Writing Workshop Lesson 9: Tension and Climax

Workshop Introduction

Tension and Climax

Your story must build tension all the way through, up to the climax. Each scene should add a little bit more. If not, it will feel flat and boring to the reader. But you don’t want to start off too strong, too soon, or you’ll wear the reader out.

Tension comes from interference in the protagonist’s drive to fulfill his desire (see Lessons 3 and 7). Each scene should include a little bit, however subtly, of the protagonist striving to get what he wants, and someone or something thwarting his progress. Each time the protagonist is prevented from achieving his goal, the tension builds a little more, driving the character on, and pulling the reader along with him, until finally the story reaches its climax.

The climax is the ultimate confrontation between the protagonist and whatever is keeping him from reaching his goal. Think of it as the showdown in a western. Everything that’s gone before has led up to this point. Will he get what he wants? That’s up to you, the writer. But either way, the climax decides it, once and for all, and the remainder of the story resolves loose ends and concludes the action.

Should all of the loose ends be resolved?

You don’t necessarily need to resolve all of the loose ends in your story, but you must provide a resolution for the major plot line. Your story, from the very beginning, makes certain promises to the reader. If you do not fulfill those promises, you will leave the reader frustrated and likely lose them entirely.

Your protagonist does not necessarily need to achieve his goal, but his search for it should be resolved by the end of the story. For example, if your protagonist is a woman trying to save her failing marriage, she must resolve this goal by the end of the story. How she resolves it is up to you, the author. Perhaps she saves the marriage. Perhaps the marriage ends, but she makes peace with this fact. Perhaps the climax involves the husband trying to kill her, or vice versa, and the marriage is definitely over. Either way, the goal or “quest” she sought throughout the story is resolved.

Exercise 1

Write the next part of your story. Be aware of building tension into the scene as you work toward the climax of the story.

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