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

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. The Oceans 11 franchise is the exception to this rule. It’s like watching Penn and Teller explain magic tricks – seeing how everything falls together is part of the delight at the end. There are strong hints that they aren’t telling you everything in the way they treat Linus (Matt Damon).

    You are correct, that if this is where the story ends, it leaves the readers disappointed. What needs to happen at the moment of the reveal is that the bad guy needs a strong counter. However, the danger is that this becomes cliche as in the ending to every sci-fi/action/horror thriller ever made in the 90’s. The stock question, “How many scary endings does a movie have?” follows with the stock answer, “Three.” Of course, this leads to the next great Climax Offense – dragging it out too long, but I will leave that for you to cover in another post.

    Well done.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great example. The key to why Ocean works is that viewers *know* there’s a trick. They understand they’re not supposed to be in the know and they accept that. Plus, it works much better in a movie, because we’re not in the protagonist’s head.

      • Even though I too loved Ocean’s Eleven, the false suspense is exactly why Ocean’s Twelve left a bad taste in my mouth. As my brother put it, the characters had on their everything-proof suits. Great reminder, thanks ?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I actually found Ocean’s Twelve uproarious (mostly thanks to Bruce Willis), but I agree: the storytelling left a little bit to be desired.

  2. This makes sense because, as readers, we’re taking the journey of solving a problem with the protagonist, and false suspense makes us feel like the protagonist left us out of the loop. I can’t say that I’ve ever really thought about it before, but I can see why it would be something to avoid.

    I just wrote a short story in which my protagonist is really at the mercy of the situation he finds himself in. He definitely hasn’t had the opportunity to think ahead and make a plan that the reader is unaware of. He’s a father with a devastating addiction who gets to see the effects of his addiction on his daughter’s life fifteen years into the future, and it’s tragic. He has to try to save her, but both his internal and internal antagonistic forces are much stronger than he is.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly. This issue is really all about making sure the reader is able to continue in his relationship of identifying with the hero throughout the most important part of the book.

  3. Absolutely! The tension’s only as good as our character’s understanding of it, and cheating there sabotages the whole scene. There’s a reason so many stories have a supporting character using their brilliant deception without telling the hero (“so you’ll act more convincing, hero”)– that can get old, but at least the story’s built around the hero and the reader having a reason to feel worried.

    What’s your thought on the borderline case, where the hero says “Now here’s the plan,” and then cuts to the action so we know there IS a surprise in the works and the author’s visibly holding back what it’ll be?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s all about the protagonist’s POV. If the protagonist is playing along with the trick *in her head*–and thereby selling it to the readers–that’s almost always bad. But if the protagonist processes and acknowledges the trick as its happening–thereby keeping readers in the loop–that’s rarely going to be problematic.

  4. Joe Long says

    They did that in the series finale of “The Mentalist”, at Jane & Lisbon’s wedding.

  5. Great pointer, I’ve mentioned this kind of thing to a few clients. Anywhere a character goes into a huddle saying “here’s my plan” and excludes the reader I get annoyed. Excusable if they immediately start implementing said plan and we follow along. (barely). Toss the book across the room annoying if it is the big shindig at the end and I’m forced to the outside of the huddle trying to hear the whispers.

    As for making the climax suspenseful. I make it possible that the good guys will lose. Not a faint possibility but a real, ‘this could happen’ possibility. The choice is as evenly balanced as I can manage. The turning point is not a tricky plan, or a magic anything, it is someone’s moment when they decide that they will sacrifice themselves and all their hope for a happy ending to stop the evil from winning. It isn’t always the hero, sometimes it’s a sidekick, in one of my books, it is one of the villain’s henchmen.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t have a problem with stories that avoid telling the readers the plan, but instead show its execution. This is a great way to avoid unnecessary repetition. Really, it’s only useful for readers to know the plan if the plan ends up going astray in some way (which is always awesome anyway). But when the plan hinges upon trickery that the protagonist knows about, we definitely don’t want to ally the readers with the antagonists by tricking them as well.

      • In the famous words of Hannibal Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Doubly ironic because: A. It never does and B. Things work out anyway. The only reason to see the details of the plan is to show how nothing ever works as planned. If it did, where would be the suspense and adventure? Reference: Every Indiana Jones movie made. Plans that work are boring.

  6. This is such a foolish thing to do… especially if you have already dug into the protagonists POV. It doesnt make sense that he would hide certain important thoughts from the reader. Thank you for thr post. I have almost done something similiar near the end. So I had to resprinkle clues in the edit. It happened because I was not going too deep into the POV of the character, but the fact is I did. So I had to mention thoughts she had pertraining to her plan. Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve been guilty of this one, to one extent or another, in my own writings. It sneaks up on sometimes. Thank heavens for good beta readers who point it out to us!

    • My editor hit me with this hard. I’m learning. =) The trick is to LIVE deep in my protagonist’s POV, so that the reader IS my protagonist – thoughts, actions, words, and all…

      There might be some exceptions, but, for the stories I’m concern with writing right now, I want my reader to know everything my protagonist knows while I’m writing in his POV.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Very smart approach. There definitely exceptions, but they’re few and far between and very specific to a type of effect.

  7. thomas h cullen says

    The language. Speaking from Croyan’s POV, the reality of The Representative gets uplifted to the highest possible tier..

    With the support of language, the story’s weight gets communicated – hence, adding suspense.

  8. I agree with this, BUT. I think it’s not always true.

    For instance, I read this trilogy a few months back, a YA fantasy action/adventure type of story. It’s called the Ascendance trilogy, and it’s by Jennifer A. Nielsen. In every book, the protagonist does set up his elaborate plan without letting the reader know what he’s doing. The suspense builds up and builds up and builds up until the last minute when you suddenly realize that he although he certainly wasn’t the one BEHIND everything bad happening, he’s still going to come out on top because he’s still holding back one very crucial card.

    This trilogy is what I’d consider an example of raising the suspense, and then blowing it all away to reveal that a lot of the tension readers were feeling wasn’t neccessary. This isn’t quite as extreme an example as K.M.Weiland uses in her post here, but I feel like this kind of story can get place with other stories that do make the mistake of using false suspense. And the Ascendance Trilogy is a story I find to walk the line of using false suspense, but always stay just on the outside of it. The effect was very dramatic. It turned out to be a suspenseful trilogy with a thrilling storyline and plot — and didn’t disappoint at the climax.

    Other than my BUT, though, I do agree with this post. Weiland is pretty much always right, I just wanted to point out this series that I felt was an exception.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very good point. There are *always* exceptions. When the whole point of the story *is* this sort of trick, it can work out. But you’re absolutely right that it’s a fine line.

      • It seems that in the case of The Ascendance, false suspense works throughout the trilogy because it was established as a pattern early in the series. Once a hero, sidekick or other regular character does something like this, the reader knows automatically to expect it later. So readers of the series are–in effect–aware that something is being planned and that they’ll learn what it is later.

  9. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Might have been better phrased “only pretending in order to to foll the bad guys.”

  10. Okay, so what about….in one of my novellas they talk about the plan but they don’t tell the reader about the plan until it unfolds naturally. The reader knows something’s going to happen and they know the one bad guy is betraying the head bad woman. The POV characters are there and I’m trying to keep it in pretty deep POV. The emotions about the plan are there just not the details. I wanted to let the reader “see” what was happening.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as the protagonist isn’t *lying* to the readers (explicitly or implicitly) by faking them out and making them think one thing is happening when really it’s not, you’re fine.

  11. Very good food for thought. You’ve got me thinking about one of my old favorite classic movies, “The Sting.” The climax works because we don’t know the plan until the antagonist has been tricked and is out of the way. Now I have to analyze how they made that work so brilliantly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      True! This is a great exception to the rule. But it’s worth noting that this twist would likely *not* have worked so well in a book, in which we would have been in the protagonists’ heads all the way through.

      • You bring up a great point. I remember that there was a novelized version of the movie, which I owned at one point. It would be interesting to see how they wrote it. I might just go look that one up. Thanks for giving me something to ponder!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          In my (limited) experience with novelizations, they’re almost always sub-par, both as adaptations and as storytelling examples in themselves. But I agree – it would be interesting see how the author handled it!

  12. In my novel my FMC (and my main POV) fully believes the plan my MMC formed is true. It is only after they are captured that the MMC lets her in on the secret that it was part of his plan and the friends that betrayed them were actually following his orders. He did not inform her because the capture had to be believable. They had to be believable captured to get inside the prison where some people they were trying to rescue were. Since this only makes up the beginning of my climax and my main POV is tricked as well, maybe I’m okay with tricking the reader?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as you’re not lying to readers while in the male’s POV, you’re fine. It’s absolutely okay to fool readers as long as the POV character has been fooled too.

  13. Joe Long says

    Where this DIDN’T happen was in the season 2 finale of “The Blacklist” last week. FBI agent Lizzie Keen and her boss confront the corrupt Attorney General, who’s secretly a member of ‘the cabal.’

    The A.G. spills the beans while boasting “I have dirt on all of you, you can’t touch me!” (paraphrasing). Many shows have been lazy and had Lizzie say “I have it all on tape!” Instead, she pulled got out her gun and pointed it at the A.G.

    Her boss pleads, “Please, please, don’t do this. You’ll be as bad as him! You have to work within the system!”

    BOOM. BOOM.

    Now the whole premise of the show is rebooted as they head for the 3rd season, Lizzie on the run from her former colleagues at the FBI.

  14. I’m in two minds about this. There are obvious movie references – Ocean’s Eleven, The Sixth Sense – where this isn’t the case. I take your point about the audience knowing we’re in on the trick, but we didn’t necessarily, the first time we saw Ocean’s, or going in to the first M Knight movie.

    It also comes up in the latest Dresden Files book, where there’s a twist at the end and you think, “What??? How did I miss that?” and then going back and re-reading (like we all did with The Sixth Sense when we first got it home) it was very carefully done so Butcher didn’t actually lie to the reader, he just didn’t share everything (which is ok). Very clever when you consider Dresden is written in first-person.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would argue that Sixth Sense isn’t actually an example of false suspense. Viewers are in exactly the same boat as the protagonist throughout: neither know he’s dead. If *he* had known he was dead and kept that from viewers, then it would been a fake out.

  15. I think what made The Sting work well was that the audience was in on the main con the whole way through all the way to the end. And the threat was a very real and honest one. The con that fooled the audience was mostly a minor secondary con that only really reached a heightened level at the very end – at which point the truth was revealed quickly, before the audience had time to get angry.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great point. Really, this movie *never* lies to viewers. It tells them there’s going to be a con to get the bad guy, then just lets it play out. It’s only the explicit details in the final *moment* of the con that *seems* to be a lie. But it’s really not. We fool ourselves. The characters never do anything in the ending that they haven’t essentially told us they were going to do all though the story. Brilliant.

  16. I have to disagree with this post. In the wrong hands this method may blow up, but in the right hands you get Leverage (the best show on earth), The Thief by Megan Turner, The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen, etc. These are some of my FAVORITE books/show. I can understand how if written wrong it can lead to false tension, but written right the Controlled Situation/Unreliable Narrator is the best thing since nutella. You need a large payoff, but as long as you have that, it works. I hope this does not come off as too strong, I just had to point out that it CAN work under the right circumstances.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Unreliable narrators are often (although definitely not always) a suitable exception to this rule. It’s all about maintaining the environment we’ve created for the readers throughout the story. If the protag has been straight-up with readers throughout the book, that honesty needs to be maintained on through the climax.

  17. Man, this is every Scarlet Pimpernel book I’ve ever read. Granted, I still enjoy them, but they start to lose their suspense after a while………..

  18. I have seen this SO many times! It’s kind of strange, especially for 1st person pov, because you’re supposed to be in the MC’s head. The MC wouldn’t hide the plan from himself!

  19. YoungAuthor says

    Awesome post! False suspense is exactly what ticked me off in Book 3 of the Maximum Ride Series by James Patterson. You thought the protagonist was being betrayed, but it all turned out to be part of her master plan. And the story was filled with so many other random things and instances of false suspense that served no purpose, so I just dropped the series.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Readers love smart protagonists, but they aren’t usually so in love with the idea that the author has to show off the protagonist’s smarts by fooling the readers. Nobody likes to be duped for no good reason.

  20. The only way I could see this working would be if the protagonist actually doubts that the plan will work at some point (e.g. the sidekick is lying so believably, it’s hard to stick to the plan).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Which would actually be a really fun twist on this! But the readers would have to go into the scene know just as much as the protagonist.

  21. In principle I totally agree with this. You can’t have your POV character hide something from the reader – unless you’ve previously established their untrustworthyness, and even then I don’t think t’s ideal.

    But I think an eception in practice to this rule would be if your POV character and your hero are NOT the same person. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a good example. Holmes is the chief protagoniost – Watson is the POV character. Watson always tells the reader everything he knows, butHolmes frequently does not tell Watson what’s really going on. So DOyle can very easily make both the reader and his POV character completely decieved about what’s really going on, without contriving or breaking character. And it really works.

    • I was going to point out Poirot and Hastings from Agatha Christie, as well. Hastings is the narrator, Poirot is the lead and is always springing a last minute surprise.

      That’s not bad and it’s not false suspense, because it’s expected. From my point of view as a reader, it prompts me to dig more deeply into the story. After all, I saw everything Poirot saw; why can’t I figure it out?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Excellent point. This aspect of false suspense is all about POV. If the POV character isn’t in the loop, then the reader doesn’t need to be in the loop either—even if other characters are.

  22. At first in perusing this article, I was like “Wait a minute! False suspense can be really cool! There was one story I read where-” Then I realized you were really talking about false suspense in the climax, and that you were right. I can think of a good example of false suspense that was very good, but it wasn’t in the climax. A lot of false suspense for the climax of a story would be rather disappointing. A little is good I think though, like in a Sherlock Holmes mystery, when it looks like a bad guy got away, and then Sherlock tells Watson that he had some police posted at that back entrance so he didn’t get away after all…of course, that is usually just a part of the climax. I suppose the real climax of the mystery is the confrontation of the bad guy, and not his get away. So, yeah, you’re probably right.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It really depends on the story. Black Prism, one of my favorite fantasies centers around the protagonist’s secret identity—which readers don’t learn about until maybe halfway through the first book. But the protagonist’s keeping that secret from readers for that long works because he’s so deeply integrated into the false identity that he almost believes it himself.

  23. The exceptions are heist stories. Oceans Eleven, The Sting, and The Italian Job break this rule because it’s necessary to the function of their story–just like murder mystery books don’t require a charachter arch for a detective protagonist. Heist novels rely on the fact that a plan goes wrong when it was really part of the plan all the long. Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal used this method purposefully because it was a heist story. She studied heist novels and talked about her research on the podcast, Writing Excuses. But yes, using this method in any other story type would be breaking the rule and upset readers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s worth noting that Oceans Eleven, The Sting, and The Italian Job are all movies. Since the viewers aren’t in the protagonist’s head, there’s already enough distance there for this kind of switcheroo to work. However, your point is still valid. Even in movies, tricking the viewers isn’t usually a good choice—except in genres where it’s an established and accepted convention.

  24. 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.

  25. 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!

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. John Bryan says

    The only example of this that I can think of and that it works is from a tv show. Chosen the final episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Buffy is about to explain her master plan to defeat the bad guy to her group and the scene cuts away to two other characters vaguely discussing it and whether or not it could work.

    Yet at that point the viewer is still in the dark.

    Then just as they are about to enact her plan it flashes back to Buffys speech where she fills them in. Now you know what the secret plan is moments before you’re about to watch it kick in.

    It’s not really a twist, and I wouldn’t say it was fooling the audience, but it is a moment where the audience is being deliberately kept in the dark while all the characters know what is going on.

    I think that kind of thing could be done in a book just as easily as like you say you’re not in the protagonists head without insulting the intelligence of the reader or leaving them feeling cheated.

  29. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Haven’t seen that episode, but it sounds totally legit. It’s a device, but it doesn’t keep the reader in the dark when the bullets (wooden stakes?) start flying.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Award: “If You Don’t Fix This Mistake in Your Story’s Climax, You’ll Hate Yourself Later&#… – Here’s a cheap climax gimmick to avoid, courtesy of KM […]

  2. […] Great author tips on how to deliver real suspense in your story’s climax from K.M. Weiland. […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.