This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.
Troubleshooting a Weak Climax
Ideas For Fixing a Disatisfying End to the Story
If the climax of a novel seems off, here are a few common weaknesses that can be fixed.
Sometimes a writer’s critique partners or first readers will comment that they didn’t like the ending of a story, or that the novel didn’t resolve well. While critique is always good, a vague “I didn’t like the ending” isn’t helpful for fixing it. However, there are a few mistakes often made but easily fixed to create a stronger climax.
The Character Isn’t Boxed In
Make sure you have taken away all other options for the character. If the character reaches the climax but still has several ways out, or a reason to not keep fighting toward the climax, it makes the character look silly or stupid.
Work on your character motivations and increase conflict so that the character is forced into the bottleneck of the climax. A good way to box the character in is to also make the stakes higher. Make the consequences of his decision impact more than just the character, but also his loved ones.
Tie Up Loopholes and Loose Ends
Related to the above about boxing the character in, also make sure the logical threads are tied up before the climax. Otherwise, your reader will wonder things like, “Why doesn’t the hero try XYZ? Why does he need to do ABC at this point in the story?”
Things that should trigger red flags for the writer are:
Miscommunication or ommision of information
Logical realizations the character doesn’t have
Common sense actions the character doesn’t do
Foolish things the character says or does
The Decision at the Climax Doesn’t Involve Character Principle
Ideally, the decision at the climax requires the character to act on personal principles or break them, to do the right thing or the wrong thing. This serves to heighten emotional and psychological tension for the reader.
If the decision at the climax doesn’t involve any emotional stakes for the character, it diffuses the tension of the scene and makes for a rather anticlimactic climax.
The decision at the climax should test the character. In making a self-sacrificing decision or a decision that adheres to personal principle, it proves to the reader that he deserves a possible happy ending. In making a selfish or hypocritical decision, it proves to the reader that he deserves whatever punishment he gets, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.
The External Goal Isn’t Strong Enough
Sometimes, the character’s External Goal isn’t important enough or meaningful enough to the character, which makes for a weak climax.
The External Goal that fuels the climax needs to be important enough to force the character into this decision. Don’t give the character a reason to back off or give up. Make the External Goal vital to the character’s livelihood or happiness.
The Peak of the Climax Isn’t As High As Other Peaks
Remember that the climax should be the peak in the story with the most conflict and tension (physical and/or emotional). If another scene has more conflict or tension, then try reworking both the other scene and the climax. Perhaps take elements from the other scene and save them for the climax, or add more elements to the climax to give it more punch.
The climax is the focal point of your story, so expend time and energy to make it the best it can be.