Tools of the Trade: Anticlimax

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We’ve all seen it before: the story is built up, tensions are rising, suspense is palpable enough that you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat. This is it, you might think to yourself. This is going to be an epic fight. I wonder how he’s going to–

Wait. Did that random, unnamed character from the second chapter just… did he just shoot Bad Guy in the head from a rooftop?

You just got anticlimaxed. 

An anticlimax occurs when the writer suddenly eliminates narrative tension, without the expected payoff.

Say you’re reading a book, a typical Path of a Hero story. The Hero, John Redstone, has a serious bone to pick with the villain, General Adamar. Unfortunately, Adamar is too well-protected for Redstone to get to him without getting ready. So John spends twenty chapters training his mind and body for the upcoming battle with Adamar. He gathers allies and resources, and with his new-found friends and skills, they chip away at Adamar’s base of power. Slowly but surely, Redstone and company turn the tide of the conflict until there’s just one thing standing between him and victory: Adamar himself. Meticulously planning the operation, Redstone infiltrates Adamar’s Evil Fortress of Bad Stuff. Everything goes according to plan and schedule, and soon enough Redstone sneaks into Adamar’s private chambers. Raising the dagger he found back in Chapter Twelve– left for him by Gamadrol, the Lady of the Wood, and rumored to be the one thing that could pierce Adamar’s enchanted skin– he moves past the curtains surrounding the bed, where he finds…

Adamar is already dead. Turns out he had a shellfish allergy, and had a bad reaction to the shrimp cocktail. The next page is the “About the Author” section that everyone ignores anyway.

That is an anticlimax. Obviously an extreme example, but I felt it necessary to demonstrate the incredible amount of frustration that an anticlimax can cause your reader (or viewer or whatever). Used incorrectly– or, sometimes most egregiously, accidentally– this can ruin the reputation of a book, a series, a show, or, occasionally, a writer.

That said, an anticlimax does not mean something that is just disappointing. It certainly can be a huge disappointment, of course– we all remember Heroes— but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful, or that it is a wholly bad concept. Remember, an anticlimax is an event that removes suspense or tension without the expected payoff. It doesn’t mean that there is no payoff, only that it came in a different package.

Let’s take Citizen Kane as an example. The driving mystery of the story is What is Rosebud? Really, it’s just a vehicle to drive the plot, but who cares? The viewer wants to know what it is. And at the end of the movie it’s revealed to be… a sled. It was a sled he had when he was a kid. Damn. Turns out not to be such a big mystery after all, right guys?

This is an anticlimax done right. The whole time, the question is burning in the back of your head, and you start coming up with possible answers– it’s the entire reason for the plot. And then you get the answer to your question. Some people, after getting that answer, are understandably pissed. I’m not one of them. The movie answers the question that drives you, but doesn’t give you the answer you wanted or expected. It’s just… it’s a sled. Because Rosebud is an ordinary sled, a mundane thing in an extraordinary life, you’re left with a new question: why the hell was “Rosebud” his last word? (Also, how did anyone know that “Rosebud” was his last word? He died alone in a room, and the nurse doesn’t come in until after he’s dead. Whatever, I’ll talk about this when I talk about Plot Holes in another article).

That’s one way to use an anticlimax well– when it answers a question, but leads to another, deeper question.

Another far more common way is to use it for comedic effect. Literally anything Joss Whedon has ever done has some kind of funny anticlimax. Take “The Cabin in the Woods” as an example. (Spoiler alert, but the scene was in the trailer, so, you know. Kind of not really a spoiler anymore).

Curt, who has been manipulated into thinking that he’s this story’s hero, decides that it’s time to head back to civilization to get help. The only way out of the woods and back to town? By jumping a canyon on a dirt bike in a sweet motocross move. The rest of the cast share goodbyes and good lucks, and the viewer feels some hope glowing in the pits of his stomach as the music swells an uplifting riff. Curt starts the bike, a cocky smile on his face, and accelerates towards the canyon. He takes off, and it looks good! He’s got so much air, it’s such a sick move! He’s going to make it! He’s going to–


Curt smashes into the force field surrounding the area and plummets to the bottom of the canyon where he doubtlessly splatters into several dozen smaller pieces of Cocky Teen.

Even though the scene was depicted in the trailer, even though I knew it was coming, I couldn’t help but feel excited when Curt started the bike. I felt like something good was going to happen. Then Joss took that goodness away. Suddenly, and without immediate warning.

And it was freaking hilarious. I started laughing uncontrollably when I saw it the first time. The scene deliberately took your expectation– the musical score even led you to believe in that expectation– and then anticlimaxed hard.

“Iron Man 2” did this as well. Remember the end fight scene, when Iron Man and War Machine are fighting Whiplash? Rhodey fires that little missile Hammer sold him after spending like ten minutes explaining why it was awesome. This normally would signal that the missile– named “The Ex-Wife”– is a Chekhov’s Gun— that is, a weapon introduced earlier in a story that must be used in a significant way. Unfortunately, Rhodey fires the rocket to much fanfare and buildup, only to have it tap into Whiplash’s suit with an adorable *ting* sound before falling to the ground. It failed spectacularly– but, because you were expecting something and got nothing, the resulting anticlimax definitely made you laugh. I know I did.

Anticlimaxes used in those ways can work really well. They can shift the mood from serious to lighthearted, or they can make the viewer or reader think about their previous expectations in interesting ways.

The danger of using an anticlimax comes from its motivation. If you use one to write yourself out of a corner, you’re going to annoy your consumer. It happens all the time. A writer will have no idea how to resolve a conflict that has been built up for a while, and rather than leaving that part of the plot hanging, they tie it up with a solution that comes suddenly– sometimes off screen. Take the X-Files again: Mulder mentions that his sister was abducted early in the series, and it become a recurring mystery. Hints are dropped that she’s still alive. Mulder delves deeper and deeper, uncovering more and more information. Finally, several seasons later, it’s casually mentioned that she has actually been dead the whole time. She had been killed off screen. She’s then promptly forgotten.

Worst. Reveal. Ever.

Sometimes an anticlimax can be deliberate, but the writer is confused as to how badly they messed up by doing it. The worst example in recent history is Twilight. The fourth book spends a ludicrous amount of time building up a conflict between the Volturi and the Cullen family and friends. The Cullens recruit the local werewolf packs to their side. They send word to other vampires, gathering support from some pretty awesomely powerful dudes. One guy can literally reshape the elements around him; he can control the earth, air, water and fire. One lady vampire can electrocute people! It’s pretty exciting stuff. The battle is all but inevitable. The lines are drawn, and the Volturi come to fight! Then… they talk. And the Volturi leave. And the book ends.

Everybody wanted that fight. Everyone. Even preteen fangirls fawning over Edward’s perfect hair wanted to see that happen. It was, quite possibly, the only interesting conflict in the entire book! And it was built up so effectively that the lack of payoff did nothing except infuriate me. I mean, I was sold. I was ready to put on a “Twilight” tee shirt. Hell, you might’ve been too! Unfortunately, Stephenie Meyer thought that the conflict would be more interesting as a diplomatic conversation rather than a physical battle. Because I guess that would’ve just been too damn cool, and she is determined to be as uncool as possible. It’s the only explanation.

Occasionally, an anticlimax will result because of an oversight. This can happen way more often in ongoing series than in movies or standalone books. This occurs when a writer unintentionally builds up an event or conflict that was never intended to be a focus. Marble Hornets unfortunately did this with Amy’s character. (Spoilers ahead).

Likely never intending to be more than a one-off character, Alex’s girlfriend Amy was shown in exactly one entry (out of over a hundred videos). She was occasionally brought up, as Alex was ostensibly looking for her. Fans speculated wildly about the importance she had on the series; she was even a popular candidate to be revealed as Hoody. On fan forums, Amy had a couple of threads dedicated to explaining, in excruciating detail, why Amy was ludicrously important, and further positing that she was actually behind the ToTheArk channel. Then, in a throwaway line in the penultimate entry, it’s revealed that she had been dead for years.

This is a result of fans picking up on the wrong plotline and running with it. It’s understandable, because Marble Hornets was a mystery series, and a lot of things wound up being important in unexpected way. But a lot of fans found this anticlimax to be particularly disappointing.

There is little you can do to prevent fan speculation from overtaking the more salient plot points and picking up on minutiae– and the Marble Hornets crew did the best they could in that situation. All you can do is make sure that your story is outlined properly and hope that you haven’t built up conflicts or events that you don’t plan on pursuing.

The point is that if your story has an anticlimax, it had better serve a purpose. You can use them to instigate a rapid tone or mood shift, or you can use them to provoke thought or discussion. You shouldn’t use them to save yourself the trouble of writing a better resolution to a conflict, because that will only serve to annoy or infuriate your consumers. Remember, your job as a writer is to hold the attention of your reader or viewer for as long as possible, and poorly executed or unintentional anticlimaxes are a surefire way to get them to ignore you.



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