Writing the “BIG MOMENT”: How to Make Sure You Don’t Build Readers Up to Let Them Down

Are you giving readers a scuffle between minor rivals when they really want a lion attack?

Are you giving readers a scuffle between minor rivals when they really want a lion attack?

Today, we continue our ongoing discussion about common plot issues by focusing on how authors sometimes mess up the “big moment” at the end…. the moment when everything culminates in a great showdown, or someone taking a huge risk for great reward.

I can definitely say I’ve had trouble with this, especially in early drafts. And I’ll talk about that…. But in my defense, there is just SO MUCH that needs to be in balance when everything comes together, or blows up in someone’s face near the end of a novel, that I honestly can’t imagine getting it right the first time.

(I’m big on focusing on “as good as possible” where first drafts are concerned. First drafts don’t have to be readable, and they don’t have to be good. They just have to be finished, and fixable. That’s all.)

So, what issues do writers have making the big moment big enough? I can only speak for myself…. Here are the things I’ve noticed in my own early drafts.

 THE BIG MOMENT IS NOT LONG ENOUGH CONSIDERING THE BUILD-UP

This is a struggle for me because I have strong minimalist tendencies in my writing. As I write epic fantasy, often my novels lead up to a battle of some kind, a confrontation of good versus evil, and on the page things are just not long enough.

In my case, that’s because I leave a lot undeveloped in the first draft. I leave out lots of description and scene-setting because I’m so focused on getting the action (and the plot) right. Later on, I realize how I can draw the reader into the moment and even how I can extend/ expand upon the major events of the “big” scene.

Sometimes I’ve added another mini-battle, or added another main character to the action (or an additional character’s point of view). Sometimes I’ve realized I can have the tide swing toward the bad guys more before the good guys bring their “A game.”

Basically, I do what I can to find ways to make my big scene sufficiently big instead of anticlimactic. I can’t say I always succeed right away, if at all, but I try to be creative…. Each novel is different, so each one is a new and unique challenge.

TOO MUCH “RESOLUTION” AFTER THE FACT

This was something beta readers brought to my attention, and I’m so glad they did!

In the last book of my Herezoth trilogy, I had way too many scenes tying up various subplots after the “big moment” had ended. And my awesome beta readers told me: “It’s boring. Everything interesting has happened. I know there needs to be some wrapping up, but this is too much.”

When this is the case, I can suggest various approaches:

  • Cut everything you possibly can, and trim what you can’t cut as much as possible. I cut two entire scenes by asking myself what they really contributed to the wrap-up. I realized that maybe one sentence was relevant, and was able to add its content to a different scene. Other scenes of 3 or 4 pages I cut down to 2. That might not sound like much, but it makes a BIG difference!
  • Can you move some of the resolution material to before the big moment? Maybe you can’t cut a scene (or part of one), but temporally it can shift without causing major problems. That way, you cut from the mountains of resolution material after-the-fact that you’re trying to get under control.

THERE JUST ISN’T ENOUGH AT STAKE IN THE BIG MOMENT

This is always tricky….Sometimes, characters as people can be superficial or selfish, and what they might judge to be the end of the world your readers just won’t care about. Everything is built up to be “big,” and you know it’s supposed to feel “big,” but it doesn’t. It all feels like a sham somehow.

Here, you’ve got to raise the stakes. Put something significant to the reader at risk. After all, your reader has invested significant time to get to this point. He or she doesn’t want a meaningless conflict as a reward.

If something that matters to your character doesn’t matter to readers, or you’re worried it won’t matter, then that’s something to really consider. Is your character developed well? Why is it your readers can’t sympathize or connect with him or her? Character might be the root of the issue there, not plot.

Other times when a big moment doesn’t feel big, the story as written just doesn’t make clear that something important is at stake when it really is. You can find some way to emphasize that the major conflict has specific, and sweeping, implications for one or more subplots.

And if your moment isn’t big enough because it truly doesn’t put enough at stake? Find a way to tie in more subplots with it, so that their resolution hangs in the balance and increases what’s at risk.

I honestly think that when an author can tie in multiple subplots to the major plot’s resolution, the effect is greater than the sum of the parts. The increased pull on the reader–at least, the pull on me as a reader–seems to increase exponentially each time another subplot and the fates of more characters I care about, even if they’re minor characters, are connected to how the major conflict of a story works itself out.

So, what do you guys think of the “big moment”? How has writing a big moment been tough for you? Any advice on how to improve the “big culmination of everything” that, to be honest, has every writer feeling a bit nervous and insecure while drafting each novel?

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy the others in my series on plot issues:

There’s one post left in this series: all about plot holes. If you don’t want to miss it, or future posts on this blog, you can sign up to follow by email at the top right of the page.

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39 responses to “Writing the “BIG MOMENT”: How to Make Sure You Don’t Build Readers Up to Let Them Down

  1. I love the part about the “Too Much Resolution.” I finished reading a book this week where the author killed off the main character, then spent chapters and chapters afterwards wrapping the whole thing up. 1) I was ticked that the main character was dead. 2) I felt like the rest of the chapters equated to a chore I had to just ‘get through.’ As a reader, I find it incredibly frustrating, and as I work on my novel, I’ve been looking for ways to avoid those things. Thanks for pin-pointing potential potholes.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks for that other example of what I was talking about…. It sounds like that book demonstrates exactly what I was saying. When editing I realized I could cut out (or at least cut down) a lot of the resolution I had concerning minor characters.

  2. Some really good points there, as always. The idea of moving the tidying up scenes around, resolving sub-plots before the main plot, is a particularly good one – it can even be a way of building up the tension leading up to the big finale.
    The only thing I’d add as a potential problem is if success seems inevitable. If the threat isn’t convincing, the heroes are too impressive, or the solution too obvious then the readers won’t feel any tension because they know that it’s going to be OK. There needs to be a chance of failure for success to be meaningful.

    • Ooh, that is a fantastic and very important point that I overlooked. While I imagine most writers plan for the good guys to win out or for the protagonist to succeed, you are very right: it can’t feel inevitable. That makes the reader feel like nothing is really at stake and like you say, there is no tension.

  3. “If something that matters to your character doesn’t matter to readers, or you’re worried it won’t matter, then that’s something to really consider. Is your character developed well? Why is it your readers can’t sympathize or connect with him or her? Character might be the root of the issue there, not plot.”

    ^^ This.

    I’ve found out (for me) that it isn’t so much the breathtaking, overwhelming, heroic and very concrete events, the big battle or the final fight against the overlord-baddie that makes a moment a big moment, but even more what happens to and with our protagonist(s). How do the fantastic events that constitute the plot influence the person? What are his internal fights, his doubts and self-doubts, is he happy with his heroic role, what has he to give up and fight in himself to be successful? The most spectacular worldsaving is still boring when it’s done by a robot just fulfilling a job.

    To tie this “personal” aspect into the action is pretty hard (and can be screwed up pretty easily), because often, it breaks up a fast-paced narrative rushing towards a final big bang (or happy end) with more contemplative parts. But it can also help to give the reader a feeling of uncertainty and, via the perspective and internal struggles of the hero, lead to the conclusion that this fight *really* matters, that it’s worth it no matter the costs.

    • Thank you SO MUCH for point out the personal aspect. I really overlooked it here but it very much a factor in why we need and appreciate the big moments…. they speak to our humanity and we get to see a human character change, grow, and develop. That’s (in my mind) the true value of literature and story 🙂

      I can tell you I LOVE the resolution aspects of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry has to cope with the fact of all that has happened and all the insecurity of the future.

  4. I agree with both comments above. But the protagonist’s self doubt at his role in the grand finale has to be something which builds with the plot too, otherwise it wont be convincing to the reader at all. Even more intriguing is if, despite the success of the grand finale, the character’s internal struggle results in a personal failure; fantasy is what it is, but is always stronger and more effective when rooted in realism.

    • I totally agree. Human nature is human nature and even in fantasy that needs to be a constant and to hold firm. Like you said: realism matters. We have to feel that is happening could happen in the world we are reading about, and that the people we are reading about make sense there.

  5. That first one drives me nuts when I see. Giant build up and a minute of action happens often in movies. Not naming anything, but I recently saw a popular movie on TV. Was into it and waiting for a big fight and the bad guy was taken out in a way that left me wondering ‘is that it?’ I spent the rest of the movie waiting for the guy to come back. Didn’t even realize the character was dead.

    I’m fearful of too many wrap up scenes, especially in my third and fourth books. So far, people say they’re okay. The challenge is that the main plot doesn’t conclude with the action. The action ends a lot of the story, but the main plot is focused on the emotional/social/mental fate of a character. Those seem a lot harder to close up with brevity.

    • I totally agree with you, Charles! I faced that same social/mental fate issue in the second book of my trilogy. It’s tough…. I had to end up using three small scenes to show where things stood: a confrontation between the hero and the family of the villain, a social gathering among nobility (to show where he fits in and how he’s treated after the “big event,” and then one scene with him at home with his family. Sometimes a “window” can give a glimpse of an overall standing and I just had to lean on that. I could have written fifty or a hundred more pages developing his personality and standing!

      • It’s interesting how often fantasy ends in big battles and conflicts. I can’t really think of one that ends with something else. Would you say that the epilogue method would be a useful tool to help with these kinds of endings?

  6. I don’t care much for the whole idea of a big climatic scenes. I realize that I am committing narrative blasphemy by saying this, but I think that the focus on having a major showdown at the end puts a lot of unnatural stresses on a storyline.

    Too frequently, I believe, authors feel forced to manipulate events in order to set up a big finish. Often this means that characters–both the heroes and the villains–spend seven eighths of a story making profoundly bad decisions and then suddenly have to redeem themselves in the eyes of the reader in one overloaded scene.

    In real life the significant moments that lead to either victory of defeat are usually very small, and often pass unnoticed. You don’t win at the end of the race, you win by running it well for the entire length.

    This, in my opinion, is why the Climactic Final Battle so often fails–the heroes had to make so many mistakes to get to the CFB that it’s hard to switch gears and believe in them when the moment arrives.

    I also wrote a post a while back on the subject of “Saving The World” scenarios in general that you might find interesting:

    http://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-i-dont-care/

    • You have hit a big point here in that there are lots of different kinds of story. Not every story requires a big, climactic moment. Some do, and in some genres pretty much all do. But not every story needs something like that and it’s not good to force it. I definitely agree.

  7. I am not a writer, (I am an artist) but I see the value in putting something down on paper in a draft to be fixed later. It’s a commitment. And that is better than the blank page!

  8. This is exactly what I’ve been concerned about lately. Glad to know that at least it is perfectly normal. I’ll definitely be referring to this post again, probably after I get through my first draft and am ready to slice, shift, rearrange, and balance everything.
    Thanks!

  9. Ok, you’ve made me nervous! My latest story was supposed to end with a huge confrontation, but a few pages from that I had an inspiration – the confrontation became much smaller, and unexpected, and the proper ending of the book became more downbeat. I thought I was doing something different to my instincts (I always want a happy ending), but now I’m concerned I just screwed it up.
    Better go find some beta readers to consult!

    • That’s the best solution! Betas are great. I wouldn’t freak out…. inspiration is never something to just disregard. I’d say you were right follow it! If it’s not quite right you can always make changes 🙂

      • Yeah… Changes… Changes are my Kryptonite. I can change names, correct tense and even cut or add the odd line. But anything that requires major rip up or take down has me a quivering wreck. I try six or seven different ways to view the whole thing, try outlines, or summaries, even complete printouts…Still find it hard to bring the axe down.

  10. Such a great post. I’ve thought about this subject for a long time, because I have often felt cheated at the end of a book. You go through hundreds of pages just to get a quick ending and very little wrap up. I actually love it when an author takes time to wrap up the loose ends. I don’t know who said this (maybe I read it here), but endings are what turn readers into fans. Blow that ending and you lose a reader’s trust. If a book is 400 pages long, I want more than a five-page wrap up.

    One of my grad advisors mentioned that subplots need to be wrapped up before the conclusion, leaving only a little bit to “mop up” (subplot wise) after the final battle (maybe only a paragraph if the issue fits the resolution of the main plot). I’m trying to do that. But in one novel, the return of the love interest was crucial after the final battle. The heroine feared that he was dead and is grieving his loss. So that made for an interesting conflict to draw the reader forward with the anticipation of his return.

    • That’s a great example of a subplot that can’t be wrapped up ahead of time. In general, when a subplot can be, I love your advisor’s advice! That’s a great goal, to leave very little to close up and end after a climactic scene (or scenes).

  11. This was a great preview/refresher. Thanks Victoria!

  12. This was extremely well timed for me. Yesterday I was writing a pretty important scene in my first draft. I went back to see how I did, and I remember thinking the whole time, “When I was writing this, it seemed much more emotional and elongated than it really is.” So I was having difficulty stirring up some thoughts on how to make the scene more profound. This post definitely gave me a few fantastic ideas. And might I add how wonderful it is to hear it from another fantasy writer!

  13. Another great post, Victoria. I Tweeted it from @StarwoodRomance and @SeekersProphecy. Double whammy!

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  15. I think I’ve just abandoned my NaNo project because there simply is no “Big Moment”. Continuing from last year I have 84,000 words of wading through an olympic swimming pool full of honey, from the steps at the shallow end to the 3 metre deep diving end, only to slowly suffocate and drown when my head goes under. Although at the 25 metre mark someone threw a beach ball at me and I watched it skate harmlessly away to the other side.
    I may have made it too realistic and therefore slow and boring. On to the back burner with it.

  16. I definitely have this problem when setting things up. THere is a build up to some grand happening and I feel that maybe the readers are let down by the climax. Maybe it is too quick, maybe it takes too long, maybe the way the characters part afterwards is not handled tactfully.

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