Story Climax: The Whole Point — Guest: Victoria Mixon

by Jami Gold on November 15, 2011

in Writing Stuff

Picture of Victoria Mixon

I’m excited to share today’s guest post by editor A. Victoria Mixon with everyone.  Her new book The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual recently came out and is a great addition to our writing craft library.

In fact, her blog tour posts have been excerpts from this book, so we can get a sneak peak at some of the insights she shares in her latest release.  She was gracious enough to let me choose any excerpt I wanted for today’s post.  When I read this section for the first time, I got goosebumps along with the “Ah-ha!” moment.  I hope it helps all of you as well.

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The Whole Point

What’s the Climax of a novel?

We must understand, for now, only this one, fundamental thing: the Climax is the real reason we write our stories.

Once upon a time, two teenagers became so distraught over their passion for each other they committed suicide—that’s the premise. Cause? Their parents wouldn’t let them marry or even date—that’s the story. Cause of that? Their families hated each other—that’s the backstory.

—Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare

Once upon a time, a man succumbed to idiocy over the death of the woman he loved—that’s the premise. Cause? His rival for her love stole her from him and then killed her in anguish over the betrayal he’d committed against a saintly man—that’s the story. Cause of that? His rival was an old and close friend of his—that’s the backstory.

—The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Once upon a time, a woman nearly lost the man she loved through her own machinations—that’s the premise. Cause? She was an inveterate social meddler—that’s the story. Cause of that? Although good-hearted, she had always been spoiled—that’s the backstory.

—Emma, Jane Austen

Once upon a time, a woman became so distraught over her adulterous affair that she committed suicide—that’s the premise. Cause? Society ostracized her for her affair, while at the same time her lover made her intensely jealous—that’s the story. Cause of that? She was a married female aristocrat of nineteenth-century Russia with an intensely passionate nature—that’s the backstory.

—Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Once upon a time, a man encountered a ghoul and disappeared—that’s the premise. Cause? He was out at night after spending the evening competing with another man for the love of a young woman—that’s the story. Cause of that? He was an unattractive schoolteacher in a highly superstitious time and place, with a ruthless and contemptuous rival—that’s the backstory.

—”The Legend Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving

Do you see how the Climax is, bizarrely enough, the premise? We must dwell on this in the depths of our soul until it makes total and complete sense. Mull it over. Meditate upon it. Make it a part of our writing identity. We cannot take this fact too seriously.

The Climax is the whole point.

Otherwise, we have no reason for writing any of this.

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Victoria Mixon has been a writer and editor for thirty years and is the creator A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, voted one of WritetoDone’s Top 10 Blogs for Writers. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and the recently-released The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, published by Prentice Hall, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. She spends a lot of time helping writers on Google+ and Twitter.

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Our story’s climax is the premise.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d never heard the tip that they will (must) match laid out so clearly before.  It’s seems too simple, too straightforward, doesn’t it?

So I tested this with some of my stories, going in the opposite direction as Victoria with her examples above.  Sure enough, when I described the climax in one short sentence, I’d nailed the premise too.

What can we do with this knowledge?  Plenty.  As Victoria said, the climax is the whole point of the story.  If we’re missing the point, the story will miss its mark.

  • If our climax doesn’t match our premise, we need to figure out why.  Is our climax not bringing the right conflict to a head?  Is our climax missing a critical piece because all the players aren’t in place?  Has a subplot taken us off-course?
  • Or if we’re pantsing our way through a story and we’re not sure what the climax should look like, we can try to describe the premise in one sentence.  That’s what the climax should center around.
  • From the other direction, we now have an easy way to boil down the premise of any story.  Think of the climax and work from there.

So far, I haven’t encountered problems with the two aspects not matching, but by understanding this link, I can bring out my premise (which is often related to theme) to the fullest extent in my climax.  No matter what, I know I’ll never look at climax and premise the same way again.

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Do you have any questions about this concept, or other questions for Victoria?  Do you see the link between the premise and the climax?  How well do your stories match up?  Can you think of any other ways we can use this link to steer our writing?  Did anyone else find this really cool, or was it just me?  *smile*

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94 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Tamara LeBlanc November 15, 2011 at 6:58 am

WOW!
Talk about an ah-HA moment.
The minute I’m done commenting here I’m off to buy that book (but not before I share this post with all my Tweeps) I know they’ll be grateful for this fascinating lesson.
Thank you Jami for always sharing relevant and intriguing posts, and thank you Victoria Mixon for your generosity in allowing Jami to cut a snippet from your book.
Love this!!
Have a great Tuesday!
Tamara

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Jami Gold November 15, 2011 at 8:22 am

Hi Tamara,

Yay! I’m glad I wasn’t the only one with that reaction. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 15, 2011 at 10:20 am

You’re very welcome, Tamara! I’m happy to be a part of your writing journey. And I’m grateful to Jami for bringing me to her blog to meet all of you–such fun to see your new faces!

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Angela Quarles November 15, 2011 at 7:59 am

Love this tip! I’m also working on my hook for my query letter, so this will also help me boil all that down. Thank you! Very timely for me :D

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Jami Gold November 15, 2011 at 8:23 am

Hi Angela,

Great point! Yes, this understanding can help us boil down our plot. After all, if we know the point of the story, we know what’s important. :) Hope this helps! Thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 15, 2011 at 10:23 am

Yes, Angela, this helps a lot with querying, when you must be able to condense your story into to its kernel. You have a little more room in a query to walk the agent through the story–think of a movie trailer in which they shift from startling to soothing to dynamite. You’ll notice how often that ‘dynamite’ ends on the protagonist facing an impossible obstacle.

What will they do?

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Stephen T. Harper November 15, 2011 at 9:15 am

Great post Victoria and Jami! I used to teach creative writing to high school students, and one of the things I learned from that experience was that most of what makes any kind of writing good is actually having something to say. You don’t have to be in high school to get that part of it wrong. This is a great test for that.

Let me try it…

Once upon a time a young man who had never once stepped outside the borders of his city, left for the first time to give up his life for a girl he’d just met. That’s the premise. Cause? She had come to him in search of his long-dead father, believing that, as her enemies closed in on her, she had secretly given him a strange talisman that causes her to remember many past lifetimes. That’s the story. Cause of that? The young man and the girl he just met had found the talisman together, long ago. As they died together, knowing one would remember and the other would not , a plea between lovers was made “Wait for me.” He did.

I think I agree with Angela too – reverse engineering your story could really help with pitches and queries too. But you have to be careful about spoilers. Generally pitches end before the end. Like with my example above, you might want to leave out the opening sentence. But it absolutely would help in crafting a good pitch.

Great post. Very interesting way of looking at it. Thanks!

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Victoria Mixon November 15, 2011 at 10:34 am

Beautiful, Stephen! And so your whole reason for writing this story is to show that young man facing his final decision: should he stay or should he go? You’re bringing the reader to the arc of the rainbow and revealing this extraordinary view over their own choices: “Once upon a time, a man gave up his entire life for a woman he didn’t know.”

That gives you his two conflicting needs that will keep bouncing him from pillar to post throughout your story: he needs his established life, but he also needs—for some mysterious reason—this strange woman.

And you’re right about spoilers in a query. Agents don’t mind knowing the end (they’ll insist on it in the synopsis), but more and more they want to see that you know how to create tension.

So you lead them to that question, “What will my protagonist do?” And if you’ve written your query right, they request your partial because they simply have to find out.

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Jami Gold November 15, 2011 at 11:54 am

Hi Stephen,

Fabulous! Great job. :)

Yes, Roni Loren and I had a Twitter conversation just last week about how queries should focus on the first third of the story. That keeps most of the complicating subplots out of the way and introduces the main conflict and obstacles for the protagonist, but this method can help focusing on the “what” of that main conflict. Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Hedlund November 15, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Wow! Just … wow! It’s funny how the things that seem the simplest are the most difficult to do. Or is it just that we writers over complicate EVERYTHING?

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Jami Gold November 15, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Hi Julie,

I know! Isn’t it cool? And yes, I know with my over-analytical mind, I often make things more complicated than they should be. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 15, 2011 at 1:27 pm

:) Yes, Julie, we do. Otherwise we wouldn’t write novels, we’d write aphorisms.

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Jordan November 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Love Victoria! I won an edit of my climactic chapter from her a couple years ago, and I really appreciated her help. (Plus, I sold the book two weeks ago!)

This article also made me look at the novel I finished yesterday. I keep thinking of the (very long) battle as the climax–but reading this made me realize that the actual climax begins during the battle and comes in the very last scene.

So mine:
Once upon a time, two archaeologists found a prophesied Viking treasure (and fell in love). Cause? Girl archaeologist believed guy archaeologist’s unshakeable faith in his theory (and used their wits to find and follow clues)—that’s the story. Cause of that? Girl archaeologist needed something to believe in after losing all her dreams.

Whoa. Just took the characters to the next level. Woot! Off to do this with all my other rough drafts!

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Victoria Mixon November 15, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Hi, Jordan! :) Congratulations on selling your novel!

Fabulous story break-down. You’ve got your Climax in that very last scene, where it can blow up the very best.

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Jami Gold November 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Hi Jordan,

Congratulations again on your sale! :)

And great point about how a story’s climax–the story’s point–might be more narrow than the whole scene around it. I tend to think of the climax as the whole big showdown scene, but you’re right, the essence of the story more often comes down to a single, tipping-point moment somewhere in that scene. Thanks for the comment!

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Roxanne Skelly November 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Oooohh, lemme try.

In a time yet to come, a bounty hunter of rogue androids learns that life is precious from a dying synthetic soldier. Cause? The androids came to his city search for a way to prolongue their very short life.
(Blade Runner)

Or my NanoWrimo:
In a time yet to come, a contract hacker ends the oppression of a computer-run economy, giving the human race a chance to escape absolute poverty. Cause? Automated systems outperform the human elements in management of the economy, making all people obsolete. (political jab: 1%, meet your machine overlords)

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Victoria Mixon November 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm

“(political jab: 1%, meet your machine overlords)” :))

That’s hilarious, Roxanne.

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Jami Gold November 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Hi Roxanne,

Yay! I’m so glad people are finding this fun to explore. :) And thanks for adding to everyone’s understanding of this with another well known example. Thanks for the comment!

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Kerry Meacham November 16, 2011 at 5:48 am

I’m off to look at my WWBC and NaNo loglines from this perspective, Jami. I’m also buying your new book, Victoria.

I once worked with a great engineer. Of course engineers are notorious for making things too complex, but not him. He is the smartest person I’ve ever worked around. You know, the scary smart kind of person. His genius was taking things that were extremely complex and breaking it down to the point that it became simple. That’s what I see here with breaking the novel down to premise, story, backstory in one paragraph. Great things are never easy, but they’re usually simple.

Thanks. ~clink~

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Jami Gold November 16, 2011 at 9:16 am

Hi Kerry,

Great point! Yes, I’ve often heard that we want our stories and plots to be complex but not complicated–that complicated is cluttered with too many random subplots and whatnot. So this could also be used as a tool to see which side of the line our stories fall by seeing how well it can be made simple. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 16, 2011 at 12:17 pm

How very kind of you, Kerry! And I saw your tweet—thank you so much.

You know, engineering is a great place for a writer to learn how to distill difficult concepts into simplicity. I was a tech writer in the computer industry for years. So many of those engineers live in unbelievably complex worlds of spaghetti code, and the best tech writer is the one who can make that stuff look just intuitive.

I’m very pleased if you’ve gotten that experience from me about fiction!

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Gene Lempp November 16, 2011 at 6:28 am

Epiphany! I’ll be looking over my projects using this concept. It makes a great deal of sense. I’ll also be looking into getting a copy of Victoria’s book to see what other great tidbits are in there.

Thanks for hosting her, Jami. Super fantastic!

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Jami Gold November 16, 2011 at 9:17 am

Hi Gene,

Yay! I love sharing “ah-ha!” moments. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 16, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Thank you, Gene! I saw your tweet too—thank you so much.

I love that you’re talking epiphany here, as that’s the goal of all great fiction: to give the reader an epiphany that makes an permanent difference in their life.

If you’ve gotten that here, then I am living my dream. :)

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PW Creighton November 16, 2011 at 7:38 am

Very interesting way of looking at the composition. Refine the entire piece to a single sentence, or two and the truth is revealed. Sounds like Victoria has an amazing resource for us.

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Jami Gold November 16, 2011 at 9:18 am

Hi PW,

Yes, I’m well known for having issues with my pitches and queries, and I’m hoping this method will help me focus on the right arc of the story–the one that’s the whole point. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 16, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Isn’t is amazing how profound simplicity is? It’s those still waters running deep. As you say, “the truth is revealed.”

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Clifton Hill November 16, 2011 at 11:46 am

Wow, that is an incredible tip. I’m still trying to mull it over in my head. I need more examples. But I think I can just about see the brilliance on the horizon if I squint real hard.

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Jami Gold November 16, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Hi Clifton,

I know the feeling. :) A couple of people have added more examples in the comments, but I’m still struggling with how to word the whole “cause” paragraph for my own work. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 16, 2011 at 12:35 pm

If you both want to put up your general stories in a few sentences, I’ll help you frame the premises. Think of it as a choice: what two overwhelming needs must your protagonist choose between?

Another example?

Once upon a time, a young man in great agony and exhaustion confronted his own intense hunger for ultimate power—that’s the premise. Cause of that? He has become the only person capable of guarding the key to ultimate power until it’s destroyed–that’s the story. Cause of that? The evil creator of this key dominated his world for hundreds of years until the lost key recently resurfaced–that’s the backstory.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R.Tolkien

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Clifton Hill November 17, 2011 at 1:02 am

Thanks for another example. Take my own story? Ok.

A warrior of unique power, with a secret past and a troubled mind, helps rid the land of an enemy host—that’s the premise. Cause of that? The warrior regains a sense of purpose in an army of a great general, who struggles to unite the land to fight off their oppressors—that’s the story. Cause of that? Internal strife divided the land, making it ripe for conquest, while the warrior was driven from his home by the inaction of his people to fight in a war that could not be won—that’s the backstory.

Ugh, that doesn’t seem nearly as neat and tidy as your presentations, but then I’m writing epic fantasy. Do I get a pass?

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Victoria Mixon November 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm

:)

I don’t believe in grading. Fiction is a craft of infinite subtlety.

This is fine! You’re right that the more streamlined it is, the easier it is to pinpoint the moment of Climax. But you can’t make it too streamlined. We wouldn’t say of Romeo & Juliet, “Once upon a time, two kids died.” You need the characters’ motivation in there to show why it happens.

Think in terms of what your protagonist does even more than what he helps do. Why is he the center of this story instead of the general? What’s more important about him than anyone else? Does he use his special power in the Climax? (I’m sure he does!)

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Clifton Hill November 17, 2011 at 3:37 pm

I only say he “helps” to be honest that he does not do it all by himself. There is a lot of “doing” by him. The story revolves around him, the general is an accessory to him FOR the story, even though he commands him IN the story. The general serves much as the Mentor character, a father figure and perhaps the moral backbone of the story.

Thanks for the post and the insight. I’ll hope to hear you on Writing Excuses some day. For anyone interested in pushing the cause, go to: http://www.facebook.com/writingexcuses and tell them to have Victoria on the show.

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Victoria Mixon November 17, 2011 at 3:50 pm

You’re totally on the right track here. You just need to say as succinctly as possible what he does that tips the scale and routs the enemy. This is what an agent or publisher want to know: why him? why this? why now?

Conveniently, this is also what your reader wants to know!

“Once upon a time, a young/old/troubled/gifted/etc warrior with a secret past [used his gift] to rid/defend his beloved land of/against [his enemies]/[an enemy invasion].”

And thank you for the link to ‘push the cause’! Your support is really heartwarming, Clifton. :)

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Daniel Swensen (@surlymuse) November 16, 2011 at 3:47 pm

It’s not often that a piece of writing advice genuinely and immediately makes me reconsider my own work. This was one of those times. Great post, and thank you. I have a feeling I’m going to be deconstructing some of my favorite media over the next few days using this method. :)

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Jami Gold November 16, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Hi Daniel,

Yay! You didn’t know reading this blog meant homework assignments, did you? ;) Thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 16, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Wonderful, Daniel. I’m so pleased to be a part of your work in this tremendous craft! Deconstruction is a fabulous way to learn.

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Clifton Hill November 17, 2011 at 1:05 am

I’m reading this stuff and SO wanting to hear you do your deconstructions on the Writing Excuses podcast.

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Victoria Mixon November 17, 2011 at 10:13 am

Thank you, Clifton! The best way to get me on their show is probably for them to invite me, so if you mention this to them. . .maybe they will. :)

I’d be happy to demonstrate this with any books they’d like to throw at me. (Famous last words, I know!)

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Clifton Hill November 17, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Oh yeah, I jumped on the Writing Excuses facebook right away and left my endorsement.

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Victoria Mixon November 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Thanks, Clifton! You’re heck of kind.

:)

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Carmen November 16, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I think I must be dense tonight. I feel like Robin Williams in the movie “Hook,” right before he connects with his inner child and can see all the cool food at the food fight…

Can you please say a few more things about premises? I may have a semantic crossed wire.

Thank you so much, Victoria. Your books are on my Christmas list.

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Jami Gold November 16, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Hi Carmen,

Hopefully Victoria will chime in here with her definition of premise for the purposes of this exercise, but I think it’s related to the “what if” statement that drives your story (what if a character faced this situation?). For these paragraphs, she’s turned the what-if statement around so it’s not worded as a question.

We’ll let Victoria tell me if I got close or not. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Carmen November 16, 2011 at 11:23 pm

Thanks for your response. I think something clicked!

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Victoria Mixon November 17, 2011 at 10:19 am

Carmen, your premise is the big event your story is about. If you ask yourself, “What’s the most important thing my protagonist goes through? What is the most dreadful choice they’re forced to make?” then you will know why you’re telling this story. And that’s your Climax.

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Jami Gold November 17, 2011 at 11:49 am

Hi Victoria,

Oh yes, great explanation. :) Thanks for coming back to clear that up!

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Sophia Chang November 19, 2011 at 4:51 pm

My heart is hurting you guys – that’s how I know this works! I just applied it to my WIP and had a visceral response. Genius. My mind is so blown right now. And this further explanation just makes it all so clear!

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Jami Gold November 19, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Hi Sophia,

Very cool! I hope understanding this helps your story cause those same strong reactions in your readers. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Veronika Walker November 17, 2011 at 10:19 am

WOW…that makes total sense. I never thought about it that way before, Victoria.

That’s why you’re the master and I’m the padawan. :D

Now I have to go see if this truth holds out in MY story…

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Jami Gold November 17, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Hi Veronika,

Isn’t it great? :) Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins November 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm

*headdesk* O….M….G!!!

How is it that the things that appear to be so simple can be one of the hardest to get your brain to wrap around. I seriously have an epiphany going on right now! :)

Now I’m re-thinking book 1 of my series (which is with a CP) as I write book 2. No, I’m not going to make changes just yet, but I’ll definitely be holding onto those notes so I can discuss them with my CP.

Thank you for this post, Victoria and thank you Jami for hosting her on your site! :D

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Jami Gold November 17, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Hi Melinda,

You’re not alone with that feeling. :) I’m trying to wrap my brain around whether what I thought was my climax was my actual climax. I have no idea yet–whee! LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 17, 2011 at 8:12 pm

There’s actually a really straight-forward way to figure this out, Jami. I didn’t bring it up here because everyone was having so much fun playing with this one technique, but it’s what we’ve been talking about this week over on my blog in 3 Vital Steps to Creating Your Protagonist.

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Jami Gold November 17, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Hi Victoria,

Thanks! I read that post several days ago, but I’ll have to look at it again from this perspective. :) Thanks for sharing the link!

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Robert Datson November 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm

An excellent test – I want to try too:

Once upon a time, a young man comes to realise that his job is terrible because his bosses are evil, and is forced to take action – that’s the premise. Cause? The evil bosses have a nasty plot requiring our young man’s assistance – that’s the story. Cause of that? The evil bosses need something desperately for their ongoing existence – that’s the backstory.

Did I get it right?

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Jami Gold November 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Hi Robert,

I’ll leave that to Victoria, but she’ll probably say that she doesn’t give grades. :) Thanks for playing along and for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 18, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Hey, Robert!

Tell us what the young man does when he’s forced to take action. That’s the event that makes this story worth telling!

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Julie Musil November 18, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Holy cow, that’s brilliant! I’m still wrapping my brain around this. I’ll have to compare my stories to this and see how they rate. Thanks Jami and Victoria!

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Jami Gold November 18, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Hi Julie,

Yes, if you skimmed the comments, you know you’re not the only one trying to fully grasp the idea. :) Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Claire Caterer November 19, 2011 at 8:05 am

Fabulous post. If you do this exercise with any really great story, you can see how climax is the INEVITABLE outcome of the preceding events. I think that’s important.

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Jami Gold November 19, 2011 at 11:36 am

Hi Claire,

Yes, exactly! I think Victoria mentions in her book that the climax is the surprising, yet inevitable, outcome of events. Thanks for the comment!

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Cath Rene November 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Awesome! I’ve been stalled out revising a novel, not sure what needs to go and what should stay. I sat down and applied the theory above, even though I would never have come to that conclusion on my own, and am delighted to report that The Climax=The Premise is an excellent way to clarify the story. By determining the premise, the cause of the premise (story), and the cause of the story (backstory), I have a much clearer understanding about what I’m doing now. So glad I subsribed to this blog! Thank you.

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Jami Gold November 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Hi Cath,

Yay! So glad to hear this worked for you. :) Thanks for letting us know!

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Kyla November 24, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Uck. I have such problems filling out forms like this where they ask you to identify the climax of your story, the premise, etc. I put all of those things in a story automatically, because I taught myself to write by reading books and they ALWAYS have a climax and a premise, but identifying them in a form makes me freeze and feel all sick to my stomach.

I don’t know what it is about it. I suppose I’m just being silly. I hate how little things can make me so nervous. Excellent excerpt, by the way. I have to look into this book now. It sounds good. Maybe I’ll learn something from it. Thanks for the great suggestion and I’ll have to look into nailing down my climax and premise…maybe. I probably have those two written down somewhere already. XD

Have a great day and happy writing!

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Jami Gold November 25, 2011 at 9:30 am

Hi Kyla,

Yes, I’m often the same way. My plotting is done by instinct. At first, I worried about that: Would the story have all the pieces it needed? But after the fact, I’m always able to find turning points and whatnot, mostly just because I know where to look (the storyfix.com structure information was helpful for that). Thanks for the comment!

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Jim Ross November 25, 2011 at 10:36 am

This is really, incredibly helpful. It’s made me really question the entire premise of my WIP novel. I know how it starts, I know roughly what happens in it, but the ending’s always been a bit fuzzy. Without knowing what the climax is, how do I know what the book’s about?

Thanks for pointing this out,

Jim

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Jami Gold November 25, 2011 at 11:50 am

Hi Jim,

I hope this helps you figure out a direction for your story. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Kelly November 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Jami and Victoria, thanks for bringing this great technique to the masses! I’ve tried it with my WIP, but I’m not sure I’ve got it right, because I’m not saying to myself: *This* is the story I want to write.

A geeky computer guy was forced to destroy his greatest invention and his best friend, or to allow the few survivors of a pandemic to be misled with it. That’s the premise.

Cause? He invented a computer game that would send the gamer into a state of nirvana, and his friend was allowing it to be used to enslave people. That’s the story.

Cause of that? His friend is an innocent who is curious about the existence of God. That’s the backstory.

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Jami Gold November 27, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Hi Susan,

Interesting. Hmm, maybe you have the right “event” for the climax/premise, but maybe the story you want to tell focuses on a different aspect. Maybe you want to focus on guy’s choice and the reasons for his choice (How bad is the potential of this invention? “Misled” feels somewhat generic, what are the real stakes? Is he in love with one of the survivors? etc.). In other words, think about what does make you think “this is the story I want to write,” and frame the event from that POV.

I’ll try to get Victoria to pop in for her advice, but hopefully that helps. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Victoria Mixon November 28, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Ah, Susan! I saw your comment on my blog and answered it there.

Jami is absolutely correct about ‘misled’ being a passive action, whereas you need to engage your reader with active choices. You have the same issue with the friend’s motivation being innocent curiosity. Your reader won’t buy that as real motivation for the friend to throw in with slavers (unless you focus your entire story upon how innocent curiosity can lead us astray).

You’re getting there! I’ve suggested a premise-story-backstory for you to work with, as well as a couple of ideas for engaging more deeply with your protagonist.

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Susan Kelly November 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Thanks, Jami and Victoria. Jami, I think you are quite right; I need to focus on what exactly needs to be at stake in the climax, and find one that really turns my crank. “Misled,” yeah. What’s worse, being misled, or being enslaved and killed? Maybe the wrong bad guy is at the climax.

Sooo helpful! Thanks.

Jami, you were the first person who ever followed me back on Twitter! Your generosity is wonderful. Hope you’re having fun with the current bite-y beach read!

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Jami Gold November 28, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Hi Susan,

Yay! I’m so glad Victoria and I were able to help. And Susan, you’re quite welcome–I’m happy to know you. *hugs* :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nina December 31, 2011 at 11:41 am

I bookmarked this a long time ago and so glad I did. WOW!

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Jami Gold December 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Hi Nina,

LOL! Yes, this is great stuff from Victoria, isn’t it? :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Climax = premise. Cool.

Whilst analyzing my own stories with this approach, I found that:

1) Some have multiple climaxes—well actually 2. So I kind of have 2 premises, which is actually true.

2) The climax for one story is the ending itself. The ending is what carries the big premise and theme in this story.

Yes of course we’re advised to “wind down” after the climax, but in this case, the climax was not a huge dramatic action/ emotional scene. It was a calm and warm emotional scene which I think ends the story on the best note–it emphasizes the point of the story.

3) For 2 of my stories, um…is it possible that the climax is the beginning??? It’s just that the problem starts and is dramatized at the start. The resolution near the end came not with a bang but in a calm, gentle way, in the form of a dear best/ new friend savior. So the stories had more of a feel-good happy ending where everything is finally resolved.

Climaxes are the parts where there is the most drama and intensity, right? If so, then the climaxes were at the beginning.

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Victoria Mixon April 13, 2012 at 8:08 pm

Oh, yes. Two things, Serena:

1) I don’t know who’s telling you to wind down after the climax, but they’re crazy. The whole idea is to punt the reader off the end of your story into their own epiphany. They quit reading after that.

2) Yes, the big event most certainly can happen as the Hook. Mysteries are like that: “Someone got killed! Oh, no! Now we have to figure out what it’s all about.” However, this is a deceptive story structure, because the big event is not really the Climax. The point of the big event is the Climax.

So if the ending of a story is that someone is a dear best/new friend savior, then you’ll want to structure that story to Climax on some illumination that surprises and intrigues the reader into their own epiphany.

The reader’s epiphany is the only one that ever counts. :)

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Jami Gold April 14, 2012 at 12:03 am

Hi Serena,

Yay! I was hoping Victoria would be able to stop by and answer your questions. She did a much better job of explaining things than I ever could.

As she points out with the mystery example, the Climax isn’t necessarily the big event. In a mystery, the point of the story is the epiphany of “who did it and why.” So we have the big event which kicks everything off, and the Climax is the point of all that–the big solution.

And that’s fascinating what Victoria said about the reader’s epiphany. I’ve never thought of it that way before. :) Thanks for asking such great questions!

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Serena April 15, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Thanks. Yeah I’ll think of the climax as the resolution rather than the problem. That should make sense. :)

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Jami Gold April 16, 2012 at 8:51 am

Hi Serena,

Good luck with it! :)

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Victoria Mixon April 16, 2012 at 10:18 am

Oh—be aware, guys, that the Resolution is something different from the Climax.

The Climax is still your protagonist’s worst nightmare. It’s just that when you make the whole point of an event the protagonist’s worst nightmare, it turns out a really big event can still be only a prelude to nightmare.

In a mystery, the hook of the Climax is the moment when it turns out the detective has been wrong all along. This is followed by a certain amount of flurried, completely unexplained activity on the detective’s part, followed by a moment in which the detective must choose whether or not to risk something important in order to reveal the solution.

That moment of choice is the climax of the Climax. The revelation of the solution isn’t nearly as interesting—that’s why so often the culprit does something dangerous right in the middle of being identified.

Choice!

Write toward the Climax, not the Resolution. That makes you unconsciously keep heading your protagonist toward their nightmare, which is what makes your reader curious (how are they going to handle it?) and your story tense.

If you write toward the Resolution, it will make you unconsciously keep heading your protagonist toward relief, which makes your reader be done with your story and walk away before the end.

Good luck!

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Jami Gold April 16, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Thanks, Victoria! Great clarification. :)

“Write toward the Climax, not the Resolution. That makes you unconsciously keep heading your protagonist toward their nightmare, which is what makes your reader curious (how are they going to handle it?) and your story tense.”

Love this concept. As you said, it’s all about building to a choice. Choice is what reveals character. Thanks for the great comment!

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Victoria Mixon April 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Of course, Jami! :)

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