Saturday, April 16, 2011

Anticlimax (or why dodge ball is more fun when you get HIT)

So I've finally started pulling out of my romance reading binge. (Thank you, thank you, hold your applause.) One thing that helped? At the bottom of the stack were two books that, well, just didn't measure up. One was by an author I'd never read. One was by an author I've loved in the past (not Robyn Carr or Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Jennifer Crusie--those ladies would never do this). The woman can write... but this one fell flat for me.

No, I'm not telling you the names of the books or of the authors. I'm not writing a book blog--and even if I were, it's my blog, so I get to censor myself as much as I like. :)

The new author's book isn't really worth critiquing. It was full of so many newbie mistakes it can stand as a primer on what not to do. Yes, I took notes. No, I didn't finish it. Let's move on.

The more mystifying mistake was from the experienced author. I read one of her books once, loved it, forgot I'd read it, picked it up again, and, even after I recognized it, could not put it down. It was amazingly good. I recommend it to any romance lover. (Or, I would, if I was going to tell you who the author is. Which I'm not.) I've read a lot of her books, in fact, and loved them, too. This one, not so much. The beginning and middle were fine, but the ending.... Oh, the ending.

The problem was a series of anticlimaxes. None of the set-up conflicts ever actually exploded. Every one of them fizzled upon detonation:
  1. The heroine of the story had a doozy of a secret. The kind of secret that would make any normal prospective husband turn tail and run. When she told the hero about the secret, I braced myself for... something. Maybe he would take some time to think about it, while she felt horrible and wondered if she'd lost him forever. Maybe he would renounce her, expose her secret and then have to make it up to her later (of course there'd be a later: this is romance). Maybe he'd just quietly turn away, apologize, and wish her a happy life before realizing later that he couldn't live without her. What happened was, well, none of the above. He immediately embraced her, asked a few clarifying questions, then promptly declared his undying devotion. Whew. Dodged that one. That's a... relief.
  2. The hero had a rival who, through a bit of detective work, discovered the heroine's secret. When he proposed and she turned him down (already in love with the hero), I braced myself for his revenge, which would, of course, be terrible. He'd been set up as a bit of a controlling boor, who dreamed of possessing her (secret and all) and restricting her freedom. He took her rejection philosophically, then calmly told her that he knew her secret and detailed the steps he'd be willing to take to protect his wife from such a horrible past. Again, I braced myself for the heroine to make a horrible mistake. Will she accept his proposal to keep him quiet? Turns out, no, she turned him down again and went directly to the hero to enlist his help. Smart girl. Good dodge.
  3. Hero and Heroine then promptly went to confess her secret to her father. Heroine is worried that he'll be angry with her for keeping it from him for so long or that he'll be angry with her stepmother for helping her conceal such a thing from him. He's upset. He's sad that she didn't trust him. He takes some time to himself to go throw things around, just to vent his frustration. Then he forgives her without reservation. Yay. Happy, happy day. So glad everything is turning out so well.
  4. Of course, I'm still worried about the rival, who knows her secret and can ruin her with it. In the next scene with him, we find him on the road, traveling away from her house, contemplating the perplexing result of his proposal. Upon reflection, he decides that he was awfully rude, and turns around to return... and apologize. Yanno, just in case she took offense. Her stepmother stops him on the road, asks him his intentions, and he's shocked that she'd ever suspect that he'd even think of taking revenge. He reveals that some of his plans to protect the heroine are already, disastrously, in motion, and that, even if she doesn't marry him, he'd never violate her trust. Sigh.
  5. Worried about his plans? Don't be. Turn the page, and you find Heroine's father discovering that the plans actually weren't accomplished. All is well. Yippee.
  6. Then, of course, Hero must tell his family--including his overbearing, demanding father--that he's marrying such a tainted woman. That goes surprisingly well. Hero is actually a bit shocked. Personally, I'm beyond surprise.
  7. Hero must then ascend to his grandmother, whose approval is essential to preserving Heroine's popularity. He's nervous. (He obviously hasn't been paying attention.) Grandma already knows the secret (of course) and, after about 30 seconds, gives her wholehearted blessing. Aren't we happy? Why aren't we happy?
If you stopped reading halfway through the list, you're wiser than I am. I kept waiting for some conflict to mess things up for them, just as everything was going so well. It never happened.

Ever watch a game of dodge ball? Can you imagine a game of dodge ball where every ball that is thrown is dodged? Both teams throw and throw and throw, then skillfully jump, duck, and dodge every last ball. Nothing is caught, no one gets "out," and the score is deadlocked at zero.

Can you imagine anything more boring? How much of that do you think you'd sit through? Five minutes? For five minutes, you'd probably just be impressed, right? What skill! Ten minutes? Might start getting a bit boring. You'd start looking for the magnets and wondering if it was actually a holograph. After fifteen minutes, you'd be wanting to tie every last player to a pole so you could pelt them yourself, right?

In dodge ball, as in fiction, the entertainment value is found in the balls that hit home. The more painful it is, the more we like watching it. Player takes one in the face? We groan... smiling. Player's feet are knocked out from under him, causing a spectacular mid-air cartwheel before he goes crashing to the floor? We grimace as we cheer. Tension isn't found in a full set of invincible teams, but in the winnowing of them, as one team dwindles, its players nursing bruises on the sidelines.

Fiction is no different. No one wants to read a book where everything goes right. We want the conflict to be so strong, we wonder how the characters will ever get out of the mess they're in. We want the hits coming so hard and fast we wince while we frantically turn the pages, ignoring children, husbands, and burning dinners on the stove as we wait to see how it all turns out. Until the very, very end, we want to be kept on our toes, heart pounding, sure that, this time, good won't win. The underdog won't triumph. The couple won't get their happily ever after.

Until, miraculously, it does. They do. The team with one person left standing manages to beat the score of uber-athletes on the other team. The hero launches a Herculean, adrenaline-fueled effort, just as all is lost, and triumphs. Just as her love is about to marry someone else, the heroine bursts into the chapel. Evil is slain, just as it seemed at its strongest.

Victory must be snatched from the jaws of defeat. (Some cliches are true--just don't use them in your novel.) If it is handed over on a silver platter, we won't value it: we care very little for easy victories. We want easy in real life--fiction is for hard fantasies.

Sadly, even though I know this, it's hard to actually do it. If the awesome author mentioned above can slip up like that, I think I need to go over my ending a few more times, just to make sure my MC actually has to fight for her victories.

What do you do to make sure your climax isn't anti-?


  1. Wonderful post, Robin. I've actually received some feedback on my WIP that I had an element of anticlimatic going on, and I'm working through that right now.

    My hubby is probably my toughest obstacle to get around when providing conflict. He wants everybody to be nice to each other. He hates the conflict, and it bothers him if it's ME writing it. *sigh* I read him the first chapters of my SciFi ms and the mc has a very hard thing happen to her. It traumatized him.

    No way would I ever get him to read "I Am Not a Serial Killer".

  2. Your hubby is so cool. Not so good at writing interesting books, apparently, but cool nonetheless. :D Just point out that even the BoM has conflict--and that there are important lessons to be learned in dealing with horrible happenings.

  3. I have beta readers! Hopefully they would tell me this. I don't think it's something a writer would do purposefully. But you'd think editors would pick up on it. I guess it's the whole subjective thing! :)

  4. Laura--I think this might be part of the cost of success. You have fewer beta readers and those you do have--along with your agent and editor--might be inclined to trust you just a bit too much. Then, of course, you have deadlines imposed on you before you even start, so corners get clipped.

    Just guessing.

  5. Sometimes I just keep throwing obstacles at my characters when things start to slow down. They've already got a pile of garbage on top of them? How much more can I drop on their heads? ;)

    I think the most invaluable thing are the people who help me all along the way. The friends/family who let me rant about plots and characters, bounce ideas off of them--I often have at least one person who reads the story as I'm writing it, which is the best thing in the world. Not only does it let me catch things as I go, but if I get stuck on something, I can call/email the person reading it and be like, "Does this make sense? Does this seem in character? I have three options--what do you think?" Then when I finish the book, there are the people who pour over it, rip it to pieces, critique it, tell me what I'm doing wrong and what I'm doing right.

    (I also have really, really awesome beta-readers. I have people who are bluntly honest and very picky about what they read, and people who are meticulous about characterization, and people who see the details that I might have missed.)

  6. You can never have too many obstacles, say I. Also, you can never have too many awesome beta readers.

    I don't have someone read as I go (I need my bad first draft), but I do have someone I bounce ideas off of. He knows almost everything about it, even though he's never read it.

  7. I agree, your reviewers/beta-readers are key to making sure have not really messed up. My wife and I have several in progress readers for our WIP and a few after we are done readers as well.

    So far, all the feedback we have gotten has been great and very beneficial. They have pointed out some things that we have needed to fix. Most of them have been minor but all have been important to fix.

    Of course, the opposite is also true. While feedback is great, to much feedback can lead to analysis paralysis. And then you would get caught in a cycle of trying to achieve perfection in your WIP and never being able to finish it.

  8. Eric--So true. Sadly, I'm nowhere near perfection, so I'll be editing for a while to come. :)

  9. Awesome, awesome post, Robin! Loved it! That climax has *got* to hit home or else the reader will be left....wanting. The end of the novel then turns into a ginormous letdown instead of what it should be - a tension filled, amazing-that-they're-all-still-alive climax that leaves the reader astounded and panting for more.

    Great stuff! :)

  10. Thanks, Kristin. The story should not end before the end! I'm glad we agree. :)

  11. I agree that you need a strong climax but you also need the unexpected. That is what creates the gap for you to fill in for the reader. I usually ask myself, when writing a scene, "what is the last thing you would expect to happen now?" If that happens then the reader will surely say "What the [insert comfortable level of profanity here]!" It also gives the writer something to explain until the next important plot point.

    One disagreement. I do think you can have too many obstacles. I have read some books where people are dropping like flies, or so many bad things are happening, that I start to become desensitized and apathy sets in. It has the added problem of making the building to the final climax darn near impossible. If the character's world has been completely destroyed a bunch of times before the final climax you may not have anything to top that last event. It is a delicate balance that I struggle with each day in my own WIP.

  12. Dang it, Josh-- I KNEW someone would call me on that. :) All generalities are false. =D Leave it to the lawyer.

  13. I love your post titles. So fun. And a little insight into your personality.

  14. Maria--What an awesome compliment! Thanks! (Look, everyone! I'm fun! Maria says so!) :)

  15. Robin, this post is great! I love the connection between a good dodgeball game and writing conflict. Sometimes the hero's gotta take one in the face. :)