Paul Robertson

Paul Robertson is a computer programming consultant, part-time high-school math and science teacher, and the author of The Heir, Road to Nowhere, and According to Their Deeds. His upcoming historical suspense novel, Dark in the City of Light, will be published in July 2010. He is also a former Christian bookstore owner (for 15 years), who lives with his family in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Using the Climax Moment

A scene near the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie To Catch a Thief has Cary Grant standing in a restaurant kitchen. A dozen or so men are working in the kitchen, and they’re a nasty-looking bunch.

They don’t like him (watch the movie to find out why), and the tension is pretty strong with their hostile stares alone. But Cary Grant isn’t about to back down.

Then the camera jumps from one point to another, and we see the subtle actions and gestures of the men threatening their visitor. The tension builds.

Finally, the biggest, ugliest guy grabs a white porcelain plate from a stack and breaks it on a table. The piece in his hand is a jagged weapon, and he advances on Grant. The others begin moving in. The danger is palpable.

But our protagonist still doesn’t back down. We see him take hold of the neck of a bottle of wine—just the way he holds it looks ominous.

We know what’s going to happen. The image of the plate being broken is fresh—the timing of the scene precise. He’s going to break the bottle—we can already see the broken glass, imagine the lunge.

But wait. He suddenly tosses the bottle to the man wielding the plate-weapon!

Startled, he reflexively drops the plate shard to catch the wine bottle (this restaurant is in France, and a bottle of wine is not carelessly shattered). Completely flustered, the attacker cradles the bottle, and the whole scenario is over. The other men laugh, while Cary Grant makes a smooth exit.

It’s not what we expected.

The climax point of a tense sequence is one of the most valuable moments in a plot and should be used to its greatest effect. Most writers know the basics: a nice, long, slow setup; mounting tension with shorter sentences and sharper verbs; and bang! The climax.

What a perfect place for something a little different.

Like a sudden shift in the plot. The opposition is trying to eliminate the hero. For the last half of a chapter, a mysterious stalker has been following him through a dark alley. Finally he sticks out his hand to grab him and says, “I have the package from Dimitri!”

Or, “You’re under arrest!”

Or, “Hi, Dad!”

Any one of these would be a new direction for the plot. Besides not being what the reader was expecting, it also is something the reader wasn’t expecting. It can have a much stronger effect than discovering new information by simply opening a letter or getting a phone call.

This doesn’t apply only to suspense. For example, if a young woman is going to learn that her boyfriend wants to break up with her, it would be more powerful to build up to the revelation with some suspense tactics. Have her get ready for the big date, build up her expectations, move to the shorter grammar and faster vocabulary, and then when the reader just knows it’s going to be a wonderful, romantic scene, wham! It’s over.

This isn’t an original idea, of course. But in plotting out a storyline, a writer can specifically choose those important twists, key moments, and frame them in climax. Whatever is going to happen to the character, build up an expectation of the opposite and create a dramatic moment, and then when the reader’s attention is fully engaged—boom!

Of course, sometimes the climax should be just what the reader is expecting: The feckless victim is done in just as the suspense build-up leads the reader to believe. In fact, it would become predictable if the climax was always unpredictable.

But even a standard build-up and climax can be shifted or augmented. One way would be to build up to the point, then create a sudden, momentary pause before the final action.

The movie Guns of Navarone, from Alistair MacLean’s World War II novel, is about British commandos trying to destroy a set of massive German guns overlooking a strategic Aegean Sea route. Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn need to set bombs in the fortified caves to explode the big guns’ ammunition depot and destroy the whole place; but their fuses have been wrecked. They can’t just set the timer for ten minutes and escape.

Therefore, they set the bombs to go off when the Germans use the elevator that lifts the massive shells into guns. Meanwhile, of course, a bunch of British warships have to get through the channel.

The heroes set their bombs and escape, the ships start into the passage, and the German guns begin firing on them. Every time they fire, the elevator runs down to pick up more shells and just barely misses the trigger for the bombs. And each time the guns fire, they’re getting closer to the ships. Over and over the elevator just misses the trigger.

But finally, when the next shot is sure to hit the British ships, the elevator hits the trigger and the whole mountain explodes.

Those repeated pauses—build-up and let-down, build-up and let-down—are far more tense than the bombs being triggered the first time.

So don’t waste any bit of suspense—use it all, use it in every place it can be used, and use it in unexpected ways.

According To Their Deeds