The Sadistic Nature of Literary Climax
The very last thing I’d want to do after climbing a mountain is have a knock-down, drag-out fight. Or any kind of fight at all.
I’d just want to rest.
But that’s me. I’m not Wesley from The Princess Bride, who can climb the Cliffs of Insanity with or without a rope… partake in epic swordplay… best a giant… outsmart a Sicilian when death is on the line… survive the dangers of the fire swamp (where he could live quite happily for some time should he so choose)… come back from being mostly dead… and still come out looking oh-so cool and capable against Prince Humperdink.
Maybe you are Wesley and maybe you can do all that. I don’t know. But as for me, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
That’s one of the many reasons I’m very happy I’m not a character in a novel. Because, make no mistake of it. That’s precisely what we expect from our protagonists between the rising action and climax of our stories.
Which kinda, sorta makes us absolute jerks.
Actually, scratch the “kinda, sorta.” When it comes to what we put our protagonists through, there’s no question about it.
We really are absolute jerks, tearing them out of their comfort zones, throwing them into exceptionally uncomfortable conditions, and making them see it all through even when all they want to do is quit.
But hey, I guess if you’re to be something or do something, you might as well commit all the way.
So let’s do our novel best to be the best jerks we can possibly be.
Don’t let your protagonist have it so easy.
So your main character is tired. So he’s worn out from all that rising action. So she’s exhausted from so many words and pages and chapters filled with striving for her goal. So what? Dump even more on ‘em. That’s the whole point of a climax.
Depending on your exact plot, there might not be any physical action involved at this stage. Which is fine. But there should be psychological, emotional and/or spiritual action going on, forcing the main character to feel the full weight of whatever the epic struggle involves.
It’s supposed to be the most dramatic moment of the story. And you can’t do that by going easy on the drama.
It just doesn’t work that way.
Referring back to the always epic Princess Bride, we’ve already mentioned some of what the main characters go through during the rising action part of the film.
There’s that long list of dangers Wesley experiences… only to get thrown into the pit of despair and have his life sucked out of him.
(If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you really need to watch the movie.)
In Buttercup’s case, she gets kidnapped… almost eaten by shrieking eels… toted up the Cliffs of Insanity… abducted again by a masked man, even if he does turn out to be her long lost love… who drags her into the fire swamp, where she catches fire, almost drowns in quicksand and has to watch her long lost love get chewed up by an ROUS… and is then carted back to contemplate marrying a man she doesn't care for.
And in Inigo Montoya’s case (and yes, I maintain he’s a main character), he almost loses his life to Wesley, triggering a crisis of confidence.
After all that, they’re still subjected to loss of mobility, being “man and wife” with a sociopath, and getting stabbed in the gut, respectively.
While Wesley never seems to actually falter emotionally during the story’s climax, Buttercup definitely does. You can see the confusion written all over her face as she tries to process that Wesley didn’t rescue her after all. And Inigo Montoya is just as obviously feeling the weight of failure – on top of the blood rushing out of his midsection.
It’s just that they pull themselves together to come out ahead in the end. Because they have no other choice in the matter.
Because we novelists are jerks.
Because that’s what readers are looking for in literary climax. Accept no substitutes.