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Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: The Climactic Scene

Plotting a Novel in 3 Acts by Janalyn Voigt for Live Write BreatheThe stakes are at their highest in the final face-off between the antagonist and protagonist of your novel.  With the reader’s expectations keyed to the maximum, this do-or-die moment can make or break your book.  

No pressure there, right? Breathe deeply and hang on tight, because we’re going to dive into the climactic scene. Although that final, nail-biting event occurs near the end of your book, the build-up to it encompasses most of Act 3. You will recall that Act 2 ends with  the second plot point that propels the plot toward its final major conflict. If you’ve built your story well, your reader will be turning pages to find out what happens next.

How do you bring the climactic scene to this enviable point?

Make Readers Worry

Throughout your story the protagonist should pursue a deep desire that events conspire to circumvent.  Each obstacle leads the protagonist farther away from the desired outcome and closer to the thing feared most (often the direct opposite of the deep desire). This is the essence of any story arc, in a nutshell. By the time the story reaches the climactic scene, attainment of the protagonist’s deep desire seems all but impossible. Indeed it would be if the protagonist had not experienced a life-changing epiphany.

It is out of this changed mindset that the protagonist is now able to face his or her greatest fear and overcome a previously impossible challenge. Frodo finds the strength from within to cast the one ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Scarlet gains the wisdom to overcome her infatuation for the wrong man and confess her love for Rhett. (Regardless of Rhett’s subsequent rejection, this is her moment of victory.)  Victory should never be a sure thing, though, and in fact defeat should seem more likely.

One way to make your readers worry is to have the protagonist’s epiphany take place off stage, so to speak. Readers experience the black moment but don’t learn how it changed the protagonist until the final confrontation.  This leaves them guessing, which is always a good thing. Involving readers in the epiphany can be powerful, so consider this well. What to do depends on the dictates of the story. Revealing Scarlett’s changed mindset in Gone With The Wind, doesn’t give the ending away as her unpredictable nature makes it uncertain what she will do next. She has demonstrated over the course of the novel that she is capable of truly messing up her life, making the reader’s concern for her well-founded.

To avoid giving away your story’s ending too soon, give away only as much information as will keep readers from becoming frustrated.

Increase Risk

Make sure the final conflict is something worth fighting over. Not every story has to have a world at stake, but the outcome should matter to your reader. Only when you touch readers’ emotions on a gut level will they truly engage with your story. To do this, evoke universal experiences. We can all understand on a gut level a parent’s fear for a child’s safety, the drive to redeem a failure, or the need to appease guilt through forgiveness. The depth of your readers’  identification with your protagonist’s struggle correlates directly with their perception of risk.

The antagonist, whether an actual person or not, should be a worthy opponent offering formidable opposition. The stronger the antagonist, the greater the risk will seem. This doesn’t mean your antagonist should have no weaknesses, however. Unless you’re writing melodrama, avoid making a hero too heroic and a villain too dastardly.

Shorten the Time Frame

You can wrest control out of your main character’s hands and propel the plot into a satisfying resolution by abbreviating the time needed to attain the main character’s desired outcome. With less time than ever and the clock ticking relentlessly, suspense can’t fail to heighten.

Stage the Final Conflict

Tolkien could have placed the climactic scene of his The Lord of the Rings Trilogy anywhere, but he chose Mount Doom. The name of this location is already so sinister it creates a sense of dread in advance of the final conflict. This is foreshadowing at its best. Even in genres that don’t call for obvious naming, it can be possible to carry off subtle nuances.

Climactic events often take place in a new location to increase the sense of isolation and drama. The setting for the final showdown should match the mood of the story and complicate the protagonist’s journey by giving the advantage to the antagonist.

Resist the Urge to Explain

We’ve all seen movies or read books where the villain and hero engage in a lengthy conversation about what brought them to the present situation. Unless handled well, this tactic usually doesn’t work well because it slows events to a snail’s pace and stalls momentum. It’s hard to pull out of the tailspin that results, which brings us to the next point.

Keep the Pacing Fast

Now is not the time for leisurely descriptive passages and lengthy introspection. Action is the thing that’s needed most here. Simple sentence structures help keep momentum high. They hit the reader with a constant barrage of new thoughts. It’s usually best to save lyrical sentences for slower passages. Let your sentences serve the story and not vice versa.

Let the Main Character Win

Your main character should directly affect the outcome of the final conflict.  Never cheat the reader of the vicariously defeating a worthy antagonist to win a prize of value. There should be a moment of truth when your protagonist acts upon the change brought about in the epiphany following the black moment. From this point on, the wheels are in motion to bring about the antagonist’s defeat.

Don’t Cut Away Too Soon

Let your reader revel in the main character’s hard-won reward. That’s not to say you should drag things out, but pause a moment to let your reader taste the sweetness of victory.

Writing the climactic scene can intimidate the best of us, but once you wade into the pool, you’ll find the water is fine.  

Do you have more tips to add? Have you ever been intimidated at the thought of writing a climactic scene? 

 
©2014 by Janalyn Voigt

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What’s New at Live Write Breathe in 2014?

What's New in 2014 @Janalyn VoigtA new calendar with tidy rows of blank squares just waiting for my pen–there’s nothing like the turn of a new year! I’ve been busy for a while filling those squares with post topics, thoughts for videos, and other interesting ideas. I’m eager to make this site even better in the coming year, and of course I’d love to hear from you about what you’d like to see. Contact me.

My Writing Site Goals

Live: This month we’ll take a look at an active writing lifestyle in the form of conferences, retreats, literary events, and research trips. We’ll also do a little soul searching to make sure we’re on track for the best writing life possible for our individual needs.

Write: I’ll conclude my Plotting a Novel in Three Acts blog series, and then delve into scene writing, storyline, characterization, and creativity.

Breathe: We’ll touch on time management, margin, self-care, and more.

My Writing Goals

This year I’m hoping to write a total of 240,000 words, God willing. I’d like to attain that despite starting the year with a minor health concern that led to a major reaction to a medication. This has not been fun, and I’ve lost valuable work time right when the year and my enthusiasm were their freshest. I also was in the middle of the book launch for Wayfarer, book two of my epic fantasy trilogy, Tales of Faeraven. We’ll see if I can regain my momentum.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my writing production goals for 2014.

DawnKing (Tales of Faeraven3): Complete the final 5,000 words  of the novel, edit, and submit to my publisher.

Elf Seeyer: Complete the final 10,000 words of the novella and self-publish it. This will be a freebie for subscribers to my website.

Edit the sample chapters for a romantic suspense novel.

Write Deceptive Tide, an Islands of Intrigue: San Juans novel, written: 65,000 words.

Complete a top-secret project as a resource to writers: 50,000 words.

Write the 80,000 word romantic suspense novel I wrote sample chapters to query my agent with.

Write the proposal and sample chapters for a new fantasy series: 15,000 words.

Write a 10,000-word sweet romance.

We’ll take a look at these goals periodically through the year. I hope you’ll leave your own in the comments so we can assess our progress together.

 

 
DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn VoigtNeed a good book to read?

DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn Voigt

A headstrong young princess and the guardian sworn to protect her fly on winged horses to the Gate of Life above the Well of Light in a desperate bid to release the DawnKing, and the salvation he offers, into a divided land. Will they each learn in time that sometimes victory comes only through surrender?

Purchase DawnSinger today!

©2013 by Janalyn Voigt

How to Edit by Janalyn VoigtSubscribe to the Creative Worlds of Janalyn Voigt and receive a free copy of How to Edit: Checklists and Guidance for Fiction Writers

Are You a Story Crafter or a Storyteller?

Are You a Story Crafter or StorytellerIn many ways, the world of book publishing parallels that of musical performance. Both are beautiful, exhilarating, and demanding. And both can sap creativity. Where the ultimate product is art, inevitable conflicts between business needs and creative expression exert themselves. When it comes to breaking in, those with technical brilliance have an advantage, but to rise to the top, something else is needed.

I once represented my college as the soprano member of a vocal quartet in an honor’s choir made up of students from colleges from the western United States. We prepared on our own, and then met for three long days of rehearsal. Yes, there was glitz and glory in our single performance, but something happened during one of the rehearsals that taught me a lesson worth learning. Read more at Wordserve Water Cooler.

DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn VoigtNeed a good book to read?

DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn Voigt

A headstrong young princess and the guardian sworn to protect her fly on winged horses to the Gate of Life above the Well of Light in a desperate bid to release the DawnKing, and the salvation he offers, into a divided land. Will they each learn in time that sometimes victory comes only through surrender?

Purchase DawnSinger today!

©2013 by Janalyn Voigt

How to Edit by Janalyn VoigtSubscribe to the Creative Worlds of Janalyn Voigt and receive a free copy of How to Edit: Checklists and Guidance for Fiction Writers

Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: Second Plot Point

Plotting a Novel in 3 Acts: Aristotle's-Incline Graphic by Janalyn Voigt

The second plot point injects the final information needed to propel a novel toward its climax. Occurring around the 75% mark, this scene effectively rings the curtain down on the novel’s second act as it skews the story in an unexpected direction. From this point onward, the reader is aware that the climax has begun and is now inevitable. 

Nothing intimidating in all of that, right? Breathe deep, and we’ll take it slow.

In the story of Cinderella, the second plot point occurs when she flees the ball, losing a slipper in the process. Could the first-time hearer of this tale have foretold she would lose a slipper? No. This event pivots the story and launches a chain of events in which Prince Charming finds Cinderella. She is forced into a position where she must choose whether to step forward despite opposition and overcome both her poverty and the animosity of her step-mother.

To help us grasp the second plot point, let’s look at its results.

  • Acceleration of the quest. Cinderella’s search for true love is about to be realized.
  • Loss of control creates an internal crisis for the antagonist: As the prince takes action, Cinderella is forced to respond to events beyond her control. She must choose whether to remain under the tyranny of abuse or believe in her own worth enough to escape it.
  • Uncertainty: At this point, there are no guarantees of a happy ending.
  • Raised stakes. The prize elevates from going to a ball into marriage to Prince Charming and rescue from the obscurity of poverty.
  • Heightened danger. The prince searching for Cinderella represents a danger because of her step-mother’s antagonism.
  • Heightened emotion. Cinderella has both fallen in love and glimpsed a different style of life. At the stroke of a clock, she has fallen from wealth back into poverty. Her sorrow and profound disappointment lay the groundwork to heighten her later joy.
  • The antagonist’s situation worsens. Cinderella returns to brutal labor as she serves her ever-more-demanding step-sisters and step-mother. In some versions of the story, Cinderella’s step-mother suspects she went to the ball and punishes her with an increased workload. 

So, how do you bring all of this about?

Know the end from the beginning. Have at least a rough idea where your story is headed, and then brainstorm how to get there. Look for an event that will act as a turning point.

Work backwards. Take the results of the second plot point into consideration as you decide your second plot point. Use them as a ruler to measure your brainstormed scene. 

Trust your instincts. It’s all too easy to second-guess a plot. While it’s good to leave yourself open to suggestion, once you are certain of your story’s path, follow it.

Plotting a novel becomes easier with an understanding of story structure. Check out more posts on plotting a novel in three acts.
DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn VoigtNeed a good book to read?

DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn Voigt

A headstrong young princess and the guardian sworn to protect her fly on winged horses to the Gate of Life above the Well of Light in a desperate bid to release the DawnKing, and the salvation he offers, into a divided land. Will they each learn in time that sometimes victory comes only through surrender?

Purchase DawnSinger today!

©2013 by Janalyn Voigt

How to Edit by Janalyn VoigtSubscribe to the Creative Worlds of Janalyn Voigt and receive a free copy of How to Edit: Checklists and Guidance for Fiction Writers

Writing Critiques Versus Criticism

Writing Critiques Versus Writing Criticism by @JanalynVoigtWriting a first draft is akin to flying. On a wing and a prayer, I launch out above the crowd. Just like Dumbo, I don’t need anyone else or even a magic feather to soar.

And then it’s time to land, which in literary terms means self-editing. If I am wise, I call upon others to help me see the flaws in my manuscript. If I am humble, I thank those who expend their time and energy to save me from myself in this way.

All critiques are not equal, and it’s important to know the difference between them. Critiques fall into three categories: soft-hearted, honest, and hard-hearted.

  • Soft-hearted writing critiques happen when others sugar coat the truth because they are worried about hurting your feelings. The trouble with this approach is that if you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t fix it. To avoid soft-hearted critiques, ask writers whose opinions and motives you trust for straightforward appraisals.
  • Honest writing critiques point out weaknesses like plot holes, dialogue discrepancies, and believability issues for the soul purpose of helping you improve your manuscript. They offer new perspectives you might not have considered and also point out what is working in the manuscript.
  • Hard-hearted writing critiques are when others clip your wings, make you question your abilities, and banish you to the editing pit, where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Why, oh why, did you ever think you could fly?

Be careful who you allow to advise you on your manuscript. Other writers can be terrible critics, sometimes in the name of misguided helpfulness, and sometimes out of professional jealousy. Remember that at this stage you are like a newly emerged butterfly. To dry your damp wings, you need the warmth of the sun not an icy blast.

It’s important to know the difference between a writing critique and criticism. The first wounds to heal, and the second wounds to kill. Welcoming a critique helps you grow as an author, but allowing criticism to take root can cause you to discard a manuscript with potential and can even make you want to quit writing altogether.

Screen your critique partners. Make sure they have the requisite experience or at least good instincts. There’s a popular notion that writers should be paired with other writers with more experience. This idea presents obvious logistical difficulties and problems of another sort. Experienced writers often need more advanced feedback than an inexperienced author can give in return. Since writers are often time-pressed, its probably clear why more-experienced writers might be reluctant critique partners for those with less experience. Finding writers with a similar experience level to your own works best most of the time.

But if your critique partners are on your own level, how will you grow?  

You study the craft of writing. Putting responsibility for your growth as a writer on others does two things, both of them negative. It removes control of this vital aspect of the writing life from you, and it puts that responsibility on shoulders never meant to bear it.

Having said that, I have to add that you can still grow through contact with critique partners on your own level because none of us has everything about writing nailed. Maybe you will have compelling descriptions down pat while someone else masters the intricacies of plotting. You will simply complete one another’s knowledge.

I hope this post helps you evaluate your own critique processes and make adjustments where needed. If you’d care to leave additional thoughts in the comments, below, you are welcome to do so with my thanks.
DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn VoigtNeed a good book to read?

DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn Voigt

A headstrong young princess and the guardian sworn to protect her fly on winged horses to the Gate of Life above the Well of Light in a desperate bid to release the DawnKing, and the salvation he offers, into a divided land. Will they each learn in time that sometimes victory comes only through surrender?

Purchase DawnSinger today!

©2013 by Janalyn Voigt

How to Edit by Janalyn VoigtSubscribe to the Creative Worlds of Janalyn Voigt and receive a free copy of How to Edit: Checklists and Guidance for Fiction Writers