REACHING THE CLIMAX
Although a novel’s place on the literary/commercial spectrum can vary, the conflict in a high concept plot is more external, the reward is tangible and the protagonist always succeeds. The sheriff captures the bad guy; the father rescues his daughter from the kidnappers; the unlikely hero saves the world.
The conflict in a literary novel tends to be more internal and the goal more abstract. The protagonist may seek happiness, understanding, love or some other pleasurable feeling. Keep in mind that psychological pain from the loss of any of these can sometimes be worse than physical torment.
A literary novel doesn’t guarantee a happy Hollywood ending. The protagonist may fail at achieving her goal but gain something more valuable, such as wisdom, knowledge or self-awareness.
Suppose an angry man who feels his elderly father has continually favored his younger brother wants to inherit his father’s business to prove he can be more successful than the old man was. His goal isn’t money. He has plenty of that but what he wants is respect and recognition, even if his father is no longer alive to witness it. The son struggles, using every means he can, sometimes resorting to unethical tactics, but he fails.
When the will is read, the brothers learn the company will be sold and the profits divided. The older brother doesn’t acquire the company as he had set out to do but instead receives a poignant letter from his father, expressing love and admiration for his first-born, strong-willed son and explaining he knew his younger son, who didn’t have his brother’s business acumen and tenacity, needed more guidance and help if he was to succeed. The older brother didn’t get the company, the goal he believed he wanted, but instead he got what he really needed: his father’s esteem and deep love.
A story without a clear goal, motivated characters, conflict and struggle is a story without interest. As screenwriting guru Robert McKee says, “Conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music.”
Whatever the protagonist wants, she must be emotionally invested in it and she should have a worthy antagonist—a person, a creature or a force of nature she must face and overcome before she can receive the prize. And she must earn it rather than have it given to her. A novel that doesn’t challenge the protagonist is dead in the water. Your job as the author is to make her life miserable.
She needs to be in a crucible, a place she can’t easily get out of. It could be a sinking ship, a remote island, an elevator, a prison or any other sealed container. She’s a target even though she’s innocent. A wrong turn takes her to a dead end. Her best friend has betrayed her. She’s stopped by a fire, a flood, a volcano. The antagonist and his cohorts are surrounding her, closing in, readying for the kill. She’s exhausted, physically and emotionally. Things get worse until it appears she’s more likely to die than get what she wants.
The more personally significant and challenging the goal, the greater the protagonist’s struggle. It’s a test of character. The way a person behaves under duress reveals who she truly is. The conflict should increase as the scenes near the climax. If you have a sagging middle (as many of us do), ratchet up the conflict and put more pressure on your protagonist.
But we want her to win because she’s a good person and she has suffered mightily. All the action in a novel is designed to produce an emotional response in the reader. The fear the protagonist won’t succeed creates tension. The greater the pressure, the higher the tension and fear.
Your plot should look like a ladder with the steps narrowing as the protagonist climbs toward the peak, toward the event that will determine her success. The more that’s at stake, the more powerful the climax. It’s a point of epiphany and profound change. In the real world, a traumatic event alters a person and gives her insight into her life. The climax in your novel should do the same.