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I am currently writing a short book. I've neared the end of the plot, but now I'm seeing a problem: my conflict isn't ending at the climax.

The climax should always be the point where all of the problems (inner and outer) come to a head and are then resolved. This is where novels should in theory end. You usually need a chapter or epilogue afterwards to wrap things up (they lived happily ever after), but that's it. Once the climax is done, so is the novel.

I currently have the problem that the main conflict is resolved, and then the protagonist spends an additional chapter resolving a side conflict. The side conflict is obvious and needs to be resolved, but it's still a side conflict.

Details: In my book, the main conflict is that the protagonist is trying to rescue X from an abandoned building full of... shall we say, 'less than savory characters.' He knows where X is, and finds her. That is the end of the main conflict, as believing that she was still alive was the main problem. The side conflict? They still have to get out of the abandoned building and past the unsavory characters.

You can see my problem. I can't very well just end the book when X is found and explain in an epilogue that they got out (Or can I?).

Question: How can I fix this? Is there some way I can resolve this problem without rewriting the entire last half of my short story?

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When your givens are a problem, change your givens.

Your protagonist wants to get Ms. X out of the building alive. He may find her, but they both still have to get out alive. So:

  • Is she wounded? Did the bad guys shoot her or cut her up? Is she having seizures or does she urgently need medication?
  • Is the building full of the bad guys who are shooting at them and could kill either of them?
  • Did the bad guys chase the protagonist into the building and are busy trying to kill them?
  • Is the building rickety, old, or falling apart such that just exiting the building is a life-threatening exercise?
  • Is the building on fire?
  • Does it have to be a building? Could they be on a (sinking) boat, or a collapsing cave?
  • Is Ms. X a dedicated cop or other LEO who is insisting on taking down the bad guys herself, and will stay in the building shooting the bad guys herself rather than escaping?

You see my point. Merely finding Ms. X alive is not, in fact, the end of the conflict. That only ends when the two of them are safe and free of the bad guys. I might even venture that the conflict only ends when the bad guys are arrested or dead, or otherwise stopped from pursuing the protagonist and Ms. X.

  • I guess I'm confused, because up to this point, the entire book has been about finding X. Everything (stakes, character, plot) is built around that. Then at the end things suddenly shift to 'getting out,' without taking any of the development with it. The reader is invested in finding X. No one said anything about making it out. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 29 '15 at 2:21
  • I mean, I've been building up to finding X for the entire book. Then the hero finds X and says, 'hang on, it's not over yet!' when really, it is. The tension has hit its climax and been resolved. Anything afterward just feels superfluous to me. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 29 '15 at 6:38
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    @TommyMyron Try this: he finds Ms. X, alive, but she dies five minutes later. Would that be an equally satisfying and sufficient ending? If so, then ignore me. But if not, then I submit that your conflict is not merely finding her alive, but returning with her to safety alive, however you define that. If he doesn't return to the status quo of Ms. X being alive and not threatened, then your conflict hasn't ended. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Nov 29 '15 at 14:29
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    Hmm. Point well taken. This has been a rather strange book in terms of development. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 30 '15 at 0:14
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I thought of three things. From least to most appealing:

1. Letting it linger As you say, once person X is found, the story is complete. You can write an epilogue like you mentioned, but you can also just leave it blank-- either stylistically, or with a hint that there is a "part 2" yet forthcoming. This is common in fantasy and sci-fi series, but as a short story? Doesn't seem like your best option

2. Multiple orgasms Perhaps a two-chapter escape sequence will give you a chance to build a second climax over the first. However, I'd try to keep the melodrama of the first climax to a minimum. And the second better be pretty mind-blowing to make it work.

3. Build it up You can rewrite parts of the beginning to establish a definitive bad guy. Protagonist and person X proceed to eviscerate him after X is found which results in their escape. That way, her discovery also closes out the other subplots.

Let's see what others come up with ...

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    Or, person X can be in the process of eviscerating bad guy when protagonist walks in. Or X can be in the process of escaping so that her meeting with protagonist seems clandestine. – Stu W Nov 29 '15 at 2:45
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Two thoughts:

  1. Shift the Magic Flight into the scenes preceding your climax. (In any case, this is where the Magic Flight traditionally pops up.) In your specific case, you could make your hero think about a way out before he finds X. He could prepare an escape mechanism that is simply triggered when he actually does find X. You would not need to tell how the escape is managed, because you have already told it. This would shorten your "post-climax" text considerably. Plus, it could add an interesting doublet of hope/despair to your story, since your hero wants to find X very badly and is blindly following his hope - so much so that he prepares an escape mechanism of which he doesn't even know whether he will need it -, while on the other hand he is never sure he will actually make it to X. The escape mechanism in popcorn entertainment would be to blow up the building. For example.
  2. Hang on. What's the Magic Flight? Glad you asked. The Magic Flight is the stage of a story that propels the hero out of the situation that allowed him to make a crucial change, back into an environment that could be considered his or her everyday life. It is part of the Hero's Journey. Chris Vogler gives a very nice interpretation of the Hero's Journey in his Writer's Journey. In a nutshell, the Hero's Journey describes how a specific change is achieved. In your case, the change would be to save X from the "less than savory characters". The story would traditionally enfold like this*: The hero realizes X needs to be saved and sets out to save X. The hero finds out that he indeed is able to save X. (This is not equal to actually saving X. The term for this point in the story is crisis.) The hero saves X. (Climax.) The last two points do not necessary need to be separated. - A different interpretation would be that saving X is the crisis and making it out of the building - delivering X back into the everyday life - is the climax. What is what in your story depends on your focus.

Hope this helped.

*Mind: The story is not necessarily identical to how you tell your story. You can shuffle the elements of your story around as much as you like, but they will still be there. Otherwise, the story could feel decidedly incomplete, unsatisfying, or, to be traditional here, plain tragic.

P.S.: So why is it called Magic Flight? Read Vogler, or any other of the abundant literature on the Hero's Journey out there. Knowing the Hero's Journey, in any case, turned out to be the one advice on creative writing that really stuck with me over the years. For me, it is indispensable.

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