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I wasn't entirely sure how to phrase the title, so if a better way to put it occurs to anyone, please feel free to edit it.

Here's the situation: the goal of a novel is to get the main character - called for simplicity Steve - to make a stand for what's right. Right before the climax, someone tells him (with their dying breath) to take a stand. Steve then does so.

Edit for clarity: Steve does not just stand up. I have not included the character development or internal conflict because they are not central to this question. However, they are there. I am aware that simply standing up would leave the reader feeling unsatisfied, if that is all that happened.

I am having trouble with the climax. Everything seems to indicate that the climax is the point at which Steve stands - I mean, that's the goal of the whole novel. The problem is that in this case, standing involves fighting back a small army. Normally this wouldn't be a problem. In fact, it would usually make for a good climax.

The problem is that there is no longer anything for Steve to lose. The main question the reader has been asking himself throughout the novel is, 'will Steve make a stand?' Once he does, the conflict is resolved, the questions are answered, and it's all over. The act of symbolically standing up is the climax. (Steve dying isn't a loss. In fact, it is expected. Even if he dies, he still made a stand.)

The act of symbolically standing up does not, however, leave the reader with a very satisfied feeling. I've been building up to this confrontation (the enemy pounding on the door in the background during the death scene), and simply skipping the battle seems like I'm cheating the reader out of what he's been anticipating.

Question: Am I wrong in the assumption that the reader will feel cheated? Or will ending the novel with Steve turning epic-ly to face the hordes, resolve in his heart, be satisfying?

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It depends largely on how you've lead up to it over the course of the novel, not just in the final scene. The reader won't be disappointed about not knowing the outcome of the battle if Steve's decision is sufficiently important to the reader, and sufficiently unsure up to that moment. We have to be seriously worried that he won't do it, and someone (maybe him, maybe the dead person, maybe someone else) has to work hard and sacrifice to get him to the point where he does.

What sounds most disappointing in what you've described is that "right before the climax, someone tells him (with their dying breath) to take a stand. Steve then does so." Is that all it took? Why didn't they tell him this before? Doesn't he have to wrestle with himself at all? What finally propels him? (Maybe Steve's great love for this person compelled him to do whatever he could to defend their now-dead body from enemy mutilation. Whatever--you probably have something in mind that's not in your question.) The point is that the reader will be disappointed if the goal is achieved in one conversation. It's not enough for Steve's conversion to be important to the reader--it also has to be hard-won.

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    Fear not, there is character development aplenty. I wanted to keep my question simple though, so I didn't include it. Suffice it to say, Steve does not just get up. There is plenty of inner struggle. Thank you for you answer! – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jul 9 '15 at 21:49
  • Okay, cool. (I figured you did.) Then it sounds like a perfectly satisfying ending to me! – MissMonicaE Jul 10 '15 at 3:34
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    +1 to this answer. As long as I am not sure or even think "he won't do it," it would be satisfying to see him do it at the end. – Jeff Jul 10 '15 at 17:30
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Why should Steve make a stand? His decision must have some kind of effect for him. If it doesn't, he's not living his own life, and his decision will leave him and the reader feel empty.

Translate your structure to everyday life. John grows up the son of a carpenter. But he is interested in writing and wants to become a writer. There's lots of conflict and back and forth, and finally John's father tells him to man up and decide to become a carpenter. So John makes that decision and becomes a carpenter. Huh? Not very satsifying. Or only satisfying, if John finds that he was mistaken about his aspirations as a writer and you show how his life as a carpenter is a happy life. So there is something after the climax, that makes the climax satisfying.

Of imagine that finally John's best friend tells him to man up and take a stand against his father and become a writer. Is that the end of the tale? No. You'll continue how he falls out with his family, how he suffers from that, but finds happiness as a writer, and how finally, maybe with the success of his first publication, his father comes back to him and tells him that he is proud of him and loves him and was only trying to force a safe job on him, because he believed that John would not be able to make a living as a writer, but is now glad that John did not listen to him, because in his youth he wanted to be a writer as well and did not dare etc. Again the story does not end with the climax. In fact, the climax is far from the end (temporally; the aftermath might be summarized in a short epilogue).

Returning to your tale, what is it that Steve is conflicted about? It is certainly not the taking a stand itself, but what he should take a stand about and who against. And there is a reason why he found this so difficult, and an effect that his decision will have. An effect, that Steve was afraid of or desiring. This – what comes after Steve taking a stand – is Steve's goal. (It can be a double goal: a negative goal, something that Steve wants to avoid, e.g. death, and a positive goal, something that Steve wants, e.g. glory, both of which are inseparable. I don't know your story nor characters, so can only guess.)

If your story ends with Steve taking a stand, then you don't tell it to its end, and that is certainly not satisfactory.

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    On the contrary, Steve is conflicted about taking a stand. At the time, he feels that he has lost everything worth making a stand for, and is so questioning whether he should. (The dying person is, in fact, the last thing that was keeping him going.) I've edited the question to clear up some potential confusion. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jul 10 '15 at 16:58
  • If the dying person is the last thing Steve wanted to make a stand for, why is he making a stand after that person dies? He must have a reason. Either he loves to fight, or he is suicidal, or there is some other reason. If not, then I cannot understand Steve and would find the ending meaningless and frustrating. – user5645 Jul 10 '15 at 17:11
  • As the question says, Steve is making a stand for what is right. The dying person at last shifts Steve's thinking from taking a stand to win, to taking a stand so that someday, somehow, there will be a better world, even if he doesn't survive. It's a bit hard to explain briefly, but he's basically making a stand for hope. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jul 10 '15 at 18:38
  • Okay, so then the shift is not from being ambiguous about taking a stand to taking a stand, but from having no hope to having hope! And that's exactly what I mean: Steve has a goal beyond just taking a stand – he has found hope! That is quite satisfactory, even if the book ends with Steve taking up arms and leaving the room and the future is open. You neither need to show the battle, nor the death (or survival), nor whether Steve's new-found hope was justified. – user5645 Jul 10 '15 at 18:44
  • Okay, I think I get what you're saying. It's not the fact that he's standing that we end with (that's the action). It's the fact that he's standing having found hope. Would that be right? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jul 10 '15 at 19:14
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For me, it all comes down to emotional reality, which can have very little to do with the externals of the scene. When I watch a big Hollywood blockbuster where the lone hero takes on an enormous CGI army with just his trusty sword, it leaves me completely cold, because nothing makes that big army feel emotionally real to me.

On the other hand, to use one of my favorite examples, the key moment in Nabakov's Lolita is when the otherwise unrepentant narrator experiences a brief moment of clarity and unselfish remorse. It doesn't matter that it's entirely internal, or that his awareness of what he has done wrong is so dim and incomplete, the emotional reality of this character as utterly self-indulgent has been so well established that this little breakthrough comes across as a major event. Similarly, in Remains of the Day, the story of a missed love affair between an emotionally repressed butler and a housekeeper, the tiniest expressions of affection feel earthshaking, because of the emotional realism of their context.

In your story, it doesn't matter what the actual obstacles are to Steve, they must feel real and decisive to him, and possess emotional reality for the reader. His overcoming of those barriers must involve some price with real emotional weight.

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Without knowing te specifics of the plot and the character development I have to say I'd find that climax personally disappointing.

The whole concept of character development is for them to get wherever they're going by themselves. The fact that the main character is being told what to do, in effect, negates the whole journey.

Note that I don't disagree with death being the trigger but with the dying character stating the action. I'd much rather have the character die in the way you've imagined and the protagonist decision of standing up being a result of his own internal dialog. In that way, death of a friend triggers the last step to happen as opposed to telling the protagonist what it should do.

"For a short moment he seemed to possess the strength of old times and then the illusion broke and he was gone. And finally he understood. Finally, when it was to late, when nothing could bring him back he saw it all clear...

For me, that kind of realisation is much more powerful than actually telling the character what to do.

Note from my point of view the final battle is NOT the climax and whether you chose to describe it in depth or not is secondary. The climax is Steve deciding to actually take a stand and fight and, specifically, how he takes that final step.

In my view the battle is not important. What happens after, though, is. You've made the point of evolving the character to "take a stand" (climax), you then have described the internal thoughts and processes that produce that change. For me, from a reader perspective, what I want is an epilogue. What is his life after? What path is he going to take after that? Even if the story doesn't continue it feeds the reader need for closure.

Just my thoughts (Note English is not my mother tongue so the text above is just an example I hope illustrates what I mean).

  • Welcome to Writers, and thanks for your answer! You present an interesting opinion I had not considered. I had not attached much worth to the fact that the person tells Steve what to do. What you said is perfectly true. As to your last part: in its current state, the story ends with Steve getting up. There is every implication that he is going to die in this last battle. That assumption makes anything afterwards obsolete, making what I see as a very satisfying end with no epilogue necessary. If it was unknown what the outcome would be, I would agree with you. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 12 '15 at 18:13

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