I was halfway through the battle sequence when I started getting uncomfortable vibes. The words weren’t coming, and when I forced them to, they felt… well… forced. I tossed more pretty words in to fan the flame to life again, but it only seemed to smother my blinking muse deeper into oblivion. After my tired fingers jumbled out ‘he was wounded, and it was bloody’, I shoved back from my desk, shook my head, and scowled blackly at that offending cursor.
Everything should have been fine. I’d planned for this moment since the beginning. The hero and his allies were pitted in the final no-turning-back, death-or-glory battle against the evil villain brothers and their dragons. The hero was actually getting along with his allies now, and they were fighting as a team. The hero’s wife by accidental/arranged marriage had finally just come to grips with her feelings for him and decided she should be there to fight beside him. The hero and his brother had just been pulled from the jaws of death (actually, the villains’ gallows) and reunited with their army, led in their absence by the hero’s plucky, emotionally overwhelmed nephew… in short, everything had just come together.
Everything was finally going right.
So what was with the soft red warning lights pulsing silently in the back of my head? Was I just tired? Overwhelmed? Burning out? Maybe I should just toss in some more dragons. Maybe the scene wasn’t epic enough; dragons could fix that. Dragons would equal fire. Fire would equal death and aesthetic and more explosions. This was the climax, for crying out loud! It was supposed to be climactic, yeah? And here it was so totally UN-EPIC I just didn’t even know what to do with it.
It’s surprisingly easy to make the mistake of assuming the climax is supposed to be epic. The problem, actually, is not in the assumption, but in the definition of that word.
It literally conjures images of sprawling battlefields dotted with dragons, explosions, mumakil, orcs, and elves. The camera pans out and we see the mountains, painted blood-red by the dripping sunset, sponged on the sky’s torn canvas by the round, scarlet sun that’s slowly being squeezed to darkness. A choir sings, their harrowing voices cold and mournful in lament for the death of innocence and the destruction of humanity.
Then the wereworms come.
We yawn and hit fast-forward.
Okay, maybe we don’t. Maybe we’re sappy little drama kings and queens and our artistic little eyes are greedily glutting themselves on the beautiful (if vapid) drama. But are we going to remember this moment? Is it going to touch us in a deep place that goes beyond our ability to be affected by the emotional mechanics of gorgeous screenplay and a good soundtrack?
I think not.
As writers, we don’t want this dramatic mediocrity to befall our stories. Here are three ways to avoid it.
Okay, confession time. This whole post was inspired by the somewhat-trainwreck-thank-you-Peter-Jackson-no-thank-you Hobbit trilogy. Everything wrong with that (and why I (mostly) enjoyed it anyway) is a discussion for another time.
But who remembers the moment in the prologue of An Unexpected Journey, as Bilbo is telling Frodo about Smaug’s sack of Erebor and the burning of Dale, where the camera pulls in from the explosions and screaming people and archers tumbling through the air in piles of pulverized stone, and we see a little girl watching her rag-doll burn on the pavement?
I may have been rooting for Thorin as he rallied his dwarves before the doors of their home in a desperate attempt to keep the dragon at bay. I was certainly disgusted when Thranduil (on his stupid moose thing) turned the ranks of his army back and refused to help. There was much epicness in that sequence. Great and terrible things happened right and left. For sheer size, the implications and consequences of that story point were gargantuan.
But nothing in the entire sequence got me by the throat like that little girl, still and dazed amid the chaos, watching her doll as it shriveled and burned.
We assume ‘epic’ means… well… large. Larger than life. Something more exciting than everyday existence. But the truth of it is, if we step outside ‘everyday life’ in pursuit of something more interesting, we cut the emotional ties.
‘Everyday life’ is why it matters.
The statistics of soldiers that die in war are giant things; stunning lists of numbers that leave us dazed, confused, and a little guilty over not being able to empathize with the loss.
The story of one daddy who didn’t come home to his little girl is enough to reduce the most stoic among us to instant tears.
Bigger isn’t better. Bigger is often just more vague, and when it comes to hitting your readers in the gut, specificity is your dearest friend.
All that said, you hardly want the emotional punch of your climax to hinge solely on random little snippets of the powerfully small. Hopefully your entire story has been full of said powerfully small, and the climax does ask for a resolution; a big-picture perspective, so to speak.
Instead of throwing in more dragons or orcs to clutter up the picture and make things more physical, dangerous, and confusing, try looking for something to help the reader grasp the bigger implications of what you already have.
The definition of a symbol is an object, concept, or image that embodies something far larger than itself. The way a sunset symbolizes completion. The way a flower sprouting from the rubble symbolizes new life.
Our burning doll isn’t just about a little girl who lost her plaything. It’s about the destruction of childhood and the loss of innocence.
Symbols are the perfect tools for giving depth and secret meaning to any scene, but nowhere are they more important than in the climax. All the thematic threads tie together in the climax too— and those more than anything need to be handled with subtlety and careful power to give them full emotional impact.
Build Off What You Already Have
The third point is really just a summary of the first two. Adding more to the story at the last minute is a sure sign of a desperate writer and will just as surely lead to a bored, disconnected reader. You’ve been building the entire story up to this moment. Use the tools you’ve given yourself already.
For example, let’s compare the battle for Erebor in The Battle of the Five Armies to the battle for Gondor in LotR’s Return of the King.
What do we remember about The Battle of the Five Armies’ climax? The actual fighting part?
Well, not sure about you, but I vaguely remember goat things. And CGI. And weird, over-the-top troll choreography. And senseless stabbings with no emotional lead-up and no emotional consequences. And more CGI. And a red-headed dwarf who was supposed to be dynamic but was mostly just laughable, wielding his hammer and yelling crass insults and bouncing jovially on his pig. (And I thought the goat mounts were bad…)
Now, what do we remember about the battle for Gondor? Eowyn, disguised as a man for fear of her brother’s wrath if he discovers her among the ranks, crawling through fallen bodies in shock after having felled the Witch King, groping desperately for a sword, and falling unconscious only to be found by her brother after the battle, half dead, and unable to respond as he screams in agony over the loss, because he loved her.
Pippin, like a shadow among the bodies of the fallen mumakil, desperately searching for his friend— the friend he was torn from previously without a chance to properly say goodbye.
Theoden, trapped beneath his horse; broken and dying but for the first time in his overshadowed life content that he has not lived in vain.
Look at the beautiful resonance. Threads that ran strongly in the story before shine their brightest here as they are finally brought into the light and tied off, one by one.
Climaxes are not for showing off all the cool stuff you’ve been saving up for when you need something that goes off with a bang. Climaxes are for resolving the questions that the rest of the story has raised. The battle— the dragons— the death and the fire and all the other ‘epicness’— these are your tools for bringing out and resolving things that have been simmering under the surface until now. Climaxes are not the reward we get for reaching the end of the story, but the key that makes the rest of the story worthwhile.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go cut out a few dragons. They’re severely cramping my style.