Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tension after the Climax or The Denouement: What I Learned

I’d gotten all the way through the fifth revision of my manuscript, and a horrible feeling was dogging me through my days.  My ending felt like inevitable falling water instead of a chase to follow the characters around the final corner and see where they’d been headed all this time.  Some of the best endings I’d been reading were gripping right to the last page, to the last line.  I am racing to the end, wondering what will happen, or how it will happen, or what it will mean?  So I studied my recent favorite endings –five of them, on the hunch that the denouement is a lot more than tying up lose ends.  Before I could tighten the tension in the denouement to the perfect pitch, I had to understand why, beyond my grade school teachers’ explanation (“To let us down”), we even needed a denouement.  Here’s what I discovered just from looking at one good ending after another.

The denouement is widely known as the falling action between the story’s climax and ending.  You want your denouement to be more than falling water, gravity inevitable, simply tying up loose ends.  You want tension.  You want it to read like the final pages of Eleanor and Park.

The part of the story we call the denouement is actually a delay between the protagonist’s climactic action and the fictional world’s response to this action.  The tension comes from waiting to see what the world’s reaction will be.  Yes, in her climactic action, Seraphina revealed herself, but now will Kiggs accept her?

The protagonist has already made his climactic choice and taken his climactic action, but the reader doesn’t know if the protagonist’s climactic action will make any difference.  Maybe it doesn’t matter because he’s learned the lesson he needed to learn.  But it would be nice if THIS TIME it worked out for him.  Let’s call this The Payoff.  Like, it’d be nice if Lee would forgive Deanna, right?

A good ending is both inevitable AND surprising.  Part of the surprise is that The Payoff, is the last result you would expect given the character’s past history.  Love is the last thing you expect to hear about from sex-crazed Ryan Dean West.  The likelihood that Lia will heal from her eating disorder without relapsing is next to nill.  But in each case, this is exactly what happens.
Oh, that’s how that works!  Thank you Rainbow, Andrew, Rachel, Laurie, and Sara.
             Then I analyzed all the ways I saw my hero-authors ratcheting up the tension in the denouement.

• In the protagonist’s climactic action, if there is SACRIFICE, we are propelled through the denouement to see if the world’s reaction will mean the sacrifice is truly lost or possibly redeemed.  Park has given Eleanor up to save her.  Is that it?  Please no, say no!  He can’t loose her!

• Show the reader all the reasons why the world’s reaction is unlikely to work out as a positive pay off.  Lia has been in rehab before and failed miserably.  As she takes each small step back to life, we are literally holding our breath in case she falls.

• Show the reader both characters wanting the same thing, but don’t let the characters know this about each other.  This creates an insane dissonance the reader wants to resolve.  We see both Eleanor and Park pining for each other but giving up…no, no, no, don’t do that, guys!

• Bring the protagonist to the brink of giving up on any pay off.  Park has stopped checking the mail.  He takes another girl to prom.

• See how long you can delay showing the reader that the protagonist gets her deserved payoff…the last paragraph? the last sentence?  Go look and see.  Rainbow doesn’t let us off the hook until the last sentence.

• As we see the protagonist hit with the reaction to his climactic action, look for a possible opportunity for extreme change in his personality or demeanor.  In the drop-kick that is Andrew Smith’s Part Four of Winger, Ryan Dean West tells us…yeah, there have been unpredictable bumps in the road that forced him to grow up, but –BAM! –now we’re going to get the big one.  And when he faces, well, what he faces, we see the charismatic big talker go suddenly, profoundly silent.

• Tension can also manifest because, even though the protagonist has revealed essential truths in the climax, she has still held back some piece of truth or some action she must take.  Yes, Seraphina’s truth –she is a dragon –is out, but not the part about her loving Kiggs, not until the last scene.

• The world’s reaction to the protagonist’s climactic action is positive, but may have to be on the down low for now.  Kiggs returns Seraphina’s love!  Hooray!  But now, considering recent losses and an entry into war, is no time to break this to Glisselda.

• There will be uncertainty ahead even after the book’s ending.  Deanna has written Lee a note asking to meet on the front lawn the first day of school.  When Deanna arrives, it is not perfect, Lee doesn’t have some kind of moment with Deanna, but she is there.  Kiggs and Seraphina love each other, though we cannot imagine how that will work out. Lia cannot make long-term promises; she can only recreate her life in small steps. 
Ryan Dean West understands meaning comes from love, if he can forgive himself for his own final insensitivity.  Eleanor and Park are back in touch, they love each other, but they are still separated by many miles.  

This tension, even on the last page is maybe why I still think about these characters months after reading about them.