17 November 2011

When the Climax Fails, the Reader Suffers

In preparing for a plot talk for children's writers and the SCBWI San Francisco/South region last Saturday, I analyzed one of my favorite books from my childhood -- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

As I read and plotted out the scenes in the Beginning of the story, I was delighted to see all the effective foreshadowing (in 2 instances she shows Mary, the 10-year old protagonist, playing in dirt and attempting to plant cut flowers which foreshadows the passion she develops for the secret garden. She also foreshadows the presence of another child in the house with the sound of crying three times before Mary actually discovers the cause of the distressing sound.).

In the middle, relationships abound which is thematically rich in that Mary has never had a true and loving relationship with others and in order to become who she is meant to be, she must heal this divide. Each relationship becomes a subplot in the middle which is exactly where subplots belong.

Also in the middle, whenever the story seems to slow down or her circumstances become too ideal, there are plenty of plot twists thrown in which makes for an exciting read.

However... and this is an enormous however, the End of the story made me want to fling the book across the room and declare that the book is no longer a favorite of mine.

The energy of the story rises to a climax and thus, stays true to the needs of the Universal Story BUT is not at all satisfying in that the reader is committed to Mary's story and yet, as soon as she helps Colin -- the only son of the lord of the manor -- heal and become whole, she moves into the shadows never to be heard from again. The last 1/4 of the book becomes all about Colin.

This is not so surprising, when one considers that the book was published in 1911 (women's right to vote doesn't happen until 1920) and girls didn't have many options. Still... there is absolutely no climax OR resolution for Mary's plot line and thus, no resolution for all the young girls who love(d) this book.

In analyzing this book, I consider the impact the story must have had on me as a young girl. Though I read the book in the 50s or early 60s, my generation continued to have limited options -- nurse, teacher, secretary, mother...

Now, a young girl's options are limitless. She can be a leader, an artist, a visionary, an entrepreneur.

Please, when considering your story, reach, think different, stretch when it comes to writing the Climax of your story. Write lots of endings, push yourself to think outside the box, and then pick the one that feels thematically the strongest version.

Your protagonist's actions at the climax inspire the reader to think big and different and grow and evolve. Give the ending the time it needs and deserves to deliver the greatest impact.

For more support about the Climax and ending of your story:

1) Check out Chapter 11 & 12 of: The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (Also available as a Kindle edition)

2) Watch:
For more about the Universal Story and writing the end of a novel, memoir or screenplay, visit Plot Series: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay? on YouTube. A directory of all the steps to the series is to the right of this post. (a directory of the Plot Book Group with specific stories as examples is to the left of this post. Scroll down a bit to find it)

For more tips about how to use plot and the Universal Story in your novel, memoir or screenplay, visit: