Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 46: Anticlimactic Endings
Here’s how to write books readers will love–and yet still end up hating you for. It’s easy. All you have to do is divebomb out of your brilliance and into anticlimactic endings.
On some level, anticlimactic endings are pretty self-explanatory. They’re endings with no bang in the end. They’re endings that evoke a yawn from readers instead of a frenzy of page-turning. Instead of being one of the most satisfying parts of the book, they end up being one of the most disappointing.
And the scariest part of all this? The better readers like the rest of your book, the more it matters to them that the end fulfills all their hopes (conscious, emotional, and otherwise) for the story. In short, you gotta get this right.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a concept that is actually surprisingly vague when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of actually preventing it. All those definitions of anti-climactic endings up there in the second paragraph? They don’t actually tell you much about the factors that create anti-climactic endings, or the even more crucial factors that contribute to preventing them.
But never fear. That’s what this installment of the Most Common Writing Mistakes series is all about.
2 Ways to Ruin an Awesome Story With Anticlimactic Endings
Anticlimaxes come in two distinct–and surprisingly diverse–flavors of ruination.
Ruination #1: The Fizzle
When we think of anticlimactic endings, this is what we think of most often. There you are, eagerly turning pages, slavering to find out what happens next–only to slowly realize, with each turned page, that, apparently, nothing is going to happen.
No confrontation between characters. No showdown in which the protagonist must make hard decisions about the desires and goals he’s been pursuing all book long. No turn in the plot. No nothing.
Instead, the characters just meander their way through the last bit of the story. Either whatever it is they want ends up falling effortlessly into their laps (hello, deus ex machina). Or they sadly and passively reconcile themselves to a life without whatever it is they wanted–and they keep drifting right off into the sunset.
You know how Sully looks in Monsters, Inc. after he’s banished to the Himalayas and he keeps opening and closing the door, in panicked disbelief? That’s how readers are going to be treating the back cover of your book if you leave them with such a fizzle of an ending. That’s it? That CAN’T be it! There muuuuust be more!
When they finally get over their disbelief, they’re probably going to be mad enough to start beating on their best friend too, just like poor Sully.
Ruination #2: The Cliffhanger
Yep, you read right. The cliffhanger ending is often way too guilty of also being anticlimactic. At first glance, that may seen counter-intuitive. After all, anticlimaxes, by their very nature, are flat and boring, while cliffhangers are supposed to be notoriously exciting.
Cliffhangers are, of course, the domain of the series. Since the story continues on into the sequel, the point of the cliffhanger is to hook readers into wanting to read that next book. That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing.
But here’s the problem.
Some authors fail to understand the principles of a good cliffhanger. Instead of creating an organic hook for the next book at the end of the current story, they instead use the current story’s own climax as the hook.
In this scenario, you’ve got readers eagerly turning pages, slavering to find out what happens next, only to turn that next page in anticipation of the climactic showdown and–it’s The End.
I recently read a well-known YA series that pulled this trick at the end of its second book. I literally did a double take. What? It’s over? There’s no climax? None at all?
Sad, but true. The short lesson here is: never compromise the wholeness and structure of your current book in an attempt to lure readers into the next. My desire to know what happens next probably won’t outweigh my belief that you really have no idea how to write a good story.
5 Ways to Cap an Awesome Story With an Equally Awesome Ending
Enough of what not to do. You’ll be able to avoid the previous two mistakes as long you’ve got the following five necessities checked off your list for your story’s climax.
1. Timing: The Climactic Turning Point Begins Halfway Through the Third Act
Timing is important. Within the structure of your story (which I teach, in-depth, in my book Structuring Your Novel), your Climax is going to comprise the last 12-10% of your book. It’s going to begin halfway through the Third Act, which means its beginning is the turning point in the middle of this final act. To avoid the anticlimactic cliffhanger, make sure you’re not trying to end your book with the climactic turning point (which is what that unfortunate YA book did).
- For more on climactic turning point: study the “Climax” structural moment in the Story Structure Database entries.
2. Prioritize Your Antagonistic Confrontations: Most Important Last
Here’s something important to understand about the sequencing in your climax: you don’t have to save the biggest for last, but you do need to save the best. You may actually end up using your biggest fireworks in the earlier parts of the climax. For example, if your climax features a battle, that battle will be at its biggest in the beginning when the two armies clash.
But then the conflict needs to funnel down to a single point: the confrontation with the main antagonist. This will be a more personal confrontation and, as a result, a more intimate one. Often, it will end up being mano a mano between protagonist and antagonist. This results in a comparatively quieter confrontation, but because it’s the one readers have been waiting for, the stakes will be higher than ever. Always end your climax with the confrontation between your protagonist and your most importantantagonist.
- For more on prioritizing antagonistic confrontations: Are Your Bad Guys Dying in the Right Order?
3. Solidify Your Climactic Moment
The Climactic Moment is the moment when your story’s conflict ends. Sometimes this moment will be blatantly obvious: Prince Humperdinck surrenders (removing the last obstacle between the protagonist and his goal), and Westley gets to ride off into the sunrise with Princess Buttercup (ending his story-long quest to obtain his goal).
Sometimes, however, the Climactic Moment can be a little less definitive. This isn’t immediately a bad thing (as you’ll discover if you start trying to identify the Climactic Moment in your favorite movies and books). What is a bad thing is when that Climactic Moment is vague to the point that readers aren’t even sure they’ve read it. Your Climactic Moment is the dot at the end of your story’s exclamation point. Make sure it stands out.
- For more on the Climactic Moment: Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment
4. Bring Your Story Full Circle: Answer the Beginning’s Dramatic Question
A story–even if it’s part of a series–must be whole unto itself. What that means is that it must be framed within a dramatic question. This is the question at the heart of your story’s conflict. Will the good guy escape the bad guy? Will the guy get the girl? How will the war affect the people who fight in it?
This question is asked by your Inciting Event and must be answered by your Climactic Moment. If you haven’t answered that question, then your story isn’t over. A series will often offer an overarching dramatic question, which will be raised in the first book and not answered until the final book. But each book within that series will also offer its own individual dramatic question, which must be answered in that book.
- For more on the dramatic question: Do You Know the Answer to Your Story’s Most Important Question?
5. Include a Resolution to Demonstrate Character Reactions
The Resolution is the scene(s) that takes place after your Climactic Moment. It’s not actually a part of the climax, but, in 9 out of 10 stories, the Resolution is going to be an important factor in making sure your climax achieves its full emotional impact.
Readers need the chance to see your characters’ reactionsto the the events of the climax. This helps put the conflict and the Climactic Moment itself into context. Just as importantly, it helps ease readers out of the world of your story and into an emotionally tranquil and satisfied mindset for closing that back cover.
Not all stories will require a Resolution. Some deliberately end right after the Climactic Moment for emphasis or even shock value. But that is a technique to be used with care–and, for my two cents’ worth, never as a hook into into a sequel. More often than not, that’s just going to make readers mad.
- For more on the Resolution: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 11: The Resolution
It’s a truism among writers that your story’s beginning will convince them to read this book, but your story’s ending will convince them to read your next book. This is true for every book you write, not just those within a series. Strive to leave readers with a wonderful impression of your story, your characters, and your writing. One of the best ways to do that is by following the above tips–and avoiding anticlimactic endings just as assiduously as you do the coughing checkout clerk during flu season.