Extreme Pantser’s Guide: A Good Climax
Today did not go the way I wanted it. I got home to yet another Roomba poopocalypse courtesy the cat with bowel issues doing his business in the wrong place again. So another set of brushes goes into the trash because it’s not worth cleaning them, the Roomba gets scrubbed as much as possible (about halfway there right now – there’s more to go before it’s usable again), after which I will be reprogramming the bloody thing so there’s time for a poop patrol before it starts its cycle.
Now that I’ve grossed out everyone, it’s time for the part of the book that can make it or break it: the climax. Which is hopefully rather less messy than my Roomba is right now.
Now we’ve reached the part of the book that governs whether readers will be saying “wow”, “meh”, or “ho-hum”. Obviously, “wow” is the reaction you want. This section, whether five pages or fifty (five hundred is rather overdoing it, and exhausts your readers) must be intense, impossible to put down, and it must seem to rise naturally from everything to this point.
Extreme pantsers often need to go back over their draft to prune anything that weakens the climax, strengthen the areas that make that particular set of events inevitable, and hide anything that suggests another outcome or explicitly eliminate any potential alternatives. The do or die (whether literal or metaphorical) climax has to be the point that everything moves to, and it has to be impossible to escape.
This, of course, is where the deific powers of the Author come into play. In order to eliminate everything else, we have to make sure beforehand that there is no intelligent alternative, and no dumb alternative either. We get to use anything and everything to push our leads to the climax: the weather (that snowstorm at the beginning which delayed your hero for three frustrating days turns out to be critical to making sure he doesn’t get his army to the pass before the enemy has their forces in place), the landscape and recent history (what do you mean, the river’s flooded? It hasn’t rained here for weeks – but it’s been raining non-stop in the mountains and that water has to go somewhere), circumstances that keep your lead from refueling his spaceship, leading to it running out of fuel at the worst possible moment (and coming out of hyperspace in the debris field of an uncharted black hole – no-one ever said you have to be nice to your leads. It’s better if you’re not. It makes their victory so much more satisfying when they’ve had to deal with seven kinds of hell along the way), you name it.
What extreme pantsers often find is that after enough study and practice (don’t ask me to define ‘enough’ – I don’t know what it is), they’ll be doing these things without realizing why. Sometimes doing them in previous books in the series. I did this in ConVent as a throwaway line which turned out to be central to the plot of ConSensual. Terry Pratchett, of course, is the master of this, with his running gag about the Battle of Koom Valley turning into epic tragedy and epic heroism in Thud! He’s also utterly brilliant when it comes to eliminating options for his central character. I won’t spoiler, but the climactic sequence of Snuff is another magnificent example of how to do it right.
Now to the mechanics of the climax sequence itself. It may be one scene, several scenes, or several chapters. Regardless, the basic feel of it should be a wild breathless ride that, once started, can’t be stopped. At the start of the sequence, tension should be at or near the highest point of the book, while the pace should start picking up from whatever it was at the end of the buildup until it’s at the fastest for the book. L. K. Hamilton’s first three books are perfect examples of this (although it’s worth mentioning that these are guidelines rather than rules. Sometimes you need to ignore them – my basic rule is to work this way unless I can boost the emotional impact of what I’m doing by doing something else).
Once again, I’m using Impaler for an example, although the climax sequence is actually somewhat atypical. It’s one of those cases of what I remember well enough to discuss without having to go back and check and isn’t going to spoiler the piece for too many people.
So, the buildup ends with the fight for Constantinople about to start. I have chapter break there, starting the climactic sequence with a new chapter. Vlad’s use of black powder bombs under the walls of the city work, bringing a section of wall down. The tension heightens while he and his men haul cannons and lead horses through the rubble into the bailey of the partly completed Castle of Seven Towers, and start bombarding one of the walls from the inside.
Tension and pace increase with the collapse of the castle wall. The rest of Vlad’s army is bombarding the city, sending incendiaries and bombs over the walls and using cannon and battering rams to bring down the repaired section. At the same time, his naval allies are using cannon mounted on ships to bombard the harbor walls. Vlad is following the messages from all these fronts of his attack, while watching for defenders in his section.
He doesn’t find them in time – they’re too close for his forces to do more than organize a hasty defense, and his small entry force is seriously outnumbered. The battle ramps the pace up while Vlad and his men fight to survive, until Vlad is injured. Here, the pace drops but the tension rises: Vlad can’t fight, but he refuses to leave the field. He endures some crude battlefield first aid, is helped onto a spare horse, and surrounded by his bodyguards.
Now the pace settles to something a little less frantic, but remains tense. Vlad is observing the battle, coordinating as best he can. His forces breach the city walls in multiple locations and open the remaining gates, then work their way through towards the palace on the very edge of the peninsula.
Now the tension ramps up to its highest: the palace walls are intact, all the gates are closed, and there’s an army inside that’s large enough to cause a lot of trouble to Vlad’s tired and injured soldiers, possibly enough to defeat them. The main palace gate opens.
Here the climactic sequence shifts from the struggle to sorting out the results. The major issues haven’t been resolved yet, but it’s become inevitable that they will be resolved, mostly in favor of the main character (unless a tragic ending is part of the book).
The army inside the palace is led by Mihnea, Vlad’s missing and wounded son. He’s escaped, killed the governor of the city, and offers his father the head of the governor in a symbolic gesture that acknowledges Vlad’s status. This ends the military/action aspect of the climactic sequence, dropping the tension levels and the action levels a lot, but leaving the relationship between the two very much unresolved.
In most cases the climactic sequence ends when the action stops: for Impaler I tend to see the climactic sequence running a little longer, past the next day when, after being treated and spending the day resting, they attend the Easter service at the newly rededicated Hagia Sophia, and at which Vlad is the bemused observer of what everyone around him believes to be a miracle in which he is blessed by an angel, and the angel points to a section of earth which is later dug up and reveals a pre-Byzantine crown (Vlad sees nothing).
For me, the end of the climactic sequence is the execution of Mihnea’s betrayers, because that scene marks the reconciliation of father and son, as well as cementing Vlad’s rule in Constantinople. Honestly, everything from the end of the battle for Constantinople could be considered part of the wrap-up: Impaler is unusual in not having a clear distinction between the climax and the wrap-up.
If you liken the climactic sequence of a book to a sled ride down a mountain, Impaler includes the part when the sled is slowing down on the lower slopes, but hasn’t stopped yet. It’s more common for the sled to stop suddenly: either way, it’s made it to the bottom with the main character more or less intact but changed by the experience.