The climax

So. The Climax. The decisive moment – the event, the emotion that you’ve spent the whole novel waiting for, writing for. The bit where the tension you’ve been ratcheting up for the last hundred pages finally explodes as the brakes fail and the momentum splinters like an industrial accident.

Modern novels are all about tension. Climaxes are the ultimate release of that tension. The climax of the stereotypical detective story is in the reveal of the killer (‘I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here…’) – although these days there’s usually a chase and a fight just after the reveal for one last stroke of adrenaline and power.

This tension is why I like quick jump-cut scenes in the final stages: two things happening simultaneously. Build up the action in one, bring us to a high-point – and then cut to the other characters before the action is resolved. Build this new scene up – and then jump back. Never let the reader relax. Keep the buggers on tenterhooks.

What matters is less the logic of the situation, less the blood and the smug satisfaction of having got one over on your readers: it’s about the emotions you create. Violence without an emotional punch is just sadism. It’s the completion of the hero’s journey, their final step to independence. It’s about making that definitive decision that allows them to grow, to be free. A final realisation. A psychic blow to the gut that leaves the reader breathless, drained and – yes – satisfied.

This is why I always like to sacrifice an ally in the climax – someone the audience (and author) has grown to care about. To show them this is real, it has consequences, that winning hurts.

It’s also why pacing is so important in the world of the novel. You need your lull before the resolution. You need your moments of fear and anxiety and introspection so that when you come to the crunch you can accelerate from thereon in. Shorten your sentences. Forget the prose. Forget description. Feel the punches; mix it with long run-on sections to bring out and the breathlessness and the panic and chaos (for speed is inherently chaotic) and punctuation is optional for this is your oh my god this hurts this hurts moment.

The antagonist – usually an external force, but not always – may be defeated. They may not. But even defeat must give a sense that the (surviving) characters have learnt and grown. Otherwise you’re writing a very bleak piece indeed.

Of course, that might be the point. But it’s always nice to have hope.

And, after the climax is complete, it’s time for the denouement where we sift through the wreckage in search of unanswered questions. But more on that later.

For now – happy writing, folks.

Loud QUIET loud

I’ve hit a high-point in my work-in-progress. A fight-scene, a climax (although not the climax). But I’m not going to talk about that today. Climaxes run on breathless instinct. It’s the bits in between that take the thought, the effort – and that ultimately decide whether a novel works.

People need to be able to breathe. No successful novel runs from action to action without the occasional pause for reflection; even non-stop thrillers take time for the odd cup of tea, often sprinkled with cake and light exposition. These are the bits where the story happens; as well as moving the plot they also deepen the reader’s knowledge of the characters and builds a bond between them. Sure, the reader may enjoy the exploits of your gun-totin’, wise-crackin’ bad-ass superspy. But she’ll be just another disposable hero unless you show her in the aftermath of an exploit – we need to share her fears, joys and depths if we’re gonna care if she lives or dies.

But quiet scenes are hard. It’s hard to know how much to give away, how long to wallow in remorse or mindless chatter or in her strange fascination with morris-dancing. Even scenes where people are just talking need to have a point. They need to deliver, they need to move the plot along: action scenes are a release of tension; the quiet ones are about slowly cranking the handle, about tightening the noose.

They’re hard, yes, but I also really enjoy writing them. They’re a challenge. They give a novel its shape and rhythm, keep coherence amidst all the noise and chaos. They’re what a novel is. For every high must come a low. Every held breath must be exhaled. Roller-coasters go up as well as down.

But writing manuals always seems to focus on the big moments: climax, mid-novel crisis, inciting incident, defeating the gatekeeper – whatever the author chooses to call them. All the literature is about where they go and their significance to the Story. They all seem to overlook the bits that glue everything together and give the big moments their weight.

I love writing action, probably because I spent my teenage years soaking up the thrills of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. It’s the bits In Between that I find difficult.

But maybe they’re not so different after all, the quiet scenes and the loud. After all, both are all about knowing your characters, knowing precisely why you’re writing a particular scene – what is the point of showing it in your novel? Both are about moving story forwards: it’s only in the way those things are depicted that differs.

Tension. It’s all about tension. Whatever genre you’re writing, the quiet scenes are where you crank the handle, where you stretch the reader on the rack and make it impossible for them to escape. The loud ones are when all that stress explodes.