Are Your Bad Guys Dying in the Right Order?

When it comes to a story’s Climax, you want to give readers the biggest bang for their buck. That might seem to mean always saving the biggest explosion for last. But there’s actually another consideration to keep in mind when ordering the events of your Climax.

Now, before I get any further, let me just stop to clarify that when I talk about climactic “explosions” or “killing bad guys,” I’m applying these terms generally to any sort of antagonistic force. In your story, there may not be an explosion in sight. Your antagonist might be your character’s mother, the weather, or the character’s own doubts. But what I’m about to say still applies.

More often than not, your Climax will consist of a series of scenes in which your protagonist progressively defeats a series of antagonists. For example, in order to destroy the Death Star, you first have to get past all the laser cannons, then you have to get past the TIE fighters, and then you have to get past Darth Vader.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), 20th Century Fox.

The order here is really important. Not only do you want to save your biggest battle until the very end, you also want to make sure your protagonist’s last battle is the one in which the character has the largest personal investment.

Let’s say you’re writing a story in which the protagonist’s brother is a crippled mastermind who has unleashed mutated monstrosities on the world. On paper, the physical battle between the protagonist and the scary monsters seems to be the bigger explosion. But the true climactic confrontation will always be as much about your character’s emotions as physical actions. In a situation like this, of course, your protagonist will be more emotionally invested in the brother than in some mindless monster, however scary it might be.

Optimally, you will be able to stage your climactic battles to get the most out of both the physical and the emotional aspects, but always double-check that your protagonist is fighting the most important antagonist last.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How is your protagonist emotionally involved with the final antagonist in the Climax? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I have a friend who complains because every so many fantasy novels (and series) end with the predictably huge battle between good and evil. In one of my books, I did stage a climax of sorts around the purposefully cliched “Final Battle”; however, the true climax of the story happens a chapter later, when the protagonist has to confront the man he thought was his enemy — only to realize that he’s been his own worst enemy all along.

    The more we writers (especially writers of genre fiction) can build up conflict and tension but also insert unexpected twists, the stronger our craft will be. I agree that the biggest punch should come near the end — I’ve never been a fan of the Scourging of the Shire in the “Lord of the Rings” because everything that happens after Sauron’s defeat just makes me shrug my shoulders…though that probably has more to do with the length of that section than anything else — but I posit that predictability can be as disappointing as an impotent ending.

    Thanks for serving up some food for thought this morning!

  2. Unless you’re going for a full-on trick ending, “surprises” aren’t really what readers want so much as originality. If you think about it, most of us can re-watch and re-read favorite movies and books long after we’ve memorized the endings. The trick for us authors is that we have to completely fulfill the readers’ desires (and, thus, basically, their expectations), while doing it in a way that offers a fresh slant.

  3. To my mind, this post epitomizes why “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter DOES work. The most obvious antagonist in LOTR is Sauron–but as Tolkien makes clear throughout the book, Sauron is ultimately a symptom of something much larger, which we might call greed or lust or loss of faith in the beautiful things of the world. That’s what Frodo and company have to fight at the end: Sauron’s philosophy come home to the one place in Middle-Earth they thought was immune to that philosophy. So in this sense, Tolkien DOES save the biggest, hardest-to-defeat antagonist till the end.

  4. You raise a good point, although I tend to agree with David. However important or thematically relevant the “Scouring” chapter may be, it’s still a bit of anticlimax. Much better if we can pull those emotionally resonant conflicts into the greater overall battle.

  5. Really appreciate your sharing at this time. I’m working through the ending of my current novel. We’ve all seen this progress in the work of others. Good to have it in a nutshell!

  6. Endings are always simultaneously one of the most fun and most challenging parts of a story. Unlike the beginning, where we have to set up all the details, the ending is where we have to tie off all the details. Both are tricky.

  7. Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about this – I try to avoid this, or only refer to this obliquely in my children’s books. However, about to write my first book for grown ups, so this is very helpful.

  8. The simpler your plot, the more likely it will involve only one layer of antagonism.

  9. I confess that I sometimes abuse my readers. I have many twists (though not just for twists’ sake) and approach plot in nonlinear ways. I make readers work hard, not because I’m a sadist, but because I (as a reader) appreciate stories that challenge the conventional ways of storytelling (e.g., exploiting cliches).

    Time will tell whether there are enough other folks out there who appreciate my style to qualify as a “readership.” 🙂

  10. The best (and truly only) type of story any of us should be trying to write is the one we would ultimately want to read. You’re on the right track!

  11. This is a great topic. I have found that sometimes the “antagonist” doesn’t have to be the “bad guy”. In the case of one of my stories, the hero’s boss is good guy, but he acts throughout the entire story as an antagonistic force against the hero. The two work as a team to avert a disaster, destroy the villain, and then secrets are revealed that explain everything to the hero (but the reader is probably not completely surprised at). I like suspenseful plot points where the reader knows what’s happening and the characters are ignorant.

  12. Anonymous says

    What if the antagonist who the hero is emotionally vested in the most (an old friend/lover/something) is a servant of the villain who is causing the problem? Wouldn’t the fight with the friend need to come before the fight with the “end all” villain? I feel like I see this a lot but can’t think of any solid examples at the moment.

  13. My hero has been completely cheated by her antagonist. she believed she was her sister and best friend when in fact the person had altered her memories to control her for her own purposes.

  14. @Jeriann: Absolutely true. We often use “antagonist” and “bad guy” interchangeably. But, in truth, the only qualification for an antagonist is that he stand between the hero and the immediate accomplishment of his goal. As far as it goes, a cute little puppy could qualify for that.

    @Anonymous: First thing that comes to my mind in this instance is Darth Vader and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. Yes, the Emperor is the “ultimate” villain, but both Luke and the viewers are way more invested in Vader. Even though Vader is the Emperor’s minion, he’s still the unquestionable “main” villain throughout the series. George Lucas was able to neatly tie the big explosion of Luke’s battle with the Emperor in with the more emotionally important confrontation with his father.

    @Stephanie: Doesn’t get more personal than that!

  15. I have split POVs so each of my MCs climaxes are different. But my male MC is locked in a final duel with the evil pervert emperor who sold his sister into slavery and is biologically his father (let’s just say it wasn’t his mom’s choice). Meanwhile my female MC has to help rescue a bunch of people who are “frozen” in time before a very dangerous machine explodes, killing all of her friends and her own parents that she has tried to find since the beginning of the book

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