Books with a Bang: Troy Denning on Writing the Ultimate Climax
A great book with a bad climax is like a joke with no punch line: it leaves readers with a bad taste in their mouths and a reluctance to indulge you further. An average book with a fantastic climax, on the other hand, can turn even the most reluctant readers into die-hard fans.
Such is the power of the climax: they make or break books. They are, in some ways, the whole point of the book, as every torment you put your hero through, every obstacle they have overcome, every creative horror they’ve faced, leads up to that singular point. And the fulfillment of all that ink, sweat, and tears is left dependent on just one thing: your climax.
For such an important part of a story, I can think of no one more qualified to speak to it than New York Times best-selling author Troy Denning. Best known as the author of countless Star Wars books, such as the acclaimed Star by Star and Invincible--which in itself is the epic climax of a series--Troy Denning has written in such dark and imaginative worlds as Dark Sun, Planescape, and the Forgotten Realms. His mastery of tension and emotion has kept readers up late into the night for more than twenty years, and there’s a reason for such fierce loyalty: his writing is complex, suspenseful, and builds to a perfect climax, time after time.
1. What are the goals of a climactic scene, and what makes for a memorable climax?
The way to build a powerful literary climax is to build suspense. Suspense creates tension; the release of tension creates pleasure. That’s the key to memorable climaxes--and to holding reader interest.
That being said, I don’t think of climaxes as single scenes, but as major building blocks in a story’s structure. Climaxes are the high points in the story, where the protagonist’s efforts to solve his problem reach a crescendo, and where he learns something from his efforts that will change his approach to solving the problem the next time.
2. How do you figure out where the climactic scene of a book should be?
Critics--especially critics of classic drama--like to talk about the climax in a story, as though there’s only one. But that’s not the way modern popular fiction is structured. Usually, there’s a series of climaxes, each one teaching the hero something new about his problem--and introducing a new complication. The frequency of these climaxes varies with the type of fiction a person is writing. Sometimes, it seems like popular thriller authors such as Lee Child and Vince Flynn have a climax in every other chapter. Their stories pull you through the book by putting the hero on an obstacle course, where he runs from problem to problem, solving each one quickly, only to discover an even bigger problem lurking around the next bend.
I usually think of my stories as having three climaxes, one somewhere around the first third, one around the second third, and the final, ultimate climax near the end. That structure works well for a lot of different genres, but it works especially well for fantasy and science fiction. It gives you enough time to explore and develop the world, the characters, and the story-problem without rushing things. But it also keeps the story moving forward at a brisk pace.
A literary story--or any story exploring a character in intense detail--might have only one climax, located somewhere near the middle. It can spend just as much time exploring how the climax changed the character as it did the reasons the character had a problem in the first place.
3. How do you create the suspense and tension necessary for a compelling climax?
To create suspense, I like to envision a story as a series of nested questions. The big question, of course, is the story problem. For example, can a humble farmhand named Westley ever marry his beloved Buttercup, who just happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world? (That’s from one of my favorite books, The Princess Bride.) The story begins when that question is raised in the reader’s mind. If you keep the question alive in the reader’s mind, it’s going to pull him through the book until it’s answered. And it’s the answering of that question that creates the final climax.
Going back to The Princess Bride, the story climax occurs when the evil Prince Humperdinck manipulates Buttercup into marrying him, and when Westley returns from the dead to prevent Humperdinck from killing Buttercup on her wedding night.
But no question is powerful enough to keep a reader engaged by being asked over and over again for four hundred pages--and a story that runs straight from beginning to end with no high or low points usually isn’t very compelling. So it’s helpful to divide the story into stages, and to have the hero attempting to achieve intermediate goals in each section. Each time the hero is presented with a new intermediate goal, a new intermediate question is raised. (The question, obviously, is whether s/he will achieve the goal). The resolution of each intermediate question creates an intermediate climax.
Going back to The Princess Bride, when Westley leaves the farm to seek his fortune so that he and Buttercup can marry, the question quickly becomes will Westley return before Buttercup marries someone else? All manner of complications are introduced, including the fact that Buttercup thinks Westley is dead, that Prince Humperdinck wants to marry her, and that she is kidnapped as part of a political intrigue. The part one climax comes when Westley, disguised as the dread pirate Roberts, rescues Buttercup from her kidnappers.
Now, one of the requirements of a climax is that the hero learns something that will change his approach to solving the big story question. In the case of Westley and Buttercup, this new knowledge is Buttercup’s discovery that Westley survived and assumed the identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts. So, all she has to do is marry the now-wealthy Westley and live happily ever after, right?
Of course not. To keep a story interesting and build the suspense even more, preliminary climaxes usually introduce a complication. And that complication makes achieving the final goal even more unlikely and difficult.
In The Princess Bride, the complication takes the form of the prince’s “rescue party,” which pursues and eventually captures the would-be newlyweds. After a long chase, the part two climax comes with Westley’s capture--and with the deal that Buttercup makes to save his life: she’ll marry Humperdinck, if he agrees to let Westley live. What she learns is that the prince is a truly evil and selfish man who would rather kill the most beautiful woman in the world than let her marry someone else. The complication, of course, is that the prince reneges on his deal and has Westley secretly tortured to death.
Which leads to the final climax, when Westley defies death and interrupts the wedding.
4. How does the final climax differ from other climaxes in the book?
The final climax is both more important and more intense than the preliminary climaxes, and it involves a lot of requirements:
- It must wrap up all of the plot lines. (I read a couple of novels recently that left threads dangling, and they were very unsatisfying.) Preferably, the final climax does this all at once. But if it can’t be done at once, it’s better to wrap up major subplots before wrapping up the primary plot line, because you want to keep suspense levels at maximum as you go in. Minor subplots can wait until the denouement.
- The final climax needs to rise out of action that has already occurred. This is no time to be introducing new villains or heroes; all of the pieces should have been on the board by now, and their collision should be the result of well-established story vectors.
- It needs to show how the hero benefitted from what he learned during the preliminary climaxes. This is part of the character arc, and it’s what makes the reader feel that the hero’s struggles were worthwhile--because he emerged from the ordeal wiser and stronger.
- It needs to show that the character has changed because of his struggles.
Notice that after each preliminary climax, the stakes rise. At first, the risk is that Buttercup will marry someone other than Westley. By the second climax, it’s Westley and Buttercup’s lives at stake. By the final climax, it’s the kingdom itself, since it turns out that the prince is planning to use Buttercup’s death on her wedding night to start a war. This is how you create the “rising action” that everyone talks about--and that too few writers do well. Bigger explosions don’t make better climaxes. A small fight, even a simple argument, can make a wonderful climax--if the stakes have been raised high enough.
After the final climax, instead of a complication, we go into denouement. This just shows how the hero’s world has changed as a result of his efforts.
5. Are there different kinds of climaxes?
Sure. Some of the different types of climax are: clash/conflict, epiphany, anticlimax, negative climax (when character fails a test of courage/wisdom/etc.--this usually occurs in a preliminary climax, so that the hero can learn from his mistake later in the story). I suppose you could add tragedy and comedy as different kinds of climaxes--though I don’t like to use the term “comedy,” since most people tend to think of slapstick rather than the original, classic meaning. So, let’s say “positive” instead.
Tragedy is where the hero ends the story in a worse condition than at the beginning. Positive is where the hero ends in a better condition. A positive ending--which the majority of endings in popular fiction are--doesn’t necessarily mean “happy.” It just means that something good as arisen from hero’s efforts, and that he should be rewarded.
6. Any advice on writing climaxes for aspiring writers out there?
The most important thing about writing a climax--especially a final climax--is do not rush. Writing a novel is a grueling endurance test. It’s running a marathon, then discovering somewhere around mile 20 that you signed up for the iron-man. The finish line just keeps moving farther away. So, when a writer starts that final climax, there’s a great temptation to rush and push through, to take shortcuts and just finish the damn book.
Don’t. This is exactly when a you need to slow down and think things through, to take a long hard look at whether you’re getting everything out of your climax that you should be. Because it’s not just your hero’s future that depends on what happens here--it’s yours.
The final climax of a book is your last chance to sell readers on your next book. If it’s weak or confusing, if it leaves important questions unanswered or summarizes action that should be shown in vibrant detail, readers are going to close the book unsatisfied. They’re going to feel like you broke a promise, and when the time comes to decide whether to buy your next book, they’re going to remember feeling cheated at the end of the last one. So, take your time and get it right. It’s the only way to go from being a published author to a successful one.
* * *
Troy Denning is the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Tatooine Ghost and Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Star by Star, as well as Waterdeep, Pages of Pain, Beyond the High Road, The Summoning, and many other novels. His most recent Star Wars novel is Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Vortex. A former game designer and editor, he lives in western Wisconsin with his wife, Andria.