If You Don’t Fix This Mistake in Your Story's Climax, You’ll Hate Yourself Later

If You Don’t Fix This Mistake in Your Story’s Climax, You’ll Hate Yourself Later

The Climax has got to be the best part of your story, right? It’s the maraschino cherry on top of the sundae (that is, of course, if you’re the kind who saves the cherry to eat last). Anyway—the point is you want your story’s Climax to be gripping. You want it to be suspenseful. You want readers to be chewing their hangnails to the quick as they wonder how the protagonist is possibly going to get out of this last fix.

Amidst all these desires you have for your story’s Climax, it’s way yonder too easy to fall into what is, in my opinion, a pretty egregious pitfall.

Generally speaking, this is the pitfall of false suspense. More specifically, this pitfall takes the form of a plot development that we see shockingly often in books and movies—particularly action or, ironically, suspense stories.

What happens is this: your readers are reading along as your characters enter the final conflict, armed to the teeth, ready to employ a last-ditch plan.

Suddenly!

Bad guys attack!

The heroes are captured!

There’s no escape!

Until… turns out this horrible turn of events is actually part of the protagonist’s plan, and he’s got it all under control.

The big problem here is that the readers weren’t in the loop, because up to this point, they had no idea what your protagonist was planning.

I ran across this recently in a sci-fi book that had the protagonist’s sidekick apparently betraying her in the Climax, until it was then revealed the sidekick was only pretending to fool the bad guys, and the protagonist actually set the whole thing up. All that tension readers were feeling when they thought everything was going against the protagonist—pfft!—deflates like a popped balloon.

That is not suspense. That is false suspense. It’s fine to trick the bad guys. It’s not fine to trick the readers—because not only is it likely to tick them off, more than little a bit, it also saps your story’s Climax of the true suspense necessary to deliver those final crucial moments in your story’s conflict.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How are you delivering real suspense in your story’s climax? Tell me in the comments!

If You Don’t Fix This Mistake in Your Story's Climax, You’ll Hate Yourself Later

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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. Is this false suspense? My book has an ensemble cast of five characters on a team. One of my protag’s closest friends betrays him (just him not the whole team) to the enemy. Protag gets captured and all seems lost. But then later close-friend-who-betrayed-protag helps him escape and fights the bad guys from the inside while the rest of the team fights from the outside.

    The thing is to the betrayer it was all part of the plan. To the rest of the team and the protag, it wasn’t part of the plan. Is this false suspense?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nope, not false suspense – unless readers are in the betrayer’s POV. As long as the POV characters aren’t in the loop, readers shouldn’t be either.

  2. A climax is where your story start to make your reader get more interested. So if you have a bad climax, you better get it fix it very well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Truth! Although since the Climax is at the end of the book, we better hope they’re interested long before that too!

  3. Aaron Lambert says

    This sounds similar to the ol’ bait n switch that Loki pulls on Thor in The Dark World. We think he’s double crossed his brother and killed him when actually it was only an illusion to trick the baddies. While not exactly the climax, it was a crucial point in the story. Do you think this was still an acceptable turn of events or did you find it disappointing? I think I liked it because it was in keeping with Loki’s character: deceptive but someone whom you still have sympathy for and hope he will do what is right in the end.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, Iggg-zactly! This scene worked better in the movie than it would have in a book, but it is still a perfect example of what I’m talking about in this post. The much better executed bait and switch in this movie was the ending where Loki masquerades as Odin, unbeknownst to Thor. Because the audience is on the same page as Thor (neither of us knew Odin was really Loki), it never felt like the storyteller was trying to pull the wool over our eyes. That scene let the viewer relate to the protagonist, while the earlier scene forced us unknowingly into the mindset of the antagonist.

  4. I remember same thing happening in Thor 2, and to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. :/
    The most interesting thing in climax is protagonist rising from defeat and actually turning tides towards his way. That can’t happen if he isn’t defeated to begin with.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m guessing you’re referring to the trick when Loki pretends to chop off Thor’s arm and it turns out to be an illusion? That’s definitely problematic as well, since it’s removing the viewer from his ability to relate with and identify with the hero (and would be even more problematic in written fiction with a tight POV).

      • Exactly. Here we are, anticipating all kinds of heroic ways the protagonist will use to rise from this hell, and suddenly it turns out that wasn’t a hell to begin with.

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