This Climax Does Not Come with Fireworks

“Hello. My name is ___ ____, and I work with your mother. Could you please call me at ___-___-____? Thank you.”

I turned off the machine though it still blinked. I punched the number in my phone and got a busy signal. There was no reason for this woman to call me. No birthday party to plan. No anniversary. I listened to the next message. “Marta, this is your grandmother. Please call me.”


I smacked the off button. I realized I was crying though no one had told me anything was wrong. My grandmother wrote me almost every week, but she hadn’t called me in three years. I dialed her number, and while waiting for her to pick up her phone, I decided on this–mom had been in a car accident and was in the hospital. I would fly home and stay by her side. I could delay my last two semesters. I’d live with her and help her with rehabilitation. This image of sitting by mom’s bedside was lodged in my head by the time a woman answered my grandma’s phone.

Maybe I had the wrong number. “This is Marta. Is my grandma there?” She was supposed to say, “You have the wrong number” or “Everything is all right.” What she really said was, “Yes. Wait a minute.” Later I found out that Aunt Susan was the one who answered. My aunts were already there. They’d known for hours.

A week earlier I’d talked to my mom about grandma and her cancer. “I don’t know what I’ll do without my mother,” mom had said. “I can’t imagine her not in my life.” I didn’t know what to say. My mom sighed. “I won’t know how to be an old woman without her,” she said. That was the thing about grandma. No matter how she got, she had yet to be an old woman.

Grandma got on the phone. “Marta,” she said. “Your mother got sick very quickly.”

Sick? What did that mean? I knelt down on the floor. My keys were still in my other hand. They poked into my palm and I held them more tightly. Sick? Did that mean okay? Did that mean come see her in the hospital?

“She’s gone,” she said, and my aunt took the phone away from her.

In fiction on a good day, I think I can write tension. Makes me tense anyway. But that moment the tension breaks–the lovers come together, the world falls apart, the character dies–is something else. You work hard to get a reader to that climax of the story and then…

Real life is often that way. The wedding is rarely the amazing moment a couple plans for. The first love may not live up to anticipation. The winning seems less grand when you get home alone and put the medal on the shelf. That’s it? Adding fireworks to any of these events is not going to promise a payoff either.

Some events deserve to take your breath away though, and how do you get that moment on the page? Obviously you’ve got to get the reader to care about the characters. You’ve got to make the climax worthy of the characters’ desires. You’ve got to… oh, gee. Is that all? I’m exhausted just thinking about it. This is why I keep changing the ending. At least I’ve got that choice in fiction.

7 thoughts on “This Climax Does Not Come with Fireworks

  1. Sounds simplistic, but there it is; you get out before ending too much, telling or demonstrating too much, without leaving footnotes or stage directions, without any distractions. That, after all, is what anticlimax is. Life is anticlimax. Always better to leave early than to stay too late.

  2. One thing which immature writers enjoy, maybe a little too much, is the sense of control over their characters. When they stop trying to push the characters around on the stage, the story goes much better. It’s much harder (for me, anyway) to trust my readers. And that’s where the troubles start.

    Hardest thing for me to do is to stay out of the reader’s head. At that climactic moment I want, too much want, to be sure s/he “gets” it: Feel this way. Did you catch the way you felt a page ago? Good, now amplify that… right, you’re almost there, feel it more intensely now, okay, okaaaaay… What works much better — and I see this all the time in my stories — is when I stay in a CHARACTER’s head. In a way, it’s still manipulative. But to a reader it feels less like bullying. It’s more than objective narration, too — although sometimes that works, again, when I’ve sufficiently laid the groundwork of the CHARACTER’s state of mind. So when the non-sequitur “…and then he turned away” (or whatever) moment arrives, the reader feels whatever-it-is on behalf of the character.

    But you asked “How?” didn’t you?

    Well… Sorry. I got nothin’. No bag of tricks. It just gets to a point where I tell the voice in my head — the one controlling my fingers on the keyboard, the red felt-tip on the paper — Enough. Stop fiddling with it. This is what it needs to be and no more. Put down the weapon and walk away :).

  3. Very powerful. You’re right – the temptation is to tie up all the loose endings, to get the ‘happily ever after down’, but that’s rarely ending on a high point of tension. I couldn’t believe it when my editor chopped the whole last chapter (the tie up, the wedding, the ‘we made it’) – but she was absolutely right.

  4. I think the truest thing in life is that the point of it is the journey. When you get to your destination, that’s just the cherry. The story of life is how you get there. That’s what matters.

    In fiction, I have the same problem. I drag out the tension, adding in details and detours that I probably don’t need but get me where I’m going, and then when it’s important, I rush through it.

    I think it’s because things get painful, sometimes, and I can’t quite face it. Oh wait, I’m mixing up life and art. I do that in real life. Oh wait, life and art is mixed up because it’s our messed up life that we have to wade through to get our fiction nice and clean and following the supposed tos.

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