Before we get to the post, I feel obliged to mention that we’re doing some more blog maintenance tomorrow – might as well get it over with as soon/much as possible – so there may possibly be another short outage. We’re expecting this bit to go smoothly, but just in case it doesn’t, I figured I’d best mention it. On to the post.
Recently I read two novels, one by an experienced professional writer, the other by a talented yet-to-be-published one, that both made the same mistake. In both cases, the stories were deeply character-focused, involving several people who disliked, mistrusted, or totally misunderstood one another’s viewpoints, who had to learn to understand and trust each other so as to work together to defeat a threat to themselves and/or their world. In both cases, the stories developed well, came to a climax, and then trailed off in an ending that left me shaking my head and going “Huh?”
After mulling this over for some considerable time, I came to the conclusion that each of the writers got muddled about just what the story they were telling was, and consequently the endings, the climax-and-validation part, didn’t come together the way they should have. The writers shifted gears unexpectedly, from the characterization focus they’d had throughout their stories to a bang-up action climax that left the culmination of the learning-to-understand-each-other plot feeling like an afterthought.
Mind you, the action climaxes were not only entirely justified, they were also totally necessary. The learn-to-understand, come-to-realize plots wouldn’t have been nearly so tense if they hadn’t had the urgency of the action problem behind them (“If this group can’t get along, the Evil Overlord will take over the world by the end of the year!”). The trouble was that as the action confrontations drew nearer, they took over. This left the emotional/characterization plot in the background, to be brought forward and finished up only after the villain’s defeat.
In most cases, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Leaving the wrap-up of the hero/heroine’s romance for after the big fight with the dragon is a really common trope; in fact, it often serves as the final validation, the thing that says “Yes, this time the dragon is really dead, the Evil Overlord is finally vanquished, the wicked stepsisters have had their comeuppance and can’t make any more trouble, and the story is really over.”
In the two cases I’m talking about, though, the first three-quarters of the story was focused on the emotional plot, with just enough action thrown in to keep upping the urgency. This led me, as a reader, to expect the Big Climax to resolve the emotional plot, as well as (or even instead of) the action plot. Instead, I got slam-bang we’re-all-in-this-together action climaxes, with the band of heroes working together like a well-oiled machine, and only after they’d taken out the Evil Overlord did I get to see the yes-I-do-trust-you-now scenes.
This left the stories feeling like a bait-and-switch. I’d have been perfectly satisfied by those endings if the focus in the early part of the story had been on action; I’d have been equally satisfied if the early part of the story had remained the same, but the climax and ending had been adjusted so that the emotional plot continued to be in the foreground.
I’m not completely sure why this kind of front end/back end mismatch comes about, especially not in these two cases. I can think of a number of possibilities, though: that for some reason the author felt that the action climax was the one that really mattered; that the author got too caught up in making the action work to remember the emotional plot until afterward; that the author simply didn’t have the writing chops to do both at once and decided to follow the common action-adventure wrap-up (action first, emotional plot later) even though that didn’t quite fit the story; the author buckled under pressure for action from an editor or a bunch of good friends/first-readers; the author was afraid the emotional plot would get “too purple.” All of them boil down to the authors losing sight of the story they were telling.
This kind of front/back mismatch doesn’t happen nearly so often the other way around – with a high-action front end and an emotional, non-action-oriented climax – but it does happen. In other words, while the solution is to make both ends match, it doesn’t matter whether the author changes the action climax to fit the non-action buildup or whether the author changes the buildup to fit the action climax. The important thing is to achieve consistency in what one is looking at.