Reaching the Climax

by Robert Gregory Browne

Let’s talk about sex. Those of you who are uncomfortable with the subject, feel free to bail out now — I’m likely to get pretty raunchy.

Still with me? I thought so.

When we make love, most of us have a particular goal in mind: that moment when our entire body seems to stem from one central point, every nerve-ending tingling wildly as fireworks assault our brain.

That moment, of course, is orgasm, and anyone who has experienced one (or two or three) — especially with a willing and enthusiastic partner (or two or three) — knows that it can be an exquisitely pleasurable sensation.

But are all orgasms created equal?

Of course not. The quality of our orgasms is directly related to the quality of the fun and games that precede them, not to mention our emotional bond with our partner, and our willingness (or unwillingness) to surrender ourselves fully to the moment.

So what, you’re probably wondering, does any of this have to do with writing?

YOUR WILLING PARTNER

Writing is an extremely intimate act. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King describes it as a form of telepathy. We put our thoughts on paper, and days, months or even years later, someone literally reads our mind.

Think about it. With a simple arrangement of words, you have the potential to pull your readers into your mind where they can be stroked and fondled and toyed with — sometimes gently, sometimes rough.

The result is often a partnership so strong and emotionally satisfying that neither of you ever wants to let go.

Who of us here can forget those times when we’ve read a book or watched a movie we didn’t want to end? And when the end did come, we felt drained, elated and thoroughly satisfied — much like we do after a night of unbridled passion.

Getting to that place wasn’t an accident. The writer of the book — at least in most cases — didn’t merely fumble his (or her) way toward climax. If he (or she) did his job, every step was carefully choreographed to lead us around the third act corner toward that final pay-off. And the quality of that pay-off is related to one important thing:

THE GENTLE ART OF LOVEMAKING

We’re often reminded in how-to books that the typical story is broken into three acts:

Set-up, Confrontation, and Resolution. Sounds pretty cold and uncaring, doesn’t it? Not to mention dull.

But what if we were to beat the lovemaking analogy into the ground and refer to the three acts in this way:

Seduction, Foreplay, and Climax.

Certainly puts a whole new slant on things, doesn’t it? And if we’re to have a successful story with a successful and satisfying ending — one that keeps our partners wanting more — we must pay careful attention to these three words.

Seduction.

The beginning of a story, any story, cannot and should not be referred to as anything other than a seduction. It is our job to make our audience want us.

How do we accomplish that? First we start with character. We must create characters that our audience won’t mind, figuratively speaking, getting into bed with. Particularly the lead. Is he or she someone we find attractive? Does he have a problem or flaws we can relate to? Are his life circumstances universal yet unique enough to pique our interest?

The next element is mystery. Every story should be a mystery. Remember the girl in college the guys all wanted but knew so little about? A big part of her allure was that hint of mystery she carried. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you should never, never, never put all of your cards on the table at the beginning of the game. Instead you must reveal them one at a time, each new card offering a clue to the mystery of our characters and their stories.

The third and most important element of seduction is giving your characters a goal. And not just your lead. Every single character you write should have a goal of some kind. Put two characters with opposing goals in a room and you have drama.

But the goal of your hero must be compelling enough to intrigue us and hold our interest. In The Fugitive, Harrison Ford is wrongly convicted of killing his wife, escapes to find her killer, and soon discovers he’s being hunted by a relentless cop who doesn’t care whether or not Ford is guilty. All three elements of seduction are satisfied and guess what? We’re hooked.

Foreplay.

Once we get our audience into bed, however, we certainly can’t let them down. As you would with a lover, you explore and tease and make new discoveries — which can often lead your partner to discover something about him or herself that, until that moment, remained dormant.

The foreplay in the second act is a continuation of the seduction but on a deeper, more intimate level. This is when we really begin to understand and root for the characters, and when their stake in the outcome becomes more and more important. Surprises are sprung, secrets are revealed, and our emotions and feelings build with each new scene, gradually working us toward the moment we’re all waiting for:

The Climax.

And this is why we’re here today, class, to talk about that most crucial of Act Three moments: the time when all of the work you’ve done for the last three hundred or so pages comes together like the pieces of a puzzle, where plot and subplot intertwine to create the only ending that makes sense within the context of the story you’ve told — a thrilling and, hopefully, explosive orgasm of emotion. The final kiss, the final death, the final revelation that sends your audience soaring.

But you can’t get there without laying the proper groundwork.

A wise writer once said that the first page of a novel sells that novel and the last page sells the next one. This is certainly true, but what he doesn’t say is that the stuff between is what sells that last page. Without masterful seduction and foreplay it is virtually impossible to reach a satisfying climax.

Act Three is a culmination of all that came before it, and if the preceding two acts are anything short of spectacular, you’ll be lucky if your audience even sticks around for number three.

It’s all up to you.

Every time you sit down to write, you must remember that your audience is your partner, your lover, and in order to make them happy you must seduce, thrill and, most importantly, satisfy.

21 thoughts on “Reaching the Climax

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    I think this is a brilliant essay, Rob, but – just like a man!!

    While everything you say is true to an extent, the more readers I meet, the more I realize that most readers are in it for the relationship. If an author they’ve committed to doesn’t give them a perfect climax every time, that’s okay. It’s the totality of the relationship, the nuances, the poignant words, the surprises, the little things along the way, that keep the love alive.

    Sure, they’ll have one-night stands with random authors, but it’s those authors they have relationships that really get them off, long-term.

    (Call me Devil’s Advocate, or just call me exhausted…)

    Reply
  2. Robert Gregory Browne

    Relationships are certainly important, Alex. No doubt about that. But we also tend to get lazy in relationships, stop trying as hard.

    So, yes, form a bond with your reader, but do the very best you can to please them as well.

    Reply
  3. cj lyons

    Oh, Rob, Oh, Rob….sigh….As usual you hit the sweet spot! LOL!

    I think every time you need to seduce your readers all over again with each book.

    You can’t take the little things for granted–that’s what turns me off of authors I used to adore. When they start taking short cuts or forget to put my pleasure first (since I’m, as a reader, the one paying for the date).

    Yeah, call me selfish…

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    And can you stretch the analogy to the series writer being part of a long term relationship? And the stand alone book being a one night stand?

    Think I’ll join you in that cigarette, Mark.

    Thanks for a great eye-opener this morning, Rob.

    Reply
  5. JLW

    The biggest risk, of course, is the epidemic transmission of Writer Transmitted Diseases–like the substitution of the abomination “snuck” for the perfectly good “sneaked”. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to wear a raincoat every time I open a book.

    Reply
  6. spyscribbler

    Great post! Which came first, the sexual climax or the golden ratio? Whichever, they certainly rule the universe. Music, art, writing, sex, everything …

    Proper proportion is pretty. (Say that three times fast!)

    I always try to be in both my character’s shoes and my reader’s shoes while writing. Split brain or something. I need to imagine that I know what the reader is experiencing and feeling, so I know if what I’m writing is working or not.

    Reply
  7. toni mcgee causey

    Okay, tell the truth — you had a bet with Brett as to how many times you could use the word ‘orgasm’ in a post, didn’t you.

    (Well done.)

    Reply
  8. pari

    Okay, so . . .Sunday at Murderati started with the birth of a baby.Monday we had the word Ejection — which sure sounds close to many other words.Tuesday was an exploration of our relationship with our mothers.Wed. is sex, plain and simple — though there’s nothing simple about it — and writing.

    It’s spring.

    Rob,This is a wonderful way of framing an old saw. I’m inclined to agree with Alex – and, of course, we want that dynamite climax almost every time.

    But, there are satifying quickies too — even in longer term relationships.

    So, I think we could drive this subject even further into the ground if we wanted to . . .

    Reply
  9. Nancy Martin

    Hmm… I think I’d like a cool shower now.

    But I tend to agree with the ladies here, Rob. This reader wants a longterm thing, and it’s the little moments that keep a lover coming back, not necessarily the pyrotechnics of the climax. But maybe that’s the big difference between boys and girls?

    Reply
  10. toni mcgee causey

    This reminds me of how Terminator changed how we viewed climaxes, and so many books and movies go for the multiple climaxes now and the implication that one really big, terrific climax isn’t enough satisfaction any more.

    Reply
  11. Mike MacLean

    Seduction, Foreplay, and Climax beat Set-up, Confrontation, and Resolution any day of the week.

    Thanks for the great post, Rob. I have one problem. Most of the authors I read are men–Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Joe R. Lansdale. These are my partners? That makes me feel funny inside.

    Reply
  12. Cheryl Kaye Tardif

    I feel like such a slut! I’ve slept with over 60 authors in 6 weeks. Ok, ok, I was judging a book contest. I am thoroughly exhausted!Time for a nap.

    Cheryl Kaye Tardifauthor of the bestselling novel Whale Songhttp://www.whalesongbook.com

    Reply

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