To move from the middle to the end—through the second doorway of no return—something has to happen that sets up the final confrontation. Usually it comes in the form of a missing piece of information or a setback that hurtles the action toward a conclusion with one quarter of the novel to go.
Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River has two artfully placed transitions. The first occurs when Reuben’s older brother, Davy, shoots and kills two people and must flee. This thrusts Reuben into the middle on a quest to find Davy. The second doorway opens when Davy reappears, setting up the final battle within Reuben—should he reveal where Davy is?
Is it possible to write a novel that defies the conventions of structure? Certainly. Understand, though, that the more structure is ignored, the less chance the novel has to connect with readers.
The protagonist will gather his forces, inner and outer, for the final battle or choice that will end the story. There’s no going back. The story must end.
In the final quarter of the story, the protagonist emerges from the heart of the story world and the emotional development and dramatic action start all over again. In rapid succession, scenes build in significance and relevance as the protagonist makes choices. Tension, conflict, and suspense rise until the emotional development and dramatic action plotline collide head-on.
In the end:
- Once the reader and the character have had a moment of reprieve after the crisis, it is time to crank up the tension and the conflict.
- All scenes are required to put the protagonist in situations that force him to make choices, thereby “showing” the reader the direction he chooses.
- Each scene in the end builds in significance through rising tension, conflict, and stakes until your protagonist meets the climax.
- It’s best if the dramatic action, emotional development, and thematic significance collide at the same moment. Even if they occur in different scenes, the three plot lines must show the final confrontation of the biggest hurdle/ greatest challenge.
- The climax must have meaning to the overall story.
A well-defined character’s personality demands a specific resolution, one that in retrospect feels inevitable. After the dust of the cliffhanger settles, we learn whether the protagonist has been changed at depth, or not. This is when the thematic significance plot line is at its peak. A character fighting to gain what she desires is capable of producing an outcome of important consequence.
A Hollywood axiom warns that movies make it or break it in the last 20 minutes. In other words, for a film to have a chance, the last act, its climax, must satisfy. Regardless of what the first ninety minutes have achieved, if the final movement fails, the film will die on its opening weekend.
Compare two films: For the first eighty minutes of Blind Date, Kim Basinger and Bruce Willis careened through this farce, exploding laugh after laugh. But with the Act Two climax, all laughter ceased, Act Three fell flat, and what should have been a hit went south. Kiss of the Spider Woman, on the other hand, opened with a tedious thirty or forty minutes. But the film gradually drew us in and built pace until the climax moved us as few dramas do. Audiences who were bored at eight o’clock were elated at ten o’clock.
Story is metaphor for life, and life is lived in time. Story, therefore, is temporal art. The first commandment of temporal art is: Thou shall save the best for last. The final movement of a ballet, the coda of a symphony, the couplet of a sonnet, the last act and its story climax—these culminating moments must be the gratifying and meaningful.
If you fail to make the poetic leap to a brilliant end, the preceding story—every scene, character, and word spoken—amounts to a typing exercise. Why? Because if the end fails, the story fails.