Episode 209: Where and When to Climax

On December 10, 2022, Kasie and Rex continued the plot structure journey with Freytag’s pyramid which some writers criticize for climaxing too soon. Seriously. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Plot structure: Freytag’s Pyramid

Agenda

  • Can you believe we’ve never done plot structure? Until last week …
  • Basic types
  • Focus on Freytag’s Pyramid
  • How to do it
Photo by Nur Andi Ravsanjani Gusma on Pexels.com

Are you coming to our Holiday Party? It’s Wednesday, December 14th at 6 p.m. at The Aristocrat and will feature readings from eight writers:

  • Lis Anna-Langston
  • Bonnie Stanard
  • Phil Lenski
  • Paula Benson
  • Dr. Walter Curry
  • AJ Brown
  • And of course, us.

Should be a lot of fun. We’re making it a kind of contest where listeners can vote on their favorite stories and when you and I inevitably win, we’ll taunt the others mercilessly. Only kidding, just trying to put skin in the game with a little healthy competition and some trash talk.

Now! Plot structures! Can you believe last week was the first time we’d done this? We did a whole series on character arcs (start with Episode 165 then 168 & 169) in response to 2021’s #NaNoWriMo and here we are, fresh off 2022’s #NaNoWriMo talking about plot structure.

Who doesn’t love a good road map? That’s what a plot structure is. Get the basics here. There are five parts:

  1. Exposition
  2. Complication
  3. Turning Point
  4. Falling action
  5. Denouement (if you thought this was the falling action, you’re not alone).

Unpack:

  • Exposition – it’s 1) everything that happened before the story began, and 2) the “regular life” we’re in before the inciting incident occurs.
  • Complication – or inciting incident is 1) why the story is beginning here, 2) the thing that shifts us out of everyday and into the adventure
  • Turning point – or climax is 1) where everything we’re building comes to a head, we cannot go on this way, something must change; 2) the main character either gets or is forever denied his desire.
  • Falling action – is what happens after the climax (mostly) but also leads us toward resolution; it’s 1) less dramatic than the climax (certainly) but 2) more satisfying as we start to tie up all the loose ends we untied in the first and second acts.
  • Denouement – is the final resolution or the happily ever after or whatever else you want to end the story on it’s 1) a logical conclusion that either leaves the reader wanting more (but understanding why this has to be the end) or 2) an abrupt finale that devastates the reader and only after we go back over the elements do we realize it had to end else go on forever.

The three-act structure or the pyramid is credited to Gustav Freytag (link) but has a lot in common with Aristotle’s outline, too.

Aristotle said plot is character revealed by action. Real basic-like: beginning, middle, end. Here’s a whole slide deck on the two to help you fully get it.

Segment 2

So let’s talk examples. What are some great expository beginnings? The classic, of course, is George Orwell’s well-known dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-four, opens with the following statement that should seem out of the ordinary: It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (link)

The challenge with Freytag’s pyramid is that exposition can sometimes be really cumbersome. So how can you write exposition that gets your reader engaged right off the bat? Glad you asked:

  • Build a specific scenario – the link (below) suggests a memory or a flashback could do this, but we have discussed (at length) not introducing a flashback too early or why not just begin there? If, however, our character is engaged in something specific (furtive, secretive, something that makes him nervous) you could engage us early. Examples?
  • Set up a vivid place and time – I like an opening with a holiday or something else people recognize, a party, a wedding, the first day of school. Something the reader immediately knows and then let us bring our own experiences into the scene.
  • Begin with key character details – a book like Wonder that is about a boy whose face is so deformed as to be the central conflict of the novel, gives us some early character details in the opening.
  • Begin with a strong voice – the link gives the Holden Caulfield example and man, that nails it. You know exactly who this character is. (link)

Segment 3

So now you have rising action and there’s some key elements to rising action. Most links (including this one) agree that the rising action is a series of events that make it increasingly more difficult for the main character to achieve his goal. Rising action has two requirements: 1) it must force the character to make a decision, and 2) each position must be worse than the last one – raise the stakes!

Some examples?

  • Wizard of Oz – when Dorothy meets Scarecrow, she just has to help him down, but when they meet Tin Man, the trees start pegging them with apples, and when they meet the Lion, the Wicked Witch shows up and pelts a fireball at them.
  • Empire Strikes Back – why does this film begin with Luke going off on his own and being captured by a snow monster? We never see the snow monster again! When last we saw him, he couldn’t use the force to retrieve things, but now he can! So, rising action – chased from Hoth, Jedi training is hard! Captured in Cloud City, then Luke loses his hand and we’re left wondering did Han survive the carbon freeze?
  • Karate Kid – confrontation at the beach, see the Cobra Kai guys at the dojo, run off the road, Halloween party, tournament get injured (sweep the leg!), crane technique (can he pull it off?), victory!
  • Stand By Me – meet the bullies on the street (lose brother’s hat), get chased by the junkyard dog, get leeches in their undies, race the train over the bridge, meet the bullies again, this time with a gun.

Rising action is why we keep turning the page, but it only matters if our character is growing, changing, and making decisions that put him closer to his goal but – if you can manage it – further from the person he was when the story began.

Climax!

I googled “what do people get wrong about climax scenes?” and found some pfft. So here’s our take. A climax is only as good as the stakes. When this thing happens, it has to change everything. It’s a realization, a disaster, or a big reveal that shakes the characters and the reader. What does it have to have:

  1. Plenty of characters – don’t climax alone. Get your character in front of others, let there be witnesses, give them a stake in the climax, too. This is how we know when Harry sees the patronus coming to rescue him (his dad sent it!) that it isn’t the climax. No one else saw it except him. The second time, when he’s the one who sends it (his dad’s still dead, duh), Hermione is there.
  2. Enough build up – Freytag had the climax in the middle of the story, the moment when the character’s fortunes change (think Romeo being exiled) but we understand the climax to come later, much closer to the end, and, as such, it’ll have a lot more build up. In many cases, the climax is the position where of course we know what will happen, it couldn’t persist as it was but it can’t turn out any other way … or can it? It’s the build up that’ll determine. (good resource here)
  3. A decision the main character has to make: “The global climax is the moment of truth when the character can choose to abandon their previous strategy that didn’t work for a chance to try a new strategy, if they have the mettle to try.” (source)
  4. Consequences – the rest of the book is about the consequences of that decision.

Segment 4

If we even got this far, we are definitely carrying this over to next week. So hold on and we’ll get back to you on the rest of Freytag’s Pyramid. 

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