Monday, November 30, 2015

Writing The Climax of the Story: Your Character's Final Test

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

Your character has come a long way since the beginning of the story. He has lost things he didn't know he could survive losing. He has done things he never thought he would do. People around him have disappointed him, scared him, and surprised him. And now his story—at least this part of it—is coming to a close. 

In my last few posts, I've talked about several types of plot points that can create a satisfying conclusion. We talked about your character having a black moment or a dark night of the soul, when they feel all is lost. When this moment is done well, your character should be so low that another character needs to help them see their way out of their despair.

Then we talked about how your character needs to act on what they learn. Some teachers call this the "crazy plan" element of the last act. Your character's changed perspective leads them to make a plan.




But something about the plan goes awry, and that leads to your character's final test. This plot point is frequently referred to as "the final battle." A literal final battle works great in a Star Wars movie or The Lord of the Rings, but if you're writing a contemporary young adult story or a historical romance, then what? That's why I find the phrase "final test" to be a more helpful way to think of the climax. 

I try to do two things with my character's final test:

1. I want to show readers that my character has really, truly changed. That the journey I took my character on was worth it because they will now struggle through this test and come out on the other side a victor. (And "victory" doesn't necessarily—maybe, even, shouldn't—mean living "happily ever after," exactly how they always imagined it would be.) 

2. I want to bend or twist the plot in a way that surprises my readers.

Let's go through some examples of final tests from several very different types of stories. I've picked stories that have been out for a while, but if you don't want to know the ending of Frozen, The Hunger Games, or Pride and Prejudice then you can just skip those sections.

Frozen



You could pick from any number of Disney movies, but since we've been using Frozen as an example these last few posts, let's keep going with that. 

Anna's crazy plan was to go out into the cold and find Kristoff because she thinks if she kisses him, it'll save her, but she sees Hans is about to kill Elsa (this is her Oh, Snap moment). It's impossible for her to get to Kristoff and save her sister, so Anna makes the decision to save her sister. 

This is a great final test for Anna because last time when she had the choice of her sister or The Guy, she chose The Guy and it turned out badly. This time she chooses her sister, even though it means sacrificing her own life. Then for the element of surprise—Anna's sacrifice is an act of true love and by choosing it, she saves herself from dying of a frozen heart.

The Hunger Games


Katniss and Peeta have a literal final battle and wind up the remaining two tributes in the games. Because they're from the same district, they've been led to believe that they can both win. Then the Game Master announces the rule has been revoked and there can only be one victor.

Katniss could kill Peeta and win, and she once believed she would do whatever it cost to get out alive. Instead, Katniss gets creative—if they both eat poisonous berries, they'll both die, and the capital won't have a winner. She thinks the Game Master will stop them, but she can't know for sure, and her willingness to sacrifice herself rather than kill Peeta shows growth.

Pride and Prejudice


In a romance genre, our climactic scene is when the hero and heroine are finally able to be together. This is sometimes done by getting another obstacle character out of the way. (In Eleanor and Park, Eleanor's step-father gets in the way. In Anna and The French Kiss, we need to get rid of that guy's girlfriend.)

In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh represents everything that separates Lizzy and Mr. Darcy from being together. She is Mr. Darcy's proud and prejudiced aunt, and if Lizzy and Darcy stand a chance of being happy together, the reader needs to know that she can be overcome. When Lady Catherine drops in on Lizzy to try and scare her away from a match with Mr. Darcy, Lizzy is both strong and respectful in the face of it all. After that, we can relax that Lizzy and Mr. Darcy will live happily ever after.

If you're writing a realistic book about everyday sorts of people—no magic, no berries, and the romance isn't the main story linewhat should your final test look like? 

A story like this, where the focus is the main character's growth, needs a conclusion that showcases how much the character has grown.

In my Ellie Sweet books, Ellie struggles with friendships. Instead of finding ways to work through conflict, she has almost always opted to find ways to cope rather than resolve any problems. I wanted the final test to show Ellie had learned she needed to work through issues with people instead of just holing up by her lonesome and getting snarky.

So Ellie makes a difficult phone call to confront a friend and mentor, but it doesn't go well and she falls into her All Is Lost moment. Her dad rouses her to action with fatherly advice, and Ellie tries again to resolve several broken relationships, this time with great success.

I'm not trying to hold up my book and say "Hey, I did this perfectly." Rather, I want it to be clear that books don't always need the main character to save the world for the end to feel satisfying.

Does your character's final test show how they've changed? Does it have an element of surprise to it? 

Also, today is the last day of NaNoWriMo! If you've wonor if you've done more than you normally would because you participatedlet us know in the comments because we'd love to celebrate that with you!




26 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post. I've been trying to think how I can incorporate these elements into my current novel- which I'm doing for NaNo, and which I've already won with but still haven't finished.

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    1. I really struggle with it during the first draft. If I think too much about including all of them, the ending feels way too forced. I have to write it by feel and then fix it in revisions.

      Congratulations on winning NaNo!

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  2. Oh, here's the comments section! I couldn't find it at the top, but it's here at the bottom of the post.

    For the novel I'm querying, the MC is afraid of striking out on her own. She has to choose between going after the bad guy herself or waiting for her friend to catch up--but waiting for her friend would allow the bad guy to escape. She has to face the bad guy on her own.

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    1. Nice, Linea!

      Not sure why the comments thing moved...

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  3. In my book "The Fairy King", the all-is-lost moment is when the MC has to sacrifice himself to wake the fairy king who is supposedly the only one powerful enough to defeat the bad guy. The Oh-Snap moment comes when he's in magic limbo and talking to the king, trying to convince him to return to their world and help the fairies, and the Final Test is when the king refuses and offers to give the MC his powers instead so the MC can defeat the bad guy. Which means not only will the MC have to fight and defeat one of the most powerful monsters ever seen in the fairy world, he'll also have to take up the mantle of kingship if he wins. I like this because in the beginning of the book, the MC is selfish, impulsive, and not very responsible; we see this changing when he offers to give his life in the all-is-lost moment, but now we're seeing it again, with very different consequences.

    I hope it's a twist ending. I'm not sure if it's too predictable.

    Thanks for the post!

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    1. Wow, Lily! This sounds great. Very well thought out.

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    2. Beta readers can help you figure out whether you pulled it off or not if you're unsure. It sounds great to me!

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  4. Hm, I definitely think my Hero has exhibited some change. She's definitely a lot more forgiving at the end of the book and during the climax she forgives the minor villains for something they've done to her which ends up her being saved from death by the main villain because the minor villains save her. The element of surprise is definitely something I still need to work on.
    That was for my Nano novel which I have finished and won!

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    1. Congratulations! This was my first time with NaNo, and I didn't win, but I did write a lot more in one month than I ever have before, so yay!

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    2. Congratulations on winning, Megan!

      And, Lily, good for you!

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    3. Congratulations to you too, Lily! Even though you may not have won it's just as awesome writing a lot more than ever in this month, that's an amazing accomplishment!

      Thank you, Mrs. Morrill!

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  5. I won NaNo on Thursday, at almost exactly 50,000 words. I hadn't noticed before reading this post, but I actually followed this structure pretty closely. My main character's changed a lot since the beginning, and I think the ending shows that. But to say just how would be to give away more than the story's ready for at this point (it's one rough draft!).

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    1. It's helpful to see the parts labeled, but so many stories follow this pattern that I think we absorb it and write this way naturally. Congratulations on winning!

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  6. I beat nano on Saturday! :)
    My climax... The bad guy (serial killer) was raised in seclusion and doesn't know much about the outside world. My main character realizes that if she can injure him badly enough, he'll be forced to turn himself in to the authorities to get treated or he'll die, which either way solves her problem pretty easily, and ends the story's conflict. It doesn't really show how she's changed though, I guess I'll worry about that in January....

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    1. Maybe she has to hurt herself to hurt him, or she can't stand the idea of hurting another person that badly, no matter how wicked.
      Good job with NaNo and good luck on edits!

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    2. Congratulations, Allison! I bet the perfect solution will hit you between now and then. Tagging on to what Lily said, I'm guessing all you need to do is add something to the beginning part of the book that makes hurting him very difficult for her.

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    3. Ooooh! That's really cool:)

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    4. cool. Reminds me of a story I read where the killer turned out to have been raised in a cave and away from human society and he does not know killing people is wrong. No offense. I just saw the connection between ideas. I have not gotten to the climax in my book yet. I have been writing in between homework and classes so progress is fairly slow.

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    5. and yes most of what I write is bazire weird stuff. Dystopian books about the world being thaen over by weird psychopaths or Spartan Warriors getting lost in time, ending up in modern day LA, and trying to take over the world and reestablish Sparta, then rule the world. In my writings, random other figures in historical writings tend to help the good side fighting the Spartan prince. Examples of well known fictional characters that appear are Robin Hood and his men and Sir Arthur and his knights. I know, I'm a weirdo who writes weird stuff. The recruits for the dark side and the good side are all middle and high schoolers. Armies of teens being warriors fighting each other. There are 2 protagonists, aa girl named Tanya, and a heaven sent angel named Katie. Tanya is part mortal part immortal. Where I last left off, 2 new characters, Jason and Emily, had been introduced. They are local high schoolers who decide to fight the dark force and join Katie's cause of helping save the human race. Emily , Jason, a friend of theirs, Robin hood, and Robin Hood's merry men shoot fire arrows at a group of evil cheerleaders and football players who are heavily armed with both Ak47s, Broadswords, and in case of emergency, .45 pistols. From His truck, Jason and Emily are fighting back. They have less in number, but more firearms and ammo. They wait for the help Tanya and Sir Arthur and his Men were rescuing and arming. What do you all think?

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  7. Congratulations to everyone who finished NaNo! I didn't do it because I'm in edits, but maybe next year:)
    I love this series of posts! It's something I will definitely need when I'm doing my second draft!

    I have multiple main characters (and yes I mean main characters, they take turns throughout the series), but my main focus on my current WIP is definitely on my Egyptian assassin. Her main goal is revenge, but her tangled relationships and inability to trust others keep getting in the way. By the time she reaches the climax, she has to choose between loosing everything she's built for the future or avenging her past. The decision is her change, whether she pulls the trigger or lets go.

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  8. Another great post! You helped me get a concrete end for my novel and to really know my character's main obstacle. She chooses the truth over lies, even though it may cost her the very person she loves most, her daughter. I enjoy reading all your posts, thank you so much!

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  9. I beat NaNo back on the 21st. However, my WIP will probably be around 88K, so I still have tones of work to do.

    My climax's lack the change part, but I'll be sure to try and develop that more during edits. Congrats to everyone who finished NaNo as well.

    ~K.A.C.

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    1. 88K is a great length! Congrats!

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  10. Thank you for this great post, Mrs. Morrill! You never cease to amaze me. ;) I finished (YWP) NaNoWriMo on the 22nd, although it was only 15,000 words. I'm slowly awaiting my editing process.

    Also, I was wondering, do you have any good suggestions for writer conferences?
    Thank you!

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  11. This is good advice. :-)

    I finished Nano on the last day... The day this was posted. xP It was close, and I'm not quite finished with my story, but... I wrote about six thousand words on that last day. :-P

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  12. Well, I wrote about 6,000 words during National Novel Writing Month, and that is probably 6,000 more words than I would've written otherwise, so I'm celebrating. :)

    Also, the multiple examples are super helpful. Thank you!

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