The third book of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, The Last Colony, is all about a group of spacefaring humans trying to establish a colony. It may even be the last colony humans ever establish – shocking! From there, two stories run in parallel. We have the onscreen difficulties of getting the colony up and running, while offscreen, galactic politics play out and may determine the fate of our planet-bound heroes.*
The climactic showdown happens when these two plots meet. One of the major alien politicians is bringing an army to attack the colony and score antihuman PR points. To make matters worse, the human government is playing its own game and refuses to send the colony any reinforcements. Sounds like an exciting battle against desperate odds, so how does it end up being anticlimactic?
The first problem is the attack’s leader is a minor villain who’s barely present in the story to that point. No matter how many ships and soldiers we’re told he has, he just doesn’t feel as dangerous as a villain we’re invested in. It would be like if Return of the Jedi ended with a confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Admiral Piett while Vader and Palpatine were off somewhere else.
But far worse is how the battle itself is portrayed: as a total cakewalk. It’s supposed to be a hidden plan turning point, where the good guys win via factors that the characters know about but the audience doesn’t, and it completely falls apart. For one thing, even though we don’t know exactly what the hero’s plan is, it’s obvious from the glaring cutaways that something is going to happen. There’s literally a scene where the main character is asked to check out a new asset for the coming battle, and then the story cuts to the start of the fight. Gee, I wonder if that thing he was checking out will matter?
What’s more, the viewpoint character doesn’t seem worried. This is partially down to the novel’s overall tone, but it’s also caused by the main character knowing what the secret plan is. He has no reason to be worried. This is one reason that hidden plans are so hard to do when you’re writing in close narration. In an omniscient viewpoint, the author has options for building up tension no matter what the character is thinking.* In a close viewpoint, we know the protagonist thinks everything will be fine, so why should we worry?
Finally, when the plan is actually revealed, it turns out the heroes were given some incredibly advanced technology offscreen, and that’s how they win. How… exciting? This is your standard deus ex machina, a literary trope so widely mocked, it’s actually surprising to see it in print. Even Scalzi eventually realized this was a problem, as he wrote an entire fourth novel to give the god-tech some extra context, but it was too late. Even if this later book somehow managed to make the god-tech feel natural,* that doesn’t retroactively fix The Last Colony’s disappointing climax.
Ironically, there’s more satisfaction to be had after the climax than during it. Our protagonist gets together with the actual main villain so they can hash out a peace deal that will both save humanity from being annihilated and also put a wrench in the scheming human government’s plans. That’s a cool resolution, but it happens too easily to be considered a climax.
Charlie Jane Anders’s Hugo-nominated novel is no slouch when it comes to establishing problems to be solved. It would take forever to list them all, so I’ll focus on the main three. First, the hero’s home city, Xiosphant, is run by totalitarian autocrats who crush any dissent beneath their heels. That’s already a meaty plot for any story, but when our heroes flee to the neighboring city of Argalo, they discover a new problem: this city is run by murderous crime lords who only care about lining their own pockets. Oh no!
In addition to these human problems, there’s also a serious environmental issue. The story takes place on an alien world where both the weather and local wildlife are deadly to human life, a problem that’s only getting worse as the climate shifts. The humans’ technology is also steadily degrading, leaving them with fewer and fewer resources to combat the looming catastrophe.
With so many problems, we’re in for an epic climax indeed, right? You can probably already guess the answer. Despite using most of the book to set up these problems, Anders doesn’t resolve any of them in the climax. Xiosphant is still run by a totalitarian autocrat, it’s just a different totalitarian autocrat. Argalo is still run by murderous crime lords, and the environmental catastrophe is still looming. If anything, it’s much worse at the end than it was at the beginning.
All that’s changed is that our main character, Sophie, has joined up with some local aliens in the hope of maybe resolving those problems in the future. Armed with some creepy telepathic powers, Sophie is sent on a recruiting drive to bring more humans into the cause. Will this fix any of the setting’s problems? No one knows because the book is over! At first, this looks like a setup for a sequel, but we have confirmation from Anders that The City in the Middle of the Night is a standalone novel.
Even if there were a sequel planned, an ending like this would give us no reason to read it. If the first novel in a series offers no satisfaction, why should we believe that the next one will? It doesn’t have to resolve everything, but it does have to resolve something. Anders doesn’t do that, which leaves the entire story feeling pointless. The world is in exactly as bad a position as it was at the start, with only the vague hope that Sophie and her alien friends will fix things later.
While it’s impossible to know what’s in an author’s mind, I suspect that Anders was trying to substitute internal conflict for external conflict. A lot of page space is devoted to the two main characters’ arcs, especially at the end. For Sophie, this ends with her joining Team Alien. For the other POV character, it ends with her as a total pacifist. Unfortunately, this is simply insufficient. In the right story, internal conflict can be what drives the plot, but not when there are such urgent and high-stakes external problems to deal with. In a story like this, internal and external conflicts need to resolve together; otherwise the end is just a letdown.
The first season of Cardcaptor Sakura is generally serviceable, if more than a little formulaic. Each episode, Sakura has to confront a rogue magical card, defeat it, then add it to her collection. The finale is another fight, this time to decide if she gets to keep all the cards she’s captured or if she loses them. Also, if love can continue to exist in the world, for some reason. It’s not fantastic, but for a kids’ anime, it gets the job done.
Season two is so much worse, and it’s almost entirely down to one character: Eriol. Eriol is a puppeteer, a good guy who secretly arranges everything behind the scenes. Instead of capturing magical cards, this season is all about Eriol creating random problems that Sakura has to solve. He’s supposedly doing this to help Sakura strengthen her magic, but the dialogue is incredibly inconsistent on how that works. And since the audience already knows that Eriol is a good guy, there’s no tension. It’s clear he’ll stop if things get too dangerous. Eriol is also a smug asshole with the world’s most punchable face,* which doesn’t help.
When we finally get to the climax, it’s a complete disaster. Season one at least has some foreshadowing for Sakura’s big test, but season two can’t even manage that. Out of nowhere, we’re told that Sakura must show mastery over two previously obscure cards that are suddenly super powerful, or else Eriol will lock the town into eternal sleep. We know this is a bluff, even if Sakura doesn’t, so already there are no consequences for failure.
Perhaps worse, it’s not clear what’s supposed to happen if Sakura succeeds, either. She’s never even used the two cards in question, so the idea that they’re super powerful is meaningless. We’re told that if she doesn’t completely master the cards, they’ll lose their magic, but so what? Sakura doesn’t have any particular connection to these cards. She doesn’t even want to have magical powers; she’s only on this adventure to stop other people from being hurt. This also contradicts how the cards worked in the previous season, when they seemed to have an infinite source of magic no matter who had mastered them.
As a final nail in the coffin, once Sakura wins, nothing has actually changed. She gets to keep all the cards, but she already had them. The dialogue tells us that things are different now that she’s truly mastered them, but we’re never shown how. After an entire season, the only thing that seems to have developed are some of the inter-character relationships. That’s better than nothing, but it’s not nearly enough.
This pains me to write because I’m a huge fan of Martha Wells’s Murderbot novellas. They’re all great stories, and notably, each of them has a great climax. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Network Effect, the first full novel in the series.
The problems with Network Effect come in two flavors: stakes and resolution. For the first one, the stakes simply aren’t high enough, which is weird. In the previous novellas, Murderbot mostly fought other bots and the occasional human, but in this story, it’s* fighting an alien infestation. That should make for naturally higher stakes, and at first it seems to. In the final showdown, Murderbot is fighting the alien hivemind, with a strong implication that if Murderbot loses, it’ll be infected and sent out to spread the alien contamination across the galaxy.
But then we’re told that there was never any danger of Murderbot being a carrier. It turns that another character, ART,* had already figured out a way to stop that from happening. So the only thing on the line in that fight was Murderbot’s life. While death can certainly make for effective stakes, it’s actually a letdown in this series. The previous novellas had already put Murderbot’s life at stake multiple times, and it was always in addition to something else, usually the lives of Murderbot’s human clients. A novel should typically have higher stakes than a novella, especially if it comes later in the series, so lowering the stakes for Network Effect is a real disappointment.
However, even before this reveal, the tension in Network Effect is often so low that it doesn’t feel like there’s much at stake. This is due largely to the aforementioned ART. ART is an AI that controls a powerful spaceship. It has loads of processing power that makes it super smart and even better at hacking than Murderbot, to the point that ART often feels like a wizard casting computer-flavored spells. On top of that, ART is armed to the teeth and nearly impervious to harm. When the story starts, ART is incapacitated, but once it comes back online, none of the novel’s problems seem particularly daunting anymore.
It also doesn’t help that the primary antagonists are fairly incompetent. These are humans infected with alien contamination, and they seem to have little clue what they’re doing. Not only can Murderbot and ART easily destroy them in a fight, but the bad guys are also weirdly passive. At several points in the story, they just wait around and give our heroes all the time in the world to think of a new plan. Without a time limit, the story loses all sense of urgency.
Speaking of the bad guys, that’s the other main issue with Network Effect’s climax: we never find out what the alien infection wanted, nor what happens to its victims once Murderbot destroys the load-bearing boss. During some scenes, it sounds like the bad guys just want to secure their system against intruders, which is actually a fairly sympathetic goal. But then, in other scenes, it sounds like they want to spread the infection to the rest of the galaxy. That makes Murderbot’s final battle seem exciting before it turns into a letdown.
Finally, there’s the issue of resolution. The book makes a big deal about how most of the enemies are humans who were contaminated by an alien presence that forced them to do evil things. This builds sympathy for the infected humans, along with an expectation that we’ll see what happens to them. You’d expect at least some of the falling action to cover that. Instead, one line of dialogue is spent explaining that the infected humans are someone else’s problem now, and then our heroes jet off to their next adventure.
At over 250,000 words, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is long even by epic fantasy standards. It starts with a framing device of protagonist Kvothe protecting a town from spider demons, then transitions to Kvothe telling his life story. This covers his childhood, his family’s murder, a few years as a street urchin, and finally attending magic school. Then we return to the framing device for a bit of epilogue, and the book is over.
Until now, the stories we’ve looked at generally have a climax that flops in one way or another. Even The City In the Middle of the Night treats Sophie joining with the savior aliens as a climax, despite it not resolving anything. The Name of the Wind is different, though: it doesn’t have a climax at all. Seriously, I read the second half of the book an extra time just to make sure, and I can’t find anything that would qualify as a climax.
There’s an action sequence where Kvothe fights a dragon-like monster called a draccus, but it’s at most tangentially related to the actual plot* and feels more like a random encounter. It’s also pretty far from the end of the book, further discounting it as the intended climax. After that, Kvothe has a final run-in with his school rival, but all this does is continue the rivalry they already had. There’s also a short scene where Kvothe is almost thrown out of magic school, but he has no agency here; the professors have already decided not to expel him.
Without a climax, nothing is resolved, which leaves The Name of the Wind feeling like it doesn’t have an ending. Instead, there’s just an arbitrary point where the narration stops, like it was part of a bigger novel that was randomly cut in half. That’s about as anticlimactic as a story can get, and it’s all down to how The Name of the Wind is plotted.
Specifically, The Name of the Wind doesn’t have much of a plot either. Instead, it meanders through Kvothe’s life as if it were a memoir.* At first, it seems like defeating the evil Chandrian will be the plot, since they kill Kvothe’s parents early in the story. But that ultimately comes to nothing. Kvothe learns a little more about the Chandrian by the end, but otherwise nothing happens on that front. The Chandrian could still be part of the series plot, but they don’t feature much in this book. Instead, Kvothe simply solves a series of problems as they come. There’s no rising action, no increased stakes. If anything, Kvothe’s problems are more intense at the beginning than they are at the end, as he goes from avoiding starvation to getting good grades in school.
Without a plot to resolve, the book has nothing to base its climax around. It’s like if the first Star Wars film was just about training to join the rebellion. Sure, defeating the empire could still work as a throughline for the trilogy, but A New Hope would just be Luke messing around at X-Wing school. Doesn’t sound super engaging.
A strong beginning convinces people to read the story. A strong ending convinces people to read the next story. Your audience will remember the ending for a long time, both because it’s the last part of the story they experience and because there’s an expectation that things will click together at the end. This is obviously important when you’re writing a series, but it matters for standalone stories too. You want readers to recommend your story to their friends and look up your other works. Also, you probably want your stories to be good. None of that works if your ending is anticlimactic.
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