What makes for a satisfying plot climax in a story? In a film, the most tearful scene, the biggest explosion, the moment at which the beloved dog dies — it’s relatively easy in purely plot terms to guide the viewer to an emotional high point, especially when assisted with a good musical score. That, of course, is not to say that anything about film-making is actually easy. Nonetheless, the range of means with which to overload the senses goes far beyond anything in the story-teller’s tool bag.
So, for the story-teller, what is there?
Part of me wants to say that there must be an infinite variety of ways to make the climax of the story happen. After all, every story is in some way different, just as every story-teller is different. I am wondering, though, if there are perhaps just three or four things that work again and again. At the moment — and I feel I may have to revise this later — I think there are three. They are Logic Bombs, Epiphanies and Outrageous Fortune.
Logic Bombs are premises which are set up early in the story and which then go off-set, as it were, only to wreak their havoc at the climax. Examples of Logic Bombs are Sophocles‘s Oedipus the King, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Conrad’s Nostromo, and almost any modern detective story. If you would prefer something rather more poetic, you might describe the Logic Bomb as ‘the answer is in the question’, or ‘the knot unravels’.
Epiphanies are moments of clarity or revelation — either self-revelation or a sudden, deeper understanding of the wider world. Examples of epiphanies are Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the first three Narnia books (in the original order).
Outrageous Fortune is when the scale of the world, or the odds stacked against the protagonist are so great that either they come to crash down on her or him, or else some great effort of daring or perseverance enables him or her to overcome it. Hamlet, of course, is the work from which this is named, but other examples include Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Golding’s Pincher Martin, and Beowulf.
Let me unpack these a little more.
In Oedipus the King, as is well known, Oedipus has killed his father unknowingly, before going on to answer the riddle of the Sphinx and becoming king, marrying the queen who the audience knows to be his mother. Sophocles’s play revolves around the unravelling of this. Although modern audiences would consider Oedipus to be guiltless but unfortunate, Greek audiences knew the terrible, inevitable consequences of parricide and incest.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain agrees to receive a return stroke of the axe from a chivalrous Christmas game at the beginning. On his journey he stays at a castle where the lord’s wife attempts to seduce him. He resists, but incompletely. When he finally meets the Green Knight, it turns out that his survival in the first test (the beheading) depended on his performance in the second (the seduction).
In Nostromo, Conrad constructs a character, Fidenza, who is entirely ‘incorruptible’, at least in the estimation of his colleagues. As the story progresses, we, the readers, begin to recognise that he is not so much incorruptible as obsessive about his reputation for honour. Therefore, when he is charged with retaining and retrieving a shipment of gold, but someone uses one bar of the gold to weigh himself down while committing suicide by drowning, he is incapable of returning the gold minus one bar, because suspicion would fall on him for stealing it. This is his undoing. Although the logic is psychological, Conrad makes it inevitable.
The moment of clarity, self-understanding, or deeper understanding of the universe forms the climax of many of Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth sees himself for who he has become in his ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech. In Twelfth Night, Orsino realises that he loves Viola, rather than Olivia with whom he has no real relationship at all and who is merely the object of his own narcissism. In King Lear it is when Lear realises that it is Cordelia who loved him that the play is resolved. In Heart of Darkness we journey to the heart of the Belgian Congo, and discover that it is the white man, Kurtz, who represents all of the darkness which has been brought by the Europeans, rather than found in the jungle. By comparison with Kurtz, even the cannibals seem humane. In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the children discover new, deeper things about Aslan and, eventually, about themselves.
Scott’s expedition to the antarctic was one of the greatest true adventure stories of the modern era. It epitomised the struggle against outrageous odds, in this case made concrete by the fact that the entire expedition perished. In Hamlet, it is not the physical environment, but rather the weight of power stacked against him which makes it inevitable that he will succumb. We are kept on the edge of our seats in the hopes that he will, somehow, triumph. In the Oresteia, it is the weight of the whole supernatural universe: while we, the audience, know that Orestes must avenge his father, the killing of his mother makes him liable to pursuit by the Erinyes. In the end, it is the intervention by Athena which rescues him. In Pincher Martin — however we eventually read the story — the power of the sea destroys the protagonist with absolute certainty. In Beowulf, the hero takes on three invincible monsters. The first two he defeats, the third he defeats, but is killed in doing so.
Of course, any formulation or typology fits the stories for which it was designed. Is it necessary that one or more of these should be at the climax of a worthwhile story? And is a story improved by having more than one of these? For example, in Macbeth we have the logic bomb of taking advice from witches which works its way out at the same time as his epiphany. Is Romeo and Juliet a weaker play because it is merely the outrageous fortune of feuding families which keeps the star-crossed lovers eternally apart?
I’m still reflecting on whether there are other kinds of stories which do not fit these three. I’m fairly certain, though, that having more than one kind doesn’t necessarily make the story better. Macbeth is a greater play than Romeo and Juliet, but there are many works which are less than either of them which manage to unite epiphany, logic bombs and outrageous fortune. John Buchan manages this quite frequently. No one can deny that his stories are enjoyable, but they are not by any means Shakespeare.
If you are a of a modernist turn of mind, this discussion of plot may seem pointless and fruitless. Many 20th century writers saw plot as an unnecessary contrivance, a left-over of medieval storytelling which came to its baroque completion in the works of Dickens and Hardy. For myself, I take the view that Umberto Eco enunciates in the introduction to The Name of the Rose. The plot austerity of the 20th century is over. It is now permissible again to write, and to read, purely for pleasure. The investigation of what it is about stories that make them more satisfying, more fulfilling seems to me to be worthwhile — even if we never come to a definitive answer.