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In my fantasy novel(very simplified version) my protagonist is a slave boy who is dragged into a crew of powerful beings because he is being hunted by the tyrant government(he is impure of blood and therefore dangerous as far as the government and it's God ruler is concerned, very long story). When the government can't defeat the crew with force, they try to destroy it from the inside and insert another boy to sow mistrust. The tension builds with only the government boy knowing, and in the middle of the novel/first climax, one wrong word by one of the crew members destroys the crew and the crew members massacre each other, with only the protagonist and the leader getting out alive, still with the task of overthrowing the tyrannical government. I have some, but not much trouble creating the gradually rising tension, but with the conversation that started the destruction of the crew, the destruction/massacre itself, and the horrific aftermath, the entire chapter seems anticlimactic, considering that it is a literal massacre. I have revised the chapter many times, but all of the revisions have the exact same problem as the very first draft. How do you write points like this in a story, without making it seem anticlimactic?

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    Your catalyst spark "one wrong word by one of the crew members" sounds like maybe a Shaggy Dog Story – lots of fireworks, but does it relate to your protag's journey or growth? Does it fit your story's theme? Is there a payoff, or is it just a convenient spectacle that happens at the right time to get your protag out of an impossible situation?
    – wetcircuit
    Jul 30, 2021 at 11:56
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    The way you described it, this scene is anticlimactic. There's no way around it. Let it be the low point of your story, and you can build the rest of it from there.
    – Alexander
    Jul 30, 2021 at 17:36
  • The title of your question reminded me of this [ youtube.com/watch?v=HTOzFKNGtpc ] scene from Steel Magnolias, in which the tension of a strongly sad scene is released by a burst of humor. Aug 2, 2021 at 17:33

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I would agree with wetcircuit's comment. If the scene does not fit the story, if the story isn't worth the scene -- then it would seem anticlimactic. There's no easy fix there -- you would need to rewrite quite a lot. I've been there, it sucks, but in the end it was well worth it.

But don't be sad just yet. Maybe one chapter is what it takes. And maybe you don't need to rewrite anything.

Since I never saw your text I can't be sure. I'm not sure what do you mean by "revised the chapter": rewriting from scratch or making changes? Sometimes it's easier to scrap the chapter and rewrite it from scratch that to revise it. Speaking from experience.

My advice is to see what others think. Let someone read your story. If currently there's nobody around, then Facebook has a few groups where you can find beta-readers. I speak from experience here. The same scenes that I used to find "okay-ish" was praised by some of my betas. We shall always seek another perspective. And while they are reading it, you shall put the story aside and do something else. Go back to it a few days later with a fresh head. This may help a lot.

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A suggestion for you: try cutting the scene with the massacre entirely and see how the story reads. As in, skip from the point where the crew starts drawing weapons (or potentially the first person is killed) to the two shell-shocked survivors still reeling from their close escape.

It's possible this will flow a lot better. The reason is that I think in the situation you describe, it's easy for any drawn-out depiction of the massacre to end up being a pointless gore-fest. In the preceding scenes, you're primed the readers to be concerned about the tensions in the crew and between the crew members, the mistrust being sown, etc. But as soon as you start the massacre, that source of tension is gone because the worst has already happened. In some sense, as soon as the violence starts the outcome is inevitable. That means there may be no sense of tension in the actual scene anymore, no more build-up, nothing the readers are afraid of happening or want to see resolved - no wonder it falls flat in that case.

(The only way I can see writing out the massacre working is if your new source of tension is fear for your protagonist's survival - but if you're going that route you need to foreshadow it in the previous chapters, have scenes where the crew members threaten the protagonist or he's afraid of them, so it doesn't come out of nowhere.)

On the other hand, it's possible skipping straight to everyone being dead will read as incoherent, with the jump to the crew all being dead coming off as odd and non-sequitur-like. That is not a sign that you need the massacre scene. Instead, I'd consider it a sign that you haven't done enough foreshadowing of this as a potential outcome and need to do extra work in the previous chapters to fix this. Some examples of how to do this might be: have a strong increase in violent talk by the crew, have previous close calls where crew members almost start violence, have your protagonist be aware of the rising mistrust and frantically try to talk people down from it (with increasingly limited success). If you lay the right groundwork to make it clear to the readers that "crew kills each other due to a wrong word" is a possibility which your protagonist is desperately trying to prevent, then it happening in the end should hopefully come off as a narratively appropriate tragic climax - clear enough of one that you don't even need to write the actual massacre for readers to follow along.

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I think you should let the anticlimax stand. You can follow it with a quiet scene: Perhaps the chapter would end with the two survivors quietly walking away from the carnage, together or in separate directions. The next chapter opens in a different location, taking the reader's attention away from the traumatic event. There is a scene in the movie, "Steel Magnolias," in which Sally Fields' character has a few, very emotional paragraphs, which had all of us in the theater in tears to the extent that we could hardly see, that ended with another character telling her to hit one of the other women. When that line was delivered, the entire theater burst into laughter while the tears were still running down our cheeks. The contrast is what I want to draw attention to here. Extremely sad in "Steel Magnolias" to suddenly humorous, and extremely violent in your story to suddenly very calm. You could probably find other ways to create a sudden contrast which would release the tension.

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Being anti-climatic is not a condemnation of a section. It is possible that your sense of climax could be broader.

A story is a combination of both tension and release. As usually used, the climax is the point where the tension is maximum and the release begins.

Tension and release can take many forms. Although a climax often sizzles with energy, a climax can be an emotional low. Consider a person suffering from depression as they contemplate the world without them in it. Imagine the inner struggle of a person falling to the low point in their life. Or perhaps the hero when their closest friend has betrayed them.

A time with no action, no resolution, even no obvious release of tension can be a climax. Imagine intensity but no motion. Silence in a field of chaos. Boredom draining all ambition. Then, give the scene the slightest tap. A whisper or a thought. Your reader will turn the page.

I don't know your story. I accept that this material needs to be there, or your rewrites could have removed it. Rather than worry that it is anti-climatic, listen to what you've written. If the emotions are true to the characters, if the narrative retains your chosen perspective, if the knowledge the reader gains is critical to what follows, then leave it in. Don't let your distrust of a reader's patience cripple your story.

If it doesn't sound true, then make it true. Make it burn with truth, even if there is no visible path forward. Truth will power your story forward.

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