Don’t Let This Sloppy Technique Kill the Tension in Your Story’s Climax

Don’t Let This Sloppy Technique Kill the Tension in Your Story’s Climax

This week’s video points out one of the most egregious mistakes you can make in your story’s climax and how to make sure readers never look away from your exciting finale.

Video Transcript:

Imagine this: you’ve created an amazing story, full of amazing characters, who are clashing in an epic conflict. Your story’s climax has arrived, and, baby, it is tense. You’ve got readers on the edge of their seats. They’re turning those pages so fast they’re getting paper cuts. In other words, you’re doing everything right. But then—you do something wrong. You cut to a commercial break. “Don’t you dare touch that dial, folks! We’ll be right back with more exciting mayhem!”

Can you hear it?

Pssssssssssst.

That’s your story’s tension and your readers’ excitement deflating like a popped balloon.

Hunchback of Notre Dame Book Cover by Victor HugoThere’s an especially egregious example of this in the finale of Victor Hugo’s generally wonderful classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He’s got his story’s climax cranked into high gear as the gypsies attempt to free La Esmeralda by launching a massive attack on the cathedral, which is then admirably defended by Quasimodo and his molten lead. It’s exciting, it’s tense, it’s right out of a blockbuster movie.

And then—psssssssst—Hugo cuts to the entirely low-key financial discussion and hypochondriacal worryings of the king, who to top things off has been an almost nonexistent player in the story up to this point. Even worse, this turns out to be one of the longest chapters in the book.

Tension and excitement are always high commodities in a story, but especially in your story’s climax. This is show-me-the-money time. If you can’t deliver solid tension here, then you gotta wonder where it is working. Once you cruise into the do-or-die mayhem of your climax, don’t cut away from it for anything.

If you’ve got unfinished business, you’ve got three choices:

1. Wait until the resolution to take care of it.

2. Tie off the loose ends before the climax starts.

3. Rework this unfinished business so that it’s actually exciting enough to belong in the climax without demolishing your story’s tension or your readers’ interest.

Tell me your opinion: How are you keeping the tension high in your story’s climax?

Don’t Let This Sloppy Technique Kill the Tension in Your Story’s Climax

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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. Sheryl Dunn says

    In a way, I think this post relates to an earlier post about scene breaks.

    If you get in the habit of breaking a scene in the middle, i.e., at the end of a chapter, just so the reader will turn the page, you might find yourself in the trap of breaking what should be a single scene into two, and then “interrupting” the scene with something unrelated (e.g., those dangerous flashbacks.)

    I’ve seen this a lot in manuscripts, and perhaps I notice it (and want to scream!) because I’ve been there and done that (but I don’t do it now.)

    Another great post, K.M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true: avoid the gimmicks. Nothing wrong with breaking a scene if the pacing demands it – but *don’t* stick a boring scene in between!

  2. I’m glad that I never read the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” if that is what happens. I’ll stick to the films. Actually, I think I got this one right with my second book. Feedback has said that I do a great job creating the tension to the climax and leads very nicely to its brutal resolution.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The book is actually better than any of the films I’ve seen. Just be sure you skip that one chapter!

  3. And yet, The Hunchback is a classic. Does that mean at some point in time this was an acceptable style of writing or was Hugo a rebel before his time? Or does this simply clash with the way things are done today and/or the expectations of today’s readers? The minute a new rule/suggestion is established, someone comes along, breaks it, is lauded as brilliant, and we all wish we had done it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hunchback is really a pretty uneven book, but I think it maintains classic status because where it’s good, it’s very good.

  4. Do you think it’s okay to follow the climax with an epilog to tie up loose ends? Tying them up before the climax might slow down the pace of the race…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We definitely want to close with a resolution to tie off any remaining small loose ends. But I’m not a big fan of epilogues that expound too *much* after after the story proper has ended.

  5. Can anyone say Atlas Shrugged? Someday I’m going to take a poll and see how many people will admit to skimming the 70 page John Galt speech near the end of the speech. I think I lasted 5 pages.

    Good point, though. I guess I’m fortunate in that I tend to rip through that ending and don’t even think about loose threads. Probably a solid case for fast-drafting (with a decent outline).

    Thanks, Katie. Great tips as always. And I’m buying your plot book and workbook for my daughter for Christmas. You’re a much better teacher than I am.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Ron! I hope she enjoys it. As for Atlas Shrugged, I’ve yet to read it, but that doesn’t sound very encouraging. :p

  6. I think this ‘killing the tension’ technique is most commonly used in television. I see it happening frequently in popular shows like True Blood, American Horror Story and especially Heroes. Perhaps it’s okay to do in television, but when it comes to books, like movies, there are no commercial breaks. R.L. Stine, author of the ‘Fear Street’ and ‘Goosebumps’ series likes to end a chapter right at the climax of each scene. As a child, I loved it. Now as an adult, I feel it’s a gimmick.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The key question is always: Is there a suitable payoff? You know a cliffhanger is a bad idea if the reader turns the page and discovers the cliff was all an illusion in the protagonist’s brain to start with.

  7. thomas h cullen says

    This is where I’d make the claim for The Representative’s highly visual form best paying off.

    Everything counts, down literally to the single word. Everything seen by the reader’s eye, whether it’s the word, the “italicised” word (the right one!), the trail coming either before or after the word – the size of gap, between the one trail and its successor:

    I went to some absolute painstaking lengths, making sure to get the climax’s rhythm and momentum right.

    Krenok, Stegna, and then Mariel – I won’t spoil the actual context of each, but that’s the order. (And the one to fit Croyan’s character.)

  8. Katie, you reminded me to re-watch the classic 1939 film version with the great Charles Laughton as Quasimodo, and the wonderful early film score by Alfred Newman.

  9. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch does this too. A character gets dumped in a barrel of horse urine and tossed over a waterfall, and the next chapter flashes back to the past, the next chapter deals with a countess, the next chapter is another flashback…. I mean, seriously? I was SO annoyed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, pooey. I’m sorry to hear that. I have that book on my shelf and have been looking forward to it.

  10. June Sullivan says

    One of my favorite writers, Somerset Maugham, never does this. I think I’ve read all his books, and loved every one because of his straight forward telling, as well as elegant prose. There’s often surprises, mice with tension, in his endings, providing a great pay off…and these are always in keeping with plot and character.

    I never read Hunchback of Notre Dame and now I’m glad I didn’t. I hate distractions to a good story. That said, I have the hardest time keeping myself from wandering off a little here and there in my own writing. That’s why your posts, including comments, are SO valuable! It’s one thing to know what’s good, and it’s another thing to do it yourself, yes?

  11. Another solid post, K.M

    I feel this way even when the antagonist gives off some windbag monologue before the climax, as well. I guess there’s ways to do it without disrupting tension, but more often than not… pssssssst…..

  12. The exact thing I am currently struggling with. My story’s climax lack something worthwhile. Although the story is exciting to this point, (I am following your advice and judging the story based on what I feel).
    But the issue here is, my current novel is start of a series. And, currently, I think I was just too much focused on making ways for the story to proceed, instead of doing something in this part itself.
    But the good news is, I have finally finished my very first, first draft. Now I think I will have to make things more worse during the rewrites. So that, I get a good climax.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, one of the trickier aspects of writing a series is not focusing too much on the endgame. If the series is going to work, then each book (and especially the first one) has to be awesome in its own right first

  13. I read a trilogy recently, each book was around 300 pages long. All three books were leading up to a single climax. The story was very interesting and held my attention but in the end the final climax only lasted 2 pages and was very short not only on detail but on action. I have to admit to being very disappointed.

  14. Is it okay to have two main characters telling the story? I am working on my first novel and I know for some people it seems easier to just have 1 main character with their 1st person perspective but I don’t feel so happy to have the second main character be a supporting character. I love them equally and wish I could tell both sides of their story. Is it possible to do this? I know a book I read when I was younger called “Flipped” and throughout the story the perspective switched between these two main characters. I would really like to know. My english isn’t good but these characters have been in head for years. I’m currently studying English and want to become a novelist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, definitely. Many books (especially in the romance gene) utilize more than one POV.

      • Oh dear, I’ve broken that rule.

        I had a chapter that was a fight scene involving My MC and two of her allies being attacked, the chapter ended with her seeing them killed before she is also killed.

        My hope that anyonewho reads it would figure out I’m not going to have killed three important characters especially my main one in chapter seven.

        That way when they read chapter eight they will guess or know from some of the dialogue in the previous chapter what happened and be looking for the fall out as she realizes what she thought and felt was real wasn’t and has a few words and punches to throw at the person who put the false memory in her head to distract her while he did something fairly hideous that she opposed.

        • Sorry didn’t mean to post that comment in this section, so is there anyway you can delete it.

          Actually I didn’t even mean to post it on this site. I know it’s terrible, but I’ve been using other writing advice websites behind your back, they were talking about the act of a cheating cliffhanger that you undo cheaply at the beginning of the next.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Hah. I was wondering there for a minute how your comment applied. :p But, actually, I think the example you provide totally works. As long as there’s a reason for the fakeout, as long as the protagonist is also along for the ride, and as long as there are consequences within the plot–that’s what really matters.

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