Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Don't Look Directly At The Drama Or You'll Go Blind

You know how you're not supposed to look directly at some types of eclipses because the light might damage your eyes?

I wonder if you're not supposed to write directly about some dramatic points in your story because it'll end up being a let down for the reader.

I recently finished two novellas that were more plot heavy that most of my other stories. They were fairly linear, building up to climactic moments that involved murder and the like. As I was writing up to the dramatic scene, I was feeling the excitement of the story. But, when I got to the actual scene, there was always a bit of a let down. At least for me. Like other activities, it seemed like the build up to the climax is better than the climax.

It's not a surprise that readers have expectations when they're moving through a story. If you are leading them somewhere, and building the tension, they're probably preparing themselves for some big climactic moment. But, will the actual writing ever match up with what a reader hopes to read?

My guess is no.

In my experience, rarely has anything in reality been better than the vague expectations I prepared myself for. My unopened Christmas presents are always much cooler than my opened ones. And, it has nothing to do with quality, in my experience. It has to do with expectations. If you're expecting a mouthful of chocolate, a grapefruit is going to taste funny no matter how good it is.

I thought of Light In August by William Faulkner. In that book, the climactic scene isn't told to us directly. Readers are led up close the climax, and then, POOF, we're on the other side, and hearing about the event secondhand. Faulkner's reasons for doing that always puzzled me, but as I was writing my novellas I realized that that little F-ster might have actually been on to something. (If he were alive, I'd tussle his hair.) By leaving the climax unwritten, the reader is allowed to insert his or her imaginary expectations into the gap. They're creating their own climax, or at least supplementing the climax.

I'm going back to Cyberlama after taking my little novella-cation, and I'm excited to play with this idea of the hidden or implied climax.

What do you think?


  1. I like that idea actually - you're right about the unopened gifts. When we spell it all out, we leave little to the imagination.

  2. Writing the climactic sense is quite a struggle, I find. There's always a sense that it isn't dramatic enough, that the build-up was such that the scene would be anti-climactic no matter how well it was written.

    Pulling away from the climax suddenly is a tricky way to deal with the issue. It wouldn't work for every climactic scene. It would do very well for a murder or the like, though!

  3. Hmm, interesting. I've tried this before - leaving out the climax and moving around it, and I think it can work. I don't think it's something a writer should do as a gimmick, though, or in every book even if it's done well. Most of the time, for me, I have several little high points in the story toward the end. I'm not sure I could move around all of them before it felt like I was avoiding something.

  4. Steena, writing so that the reader still has to use her or his imagination is something that I've only recently realized is a powerful tool. I'm still experimenting with it, still trying to learn how to make it happen.

    S.M., I think you're right that it wouldn't work all the time. That's interesting that you say it would work well for a murder. That intuitively makes sense to me. Is it because a murder is usually more action-based?

  5. Michelle, I think it's good general advice not to use the same techniques for every book. I also don't think this would work for multiple points in the same book. As a reader, I'd definitely be annoyed by that...and have been in the case of some books.

  6. @Domey - I actually did this on my first go-through of Part I of Sublimation. There is a climactic moment that I tried to imply. For thriller readers, though, it felt to them like a cheat. They'd been teased with the idea of the climax, and then implying it felt like not delivering on the promise.

    So I think how well it works depends on what you're writing.

  7. I've thought about this before, and I think one of the keys is whether or not the events of the dramatic scene happen exactly the way we think they will. If the scene plays out without surprises or twists or that extra oomph we need from a climax, it really might be best just to skip it.

    But I also think that the reading experience of a climactic scene is slightly different from the writing experience. For me, that climax is often what inspired me to write, so I'll have been looking forward to it and working toward it for months. When I finally get through it, there's always this let down, even if it's a pretty good draft. It's just this sense that it's over, the scene I've been working toward and imagining and reimagining.

  8. I think that, in literary fiction anyway, this is good advice. Especially if the climax is built around some sort of action, like a death. The actual moment seems undramatic, anticlimatic. The surrounding thematic/emotional meaning is usually more important than the act anyway. In Killing Hamlet I don't show Hamlet's moment of death. In Cocke & Bull the important deaths are not described either, but you know they happen. "And then he was dead" is a pretty empty narrative structure.

    I also think maybe in climactic scenes, we try too hard to make it a Big Event and change the way we write our prose. The scene is cimactic because of what came before it, so we should just write it as matter-of-factly as we do everything else and not try to make a big production of it or the immediate aftermath of it. The drama is, after all, primarily in the mind of the reader and not on the page.

  9. I did this in my first novel, not because I intended to but because I wasn't sure how to write the big confrontation. So, I cut away to a different scene where the aftermath was being dealt with, which I think worked better for the story.

    Had I approached the story differently, I might have needed to write out the big confrontation scene. But because this book is the first in a series, I had to let the villain escape and leave certain matters unresolved until the second book's climax.

  10. I think it's a great idea to keep something hidden, to make the reader think about things rather than have it easily spelled out. The surprise as they open the Xmas present is what can really make the story memorable. Nice post, Davin!

  11. What I did in my fantasy novel was build to the climactic scene and then pull away -- BUT -- not to put it off stage, but to take the reader away for a brief pause to one of the subplots that still needed tying up. I tied that subplot up in a quiet fashion, and then after that little respite, dove back into the climactic scene and tore loose.

    That way, even if the climactic scene was no more dramatic than many of the other big moments in the book, at least the reader was chomping at the bit more to get to it. Simple delaying tactic. You can't use this too often, though, nor can you delay for too long, without risking annoying the reader.

    I tend to feel irritated if a book has a big moment off stage. Sure, I can use my imagination, but it can also make me wonder if the author was not up to snuff. I want my money shots, please.

  12. My first finished novel had a ridiculously awesome ending. I'm still really shocked by how perfectly it just flowed out. The ending of my second novel was a really good idea, but the actuality didn't work out so well. Endings are hard to manage, and if they don't work the first time, it's very difficult for them to ever work.

  13. Nevets, that's a good point. In Light In August, the technique does feel unclimactic to me on the page. it forces me to pull more things out of my imagination, and if a reader is not looking for that, this doesn't seem like it would work.

    Jordan, You're absolutely right about expectations. There needs to be some element of surprise, and maybe I and other writers are just not doing enough of that and not working hard enough at it. Reading a bunch of short stories as an editor, I think a lot of people put a climax in the right place, but they aren't always climactic. They haven't put enough thought into them.

    Scott, You make a good point about the important thing being the meaning in literary fiction. You also make an interesting point about the writing of the climax. I feel like I've faced both situations. In one, it was definitely best to just keep writing the way I was writing before. In another, I felt the need to put a little more into it. I have to think about that. That's interesting.

    TraciB, that's interesting. It's almost like your climactic moment wasn't a true climax because there's one coming in later in the series. That makes sense to me. I also get what you mean about not knowing how to write something. I've definitely dealt with that!

  14. Eric, Thanks! I just know that's often my experience with Christmas presents! My favorite gifts have been things that I get randomly. A remember someone giving me a vanilla bean from Tahiti, and that was one of my favorite gifts of all time. Someone else also once gave me a box that was very special. There was a surprise element to both.

    Mizmak, I used that pulling away technique in my novel Rooster too. I did find that it was helpful. You end up still having to deal with the climax, but you have taken some control over the reader's expectations leading up to the climax. That makes sense. I'll email you my money shot.

    McKenzie, that's an interesting view. In my experience, I've fixed some bad endings before. It usually involves lopping off a big chunk of the story, sometimes half, and then leading up to an ending again.

  15. I like the idea of an implied climax. The end of a book disapoints me more often than anything stylistic or character driven etc. I don't know if I could pull it off myself though. I'd be afraid it would be even a bigger disapointment. (What!???!! You had us sit through all that build up and then . . . nothing?) But I'm sure there are those who cold pull it off wuite well.

  16. You are right in almost all cases, but I can think of one author who knocks my socks off at the end of each of his books.

    Yann Martel writes the best endings. Ever.

    I also like unexpected climaxes, ones I didn't anticipate. I suppose that's like the surprise Christmas gift that you didn't even know you wanted. Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society was good at those.

  17. Your timing on this post could not have been better for me, Jedi master, (and hey, maybe that's what happened to my eyes- I looked at the drama too long! :~)

    I'm at a critical point in blending in new material with my first draft of my current WIP, and I've been stalling. I realize now it's cause I got stage fright.

    I realize I've been avoiding it the past few days because I can see the climax of the story so clearly and I worried about doing it justice.

    Now I feel my instincts are right- keep reviewing the material I already have as I go, blending and making it seamless as I can and hoping that the characters will take good care of the drama for me. They haven't let me down so far.

    Thanks for this.


  18. Taryn, That's funny. Yes, I guess skipping and ending can be just as bad a writing one poorly.

    Stephanie, That's a good example. I was going to mention movies with twist endings too. Those are definitely times when you need to show the ending directly. I didn't much get into Life of Pi, but the end of that book was pretty good.

    Bru, when I was young I wanted badly to be Yoda. Anyway, the approach you describe is very similar to how I deal with endings. I even often try to trick myself. I'll write the end while telling myself I have 30 more pages to go, and then I just stop. No joke.

  19. I sure know what you mean about expectaion vs. reality, and in story telling, I think it's difficult to meet a reader's expectation...or maybe it's just me feeling as if the climax of my stories is anti-climactic.

    Sometimes, I'd like to just leave it to my reader's imagination--though Faulkner could get away with it, I feel as if it would be a copout for me--I need to learn how to write an effective climax.

  20. Hm, I don't know. It sounds like it could be a recipe for reader frustration to me. LIke, "I know I promised you icecream, but let's just pretend we ate it already."

    Maybe, as usual, this is a genre thing.

    In a romance, you must have the True Love Revealed scene. If you skip it, woe to you, readers will hate you forever.

    In a murder mystery, you must have the Reveal where the murderer is named. If you don't, wtf. That's all. Wtf is the point of the story.

    In a sf, you should explain the puzzle. In a fantasy, you should overcome the big bad, or whatever.

    I think if you didn't actually SHOW these scenes, but just declared they had happened, it would be pretty damn annoying.

    Now, maybe what you are talking about is that what is the real climax of the story is not what it seems. If you (as reader, not writer) already know exactly how the end is going to unfold, maybe you don't need to repeat it, because there's no point, no surprise. So you either have to introduce a twist into the end, or you have to flow past the predicable to what is really the climax -- the emotional aftermath, or an unexpected result.

    Sometimes knowing what is coming can make it all the better when it comes. My favorite example is The Princess Bride. We know early on in the story that Inigo Montoya plans to kill the six-fingered man, and even what he is going to say when he kills him. So what could be more boring than the scene when Inigo Montoya actually starts fighting the six-fingered man and tells him, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

    But it isn't boring at all. It's the greatest revenge scene in the history of cinema. (Imho.) Inigo does exactly what he said he would, and in fact, the "twist" is that he does it so literally, because he can't think of anything else to say.

    Just think if that entire scene had been skipped, and Inigo just caught up with Wesley and said, "I killed him. I said my line. Good to go now."


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