On Writing the Climax

Posted on Feb 16, 2014 | 0 comments

unstoppable-art-topimg-1Some authors say the ending is the hardest part of the book to write. For others, it’s the beginning.

For me, it’s the climax.

I’m talking about that moment in a book when all the plot lines are running full steam.  You’ve spent 100 pages or more laying tracks, loading in fuel, stoking fires, buffing shiny parts and building up a head of steam for each of your story lines. All three of them. Or four. Or more, even. You’ve put a lot of work into getting them going, and now, suddenly, they are MOVING.

Downhill.

They’re accelerating.

And that’s when you realize that you still have to steer! There are turns ahead! Forks! Decision points! Their paths are going to CROSS! (Their paths had BETTER cross.) Their timing must be perfect! You need them to accelerate, to intersect at the right places, align, graze each other a bit, throw some sparks—maybe throw a lot of sparks—all while continuing on at breakneck speed.

But they must not crash, because then everybody would die, and all your work would be for naught. No: in the end, each one has to slow and stop, coming gently to rest in exactly the right place.

Intact.

But also changed. Sleeker. More beautiful. Weathered, perhaps, and scratched. Maybe even dented. But better.

Your engines must run downhill and out of control, and you must not only prevent their destruction but somehow make their adventure mean something.

That’s what it feels like to bring a novel through the crazy climax, and it’s nerve-wracking. I think this is true whether the climax is action-packed or purely emotional. I’ve said that it feels like juggling on a high wire. But as I think about it right now, trying to steer an out-of-control train is a much better comparison. You want it to go fast, fast, FAST!—but you need to be able to navigate the turns and avoid obstacles without jumping the track.

Here’s another suitable metaphor: Downhill ski racing. You want to keep your turns as shallow as possible for maximum speed, but if you shave too far and hit a gate, you’ll lose momentum. Just ask Bode Miller.

I reached the climax point of my current work-in-progress just before the holidays, at the end of a three-day writing binge that brought all my story lines to just where I wanted them: the edge of the precipice.

Then I went away for Christmas with my family. I left my trains teetering on the cliff, steam bubbling up in their engines, brakes straining to keep them in check. I put them out of my mind. I lost my writer’s momentum. And in the process, I lost my nerve.

And here it is, two months later, and I haven’t managed to release the brakes and push them over the edge! Because, to me, this is the very hardest part of writing a novel. It’s scary. You fear crashing. But lack of nerve can result in lackluster speed. It’s daunting!

I’ve been writing other things, taking care of other business, distracting myself with a million chores and activities, some of them quite productive, but so far, I’ve avoided the climax. It’s just so challenging and risky to attempt.

The time will come, however—and really, it had better be soon—when I will run out of other things to focus on and I’ll have to start those engines and release the brakes. I’ve got my outline; I’ve got my laptop; I’ve got that head of steam, ready to propel things forward. And luckily, unlike a train’s engineer or a downhill racer, I will get the chance to go back and revise my descent.

So I think it’s time to go over the edge. Look out below!

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