day narrative–which means, you probably don’t need that past-day resolution.

  12. Just one more question:

    If you have an instance in writing where ending after the climax happens to be the way to go, could the resolution be what happens after the big battle whether or not that may be simple a few paragraphs showing reaction, dilemma and decisions made and not a full chapter?

  13. CodeGhoul says:

    I think the greatest cause of anticlimactic endings is the author him/herself.
    It all points to the author. I’m going to refer to the author as a ‘he’ this time.
    If the author doesn’t love his story, how can he make the story into something he loves?
    If the author wants to finish the story right away, how can he do so without piecing it all together?
    If the author thinks that his story is unappreciated, why should he finish it with an Anticlimatic ending, without even thinking about the ones that ACTUALLY read what he wrote?
    Or just to put it all together, why did he start writing it in the first place without planning it well?
    Why did he turn to WRITING? I’m not blaming the authors around the world who had unfortunately given their book such an ending, but still appreciate all the readers. Their great mistake was not being able to read what you have just written.
    If the reader is to blame, that isn’t anyone’s fault. That’s just a matter of principle.

  14. I think I’ve done a bit of an anticlimax?

    The hero has already disarmed the enemy’s shock troops so that he can just walk in and take his spaceship and leave. Played right, that should have impact, but I think I can improve it three ways.

    1. The enemies at the port are all unknowns, rank and file, though they’d be more than a match for him without the hack. Somebody there should be known to the hero. 2. The reader doesn’t know what’s planned, but it might be better if Brannon were to explain it to the reader and worry that there might be one that hasn’t updated or the fact that he hasn’t seen the new behavior yet. 3. Just because the droids are locked down and aiming at their masters, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a human soldier that figures, “I’m gonna get him before he gives the command to fire.”

    I also have a cliffhanger or loose thread. The hero’s main supporting character becomes certain that Brannon has made a terrible mistake. The series enemy has the habit of knowing Brannon’s passcodes, and so could initiate the bloodbath she (barely) stopped Brannon from calling down with his hack…

    Anyhow, I hope that thread will work as a cliffhanger. Meanwhile, I need to thread in all this new stuff!

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