How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 3, Avoiding Anticlimax
Continuing my series on writing great endings, I’m talking today about how to provide satisfactory resolution without letting the energy of your story run out.
I spent last week talking about all the resolution the reader expects from the denouement– resolve the events of the climax, answer unanswered questions, wrap up subplots, and establish main characters’ immediate futures. Sounds like a lot of content, right? But you as the author have a delicate balancing act to maintain, because while it’s true that the reader is going to be dissatisfied if you leave out the resolution they expect, it’s also true that there’s no better way to make sure your reader’s enthusiasm has flagged by the time they read the words “The End” than by dragging the book out two chapters after the story has actually ended. Ending on an anticlimax leaves a dull taste in the reader’s mouth and causes their last impression of your book to be a less positive one than if you send them out on an emotional high note, and the way to do this is to fit all your resolution in before the excitement of the climax has fully worn off.
The reader’s emotional high point usually coincides with the characters’, which is usually the climax– in a romance, the climax is not the wedding, but the dramatic moment when Slim rescues Peggy Sue from the train tracks and confesses that he always loved her, he just didn’t think a lawman had any right to ask a nice well-bred young lady to marry him and share his dangerous life. This is the moment when tension and emotions are the highest, and this is the moment that readers have been waiting for. Sure, they want to read that the happy couple got off the train tracks in time and know that Salty Sam is going to jail for his crimes, but the story is effectively over when Slim and Sue finally get together. The author then must resist the temptation to spend a lot of time on the new status quo– yes, the reader wants resolution, and glimpses into a character’s future can be fun, but it’s ultimately anticlimactic to spend a lot of time on the “happily ever after.” I’ve been disappointed by book weddings a surprising number of times, not because I’m heartless and cynical (I cry watching those “surprise Disney trip reveal” videos), but because the wedding scene has kept me in the story universe too long after the climax without really continuing the story.
Think about how much time it takes to reach the climax in the average novel– the climax is usually near the end, so the author has about 90% of the book to take the characters from their nice, safe, boring, everyday life into the exciting, different, dangerous, emotional atmosphere of the climax. The reader enjoys the building tension and the changes taking place because of the expectation of a dramatic climactic scene and some significant change/result– the main character will finally find his soulmate, the world will be saved, the murderer will be stopped, etc. Once this has happened, the story is essentially over, and the author who takes the characters all the way back into the nice, safe, everyday life where we found them at the beginning of the book risks the excitement of the climax fading into the background and a reader who’s left feeling like nothing much changed. I definitely don’t want to go from the exciting train tracks rescue scene to three chapters about Slim and Sue planning their wedding and how Sue is afraid Mama won’t want to come out from Boston for the wedding because she hates the west. This is Not part of the story and isn’t vital to its resolution, either. So, how to finish on a high note without sacrificing resolution? Here are some strategies to keep in mind:
- Resolve the events of the climax quickly. I talked last week about how, if there were loose threads related to the immediate aftermath of the climax, they needed to be at least partially resolved, but this doesn’t have to happen in fully-realized scenes. Think about the end of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy– the various hobbits and dwarves and elves have essentially spent nine hours getting to their various scenes of climax, but do we watch them retrace every step of their journeys after the ring has been destroyed and the battle won? Nnnnno. That would be excruciating. Obviously, the filmmaker couldn’t just jump from Frodo and Sam watching the ring tumble into Mount Doom straight back to Frodo at home in the Shire, but by letting us see a glimpse of approaching eagles and a shot of the ground passing beneath an unconscious Frodo, we’re given enough to connect the dots as to how Frodo and Sam got back to safety without the filmmaker having to spend three hours showing exactly how. Exit your climax scenes the same way, in a fast retreat or select flashes of scenes, picking up scattered characters and dispatching leftover minor villains as needed.
- Use representative, rather than inclusive, resolution. The problem with packing all your resolution into the denouement is that often, if you try to resolve every single thread/minor character’s story line, it will start to read like the family Christmas letter– “Billy did this, Sally went here, Joe married Lisa, Grandpa died, Bev started a business–” and no one likes to read those Christmas letters. They’re tedious. (Except for mine. They’re hilarious.) Let’s take one of the types of resolution readers typically expect in the denouement– that some kind of justice be done for the characters who were wronged. This doesn’t have to be a matter of “make sure every bad guy is caught and goes to jail and every bully learns her lesson,” which would be tedious and unrealistic, but as long as some restitution is made for the places the reader felt loss or injustice or helplessness, the reader will generally be satisfied. The last Harry Potter book is a great example of this: there are about a million “bad guy” characters and betrayals and wrongs and murders that happen over the course of Deathly Hallows, and it would have been dull, unreasonable, and extremely unwieldy for Rowling to have shown resolution/justice done for ALL of them– we don’t see Harry get a new owl to replace Hedwig, Umbridge isn’t shown being eaten by piranhas like she deserves, Griphook is never confronted on the page for his betrayal– but we are given enough scenes of justice and triumph over evil to satisfy us– Mrs. Weasley’s duel with Bellatrix and Harry’s showdown with Voldemort are cathartic and serve to vindicate many earlier wrongs, and the story is allowed to end very shortly after the climax while still satisfying the reader’s need to see justice done.
- Layer your resolution. The more information you can impart in a single scene, the quicker you can bring the book to a close after the climax. Consider how you can accomplish resolution through the setting– a scene taking place in the new wing of the hospital tells us that they eventually did raise the million dollars they needed without wasting page space talking about the last three fundraisers they had to do (yawn), a scene taking place at the B couple’s wedding reception answers all the questions about their on-again, off-again relationship without us having to watch their reconciliation, their proposal, etc. Observations on the part of a main character can also serve to provide a lot of resolution– if the main character glimpses his ex across the room, laughing and talking with the friendly lawyer who’s popped up a couple times before in the story and is known by the reader to be a nice guy, we can assume that she’s moved on and won’t be trying to sabotage the main character’s happiness anymore and that the lawyer is not going to be lonely anymore, again without the author having to spell it out for the reader. Readers are pretty good at picking up on clues, don’t be afraid to give them some pieces to put together on their own rather than fitting each one into place for them. A line of dialogue is another way to include resolution in a scene that’s really about something else– a character finishing a phone conversation with, “No, I’m sorry, I’m booked through June of next year” lets the reader know that she did start that photography business after all and it’s a big success without drawing focus from whatever the scene is actually about.
- Fast-forward. Epilogues are in danger of becoming as overused as prologues, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sometimes the best way to provide a lot of resolution without compromising the momentum of the story. The popular “X years later” format is a good example– it may only be a page or two, just a tiny glimpse of a scene from the future story universe, and it doesn’t have to fill in all the gaps, but that glimpse at the main couple welcoming the B couple to a Christmas party at the family homestead with a baby crying in the background lets the reader know that, yes, they did rebuild after the fire, she was able to have kids after all, the B couple eventually made up and got together, without following the exciting climax scene with ten tame ones to show the resolution for each one of these plot threads. Remember, the reader rarely needs to know everything YOU know about a character– as long as you sow the right bits of information and have laid your foundation well, they’ll connect the dots on their own.
If you need more examples of how to fit a lot of resolution in before the “buzz” of the climax wears off, watch some action-adventure movies or a formulaic mystery show or any movie with a quest-type storyline, paying close attention to how many subplots and plot threads/minor characters are introduced throughout the rising action, and then noting how each is resolved after the climax– through a single shot showing something revealing about a character or a situation, through a line of dialogue, by using a setting, by providing epilogue-type title cards at the end of the film, etc. Hopefully, you’ll get even more ideas for ways to satisfactorily wrap up a story before the reader’s enthusiasm has the chance to lag.
Erin, the series is great. I especially liked the advice, “Readers are pretty good at picking up on clues, don’t be afraid to give them some pieces to put together on their own rather than fitting each one into place for them.”
Thanks for this helpful post, Erin. This series is excellent.
While reading this post, I thought of the TV series Monk. Two major issues were whether Monk would be reinstated on the police force and whether he’d solve his wife’s murder. The first issue was resolved two or three episodes before the show’s final episode saving the primary question–who killed Trudy–for the finale. I thought the writers handled the resolutions very well, including ones involving other characters. Great series, Erin. Thanks.
Thanks so much Erin. This was great…and my Christmas cards are awesome too. I skipped writing about my sons’ grades this year and instead waxed eloquent about their pet chickens. Anyway, I love how you mention the Harry Potter ending. I just watched the last movie again and noticed how they simply showed a grown up Draco Malfoy, bringing his son to the Hogwarts train. That wraps up a lot of lose ends and leaves a lot of questions, but gives the impression of time marching on and the idea of second chances and each person deciding where they stand. Will little Malfoy be another jerk or a hero…he could be either, each of us must live and chose. Fun stuff, thanks so much.
I appreciate the thought you have put into what makes a good ending. I still remember the empty feeling I had when I was seven and got to the end of E.B. White’s amazing book, “Stuart Little,” and was left with questions and emptiness.
With therapy, I have been able to move on. 🙂 The ending may be the most important part of the book. Thanks for this reminder and the help with making it better. Most of the information I see is on making a great beginning. Cathy Shouse