Six impossible things

Too easy

At one of the recent conventions I attended, I ran into a writer who was having what she referred to as plot problems. Actually, they sounded more like ending problems; according to her, she did fine at creating all the setup, but then when she got to the climax, everything unwound much too swiftly and smoothly and she was worried that she was doing something wrong.

Without actually reading her novel, I couldn’t say for sure, but it seemed to me that there were three possibilities:

1) The climax felt “too easy” because it lacked any tension; there really weren’t any doubts or questions or revelations left. The central story questions had already been answered, and all that was left was implementing an obviously-correct and inevitable solution. When the hero’s army outnumbers the bad guys ten to one, the “big final battle” is unlikely to be very interesting, as the only surprises will be which of the characters (if any) are killed or injured.

2) The climax felt “too easy” because the writer mistook the last big action scene for the story climax, when in fact the action subplot was secondary. This is surprisingly easy to do, especially in a story that is character-centered but action-oriented. Action looms large in genre fiction, whether the idea is to find the Holy Grail, defeat the Evil Overlord, steal the Mona Lisa, or capture the enemy submarine. It is therefore natural to assume that the action climax is the story climax, even when the true central story problem is emotional, spiritual, or intellectual.

3) The climax felt too easy because it went by too fast. The hero and his ten stalwart companions end Chapter Twenty-Nine on top of the hill, looking down at the Evil Overlord’s 300 elite guards, and the hero yells, “Charge!” The next chapter has a one-paragraph summary of the battle (which the heroes win), followed by a couple of lines of chasing the Evil Overlord into the castle and capturing him, followed by another paragraph detailing all the precautions the hero and his companions take to keep the Evil Overlord from getting away, and then we’re into slightly more detailed descriptions of the after-battle cleanup, treating the wounded, and arranging for trials, weddings, and medals as appropriate.

#1, lack of tension, is more common than you’d think. The fact that there’s a huge battle in Chapter Thirty does not make the battle tense, or even interesting, if the outcome is obvious – and it is possible to set up a situation in which, by the numbers, there is considerable doubt about who will win the final confrontation, and still have it lack tension because it is so very, very clear from the rest of the story that one side or the other will win.

If the main character has, in every difficult situation thus far, pulled a rabbit out of her metaphorical hat without breaking a sweat, the fact that this situation is the worst one yet is unlikely to be enough to convince the reader that there’s a realistic chance that this time, she’ll lose. If the heroes are smart and cautious, and the author gives them time to work out the flaws in their plans and/or to collect massive amounts of firepower, the “final battle” can be a downright boring foregone conclusion.

You can also get a lack of tension from a one-peak plot – one where there is no build-up of tension over the early part of the story, or even the middle part, and then suddenly there’s this big urgent thing to deal with out of nowhere. For example, the first two-thirds of the story cover setting up a new system to detect asteroids…the political maneuvering, financing, interpersonal conflicts, but no particular outside threat. And then the system goes live, detects a giant asteroid heading straight for New York, and the main characters drop everything else for a chapter and blow it up, all in the last two chapters; The End. Even though most readers will figure out early on that there’s going to be an asteroid threat at some point in the story, holding it off until the next-to-last chapter and then dealing with it in a spectacular hurry means there’s really not enough time for the reader to get properly worried about it, so there ends up not being nearly as much tension associated with the threat as you’d expect.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to allow everyone to detect the asteroid in the first few chapters, in which case the story will be about figuring out how to deal with it before it hits New York. Having a clear, urgent deadline – a ticking time bomb, some editors call it – is one of the simplest and most reliable ways of upping tension. It has the added advantage of limiting the main characters’ resources (they won’t have unlimited time to plan or collect overwhelming firepower). This isn’t the only possibility, however.

Which brings me to #2 – mistaking the action scene for the story climax. If the real story is about the astronomer forming an unlikely alliance with the politician to set up the asteroid-detection system, then the actual climax may be the scene where they get the system approved and/or built; detecting the asteroid and destroying it may actually be part of the validation.

A lot of the older murder mysteries are actually like this. The true climax of the story is the point at which the detective says, “I know who did it;” the scene where he sums up the evidence and/or tricks the murderer into revealing him/herself is really part of the validation that proves the detective was right and wraps up the action plot. It’s tense because most of the readers still don’t know whodunnit, or how the detective is going to prove it, so there are still important central-plot-related questions, but the summing-up and trapping scenes generally roll along smoothly, because the central story problem has been solved and the reader knows it, even if they don’t yet know exactly what the solution is. Part of the fun is watching the revelations unfold.

#3 can happen when the author has gotten a little tired of writing this thing and just wants it to be over, or when the author has backed themselves into a corner by setting up a situation in which the Big Climax is something they purely hate writing (whether that’s a battle or a courtroom scene). Skating quickly past the Big Finale is perfectly OK in the first draft – one of my pro-writer friends used to have a finished first draft with at least one or two places near the end labeled “[Insert final sword-practicing scene here].” If you do that, though, you’d better be ready to come back and fill in or expand the scenes for the final draft.

  1. Just wanted to thank you in general for your sane and practical commentaries on your blog. I find many of them both pertinent and useful.

  2. I had this problem with my last book. A combination of 1 and 3. The first takes forever to fix because you have to fix the entire book. Sigh.

  3. When my first-readers read the first draft of my WIP, they said I made things way too easy for the main characters – things went their way most of the time with no effort at all. I’ve tried to fix that in the second draft, adding conflict and Things Going Wrong, and I think it’s much better now. (I hope so, anyway…)

  4. Beware of being too crafty in your climax. If the hero outwits the villain, it still has to look difficult.

    I was working on a story where the story ended with the hero saying to some ghosts that there was a loophole in their spell. It fell flat because after all his effort, he just weaseled out of it. I had to make them counter-attack to have to work.

  5. I read a novel recently where the ending went *zoom* and, now that I think of it, it sort of seemed easy in that everything that happened, happened, and once it started it was a bit like a snowball rolling down-hill. A tipping point was reached and there it went.

    I don’t think that the problem was #1. There was lots of tension leading up to that point. And it wasn’t #2. It *felt* like #3 but mostly I think it was #4… There was no wrap up and reflection and so there was no time to catch your breath after the big finale. Instead of rolling off and slowly coming to a halt and then melting into a puddle, the snowball just went *splat* at the bottom of the hill.

  6. Thanks for this! This is an issue that I will have to be careful of myself, since I have some personal revelations for my characters as the climax, but also more physical conflict with the enemy that follows those revelations. It’s very helpful to be aware of potential problems like this before I reach that point in my story. I’ve also become a huge fan of leaving certain things for the second draft, I’m just careful to keep notes about what needs to be changed/fixed later so I don’t forget.

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