In my MFA program, one of my mentors, Bruce Holland Rogers, often reminded students that to be effective, a story climax should be inevitable yet surprising. Readers should feel it was startling (at least a little), but also possible, based on what has happened previously. It should be a realization, an epiphany.
How does a writer take a story there?
Many writers, especially emerging writers, proceed as though the main conflict of their story is its climax. They then create a series of events that lead logically to that point. But by proceeding logically there is always the chance that the story will become predictable, and the rising action that readers expect too flat to be effective. I’ve found this to be true quite often when reading work in the submission queue. So many times my notes include things like, “I’ve seen this plot before,” or, “I know where this is going.”
In my own experience I have learned to put this approach aside in favor of one that treats a story more like an exploration, driven from the beginning through character desire and/or conflict. That main conflict is only the starting point. From there the challenge is to imagine what might happen next and how it might lead to an even greater point of tension, which has the potential to yield a more impactful revelation.* The process is like being an explorer. You have a general idea of where you want to go, but you don’t know exactly how you’ll get there or what you will encounter along the way, and you may choose to follow a tangent instead of the mapped way. The path is more exciting and never predictable. The result is often surprising. I’ve written many stories that have reached a point in which something almost magical occurs—one of my characters does something that seems completely unexpected, and yet still follows from everything that’s happened before. And if I can surprise myself, there’s a reasonable chance I might surprise readers as well.
This means making the conflict clear from the start and continuing to build the tension. Opening with conflict is a form of beginning the story in medias res (in the middle of things). It’s typically one of the first lessons creative writing students are taught, and most emerging writers have no problem doing this. But in medias res doesn’t mean start in the middle and go backward—delaying the action while the writer offers page after page of dull background information—it means start in the middle of things and go forward. Consider that the second lesson students learn is often the idea of rising action, a path of increased tension from the opening to the climax. If that’s true, then how is moving into backstory, a low-tension offering of background facts, justified?
There are many excellent examples of this technique in literature. One of my favorites is the short story “Araby,” by James Joyce (whose short stories often contain amazing epiphanies). Here’s a link to the story. This web page includes annotations by a variety of readers who help explain what Joyce is doing throughout the narrative: https://genius.com/James-joyce-araby-annotated.
To use this approach in your fiction you need a good imagination, and you need to let go of the desire to control everything your characters do in the story, and allow them to be real human beings with their own sense of self-determination. You also need to trust yourself. A good writer is never afraid to let go of a story plan if it looks like it might go someplace more interesting.
* For more about this read Robert McKee’s Story. He talks about barriers—each barrier to a character goal yields a solution, but just as often yields another, more difficult barrier to overcome.
– Joe Ponepinto