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I've got my story all written down until the first act climax (which technically shouldn't be called a climax, but I don't know a better term): a battle of physical and emotional stakes that's probably already too long. Time is slowed to a crawl, every adjective is a superlative, and the heroes end up escaping the villain's lair by a hair - and not unscathed: one character lost a limb.

After this event, which effectively sets the stage and the stakes for the rest of the story, I feel the need for a breath of fresh air. The preceding forty pages together covered a few hours, and now I want to speed up time again, let the characters begin to resolve their emotions if not their struggles. I want to ease up the tension.

There's two problems; one is the fact that even if the literary tension should be contrastingly reduced, the characters themselves are very much reeling from the effects of what happened, what they discovered and what they lost. There's also some stuff happening post-event which should be mentioned somehow; a few logistical things but more importantly the emotional development of the fresh amputee who is still playing tough at this time. That means that a timeskip until every character is fine and dandy is out of the question.

That leaves me with a question; how does one write the post-climax scenes to lower the stakes? Should I intersperse obfuscated hints of character trauma with drawn-out narration of landscapes and fluffy clouds? Do something else? Or must I accept that the reader cannot fully unwind until the characters themselves can, and consider the post-climax as part of the same tension peak when planning the story's pacing?

5 Answers 5

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That leaves me with a question; how does one write the post-climax scenes to lower the stakes promptly? Should I intersperse obfuscated hints of character trauma with drawn-out narration of landscapes and fluffy clouds? Do something else?

I believe in this case the saying 'if there is a problem in the story, the problem is earlier in the story' might apply.

You might consider that they have two needs going into this climax. They are escaping the lair, and they are incredibly hungry. (this is an example only, of something you can add 'earlier.') Because they are hungry, after they escape, providing them food (which they naturally relish) is a good way to defuse the tension. The characters may even find the food so satisfying that they can, for a moment, ignore the larger problems facing them. That will give them a break in the tension.

Or, perhaps, they believe the amputee will die, and they are carrying her, and to their great relief they meet a healer. (To avoid DEM, you may need to foreshadow that the healer lives in the vicinity, like Tom Bombadil was foreshadowed before he appears.)

Not 'fluffy clouds and landscapes' ... unless the characters have a reason to actually notice them. But your characters have just paid a horrific price, and any time a great price is paid, you as an author do earn a credit you can cash in. A good meal, a healer, something 'good' to distract the pain at hand. Some foreshadowing may need to go in earlier, because a problem in the story may indicate a problem earlier in the story.

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  • Although I think cutting the tension short is a missed opportunity, an intense celebration of life does defuse tension quickly.
    – DWKraus
    Apr 15, 2022 at 17:17
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Processing:

You're thinking about the situation as a problem. On the contrary, processing all that trauma and those events is an opportunity to expand the character development and build the relationships between them. But it happens at it's own pace. Pushing the timeline either misses the chance to explore the characters or pushes off the trauma to blow up later.

Too often in action events, there is no chance to analyze until the action wraps up. But those characters can now try to comfort the injured character, deal with their inner angst that it could have been them, consider their future actions towards the villain, process PTSD, and resolve conflicts. Interpersonal time and inner monolog create the depth your characters need to move from action heroes to emotionally relatable people in extraordinary circumstances.

But this takes however much time it takes. Wanting to accelerate through this phase will simply change the scenery. the same processing takes place if it's sitting in the back of a truck as they drive away or if everyone sits in silence until they're back at their home base.

As to HOW to write the processing, you need to still entertain the audience. How the characters act as they deal with all that stuff is how they process the situation. You still want to introduce those logistical elements. But Tough guys have inner monologs while pretending things don't affect them (but randomly getting angry or acting inappropriately to show they are traumatized). The responses to these inappropriate outbursts can be understanding (for emotionally strong characters) or violent/argumentative (as two characters both dealing with their trauma butt heads). Your definitions of who is strong and weak in the story can suddenly shift, so less significant characters can shine. "Weak" characters may unexpectedly be the supportive backbone that holds up the resolve of the tottering "strong" characters. It all depends on what you want the story to be about and how you see the characters evolving

  • Catharsis: IF YOU FEEL YOU HAVE TO cut the tension short, an intense celebration of life or anything else deeply cathartic can explain a sudden drop of tension. I had a story where a character died carrying out a suicide bombing (no tension there...). Everyone felt responsible for the events leading up to it. when they returned to their hideout, they went through the dead man's effects. The group collectively had bonded by dancing a silly dance previously. The rest of the group was strung as tight as a wire, until they discovered a recording of the dead character playing drums for one of their dance sessions, and the group dissolved into a sudden, festive silly dance. Like a funeral, this sudden celebration of life drained off the tension of the situation rapidly.
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  • I appreciate the answer, but I would like to clarify one thing: I don't want to cut off processing, I want to defuse tension, for the moment. This is the end of the first act, the ramifications both personal and political will be, are being explored over the course of the next forty pages. That includes all kinds of healing. I just want the reader to be able to take a breath of fresh air until those tensions resurface.
    – KeizerHarm
    Apr 15, 2022 at 18:01
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    @KeizerHarm if you need to bleed off a lot of tension fast, you need a catharsis. That can be a celebration (funeral/celebration of life/drunken binge) or a victory (blowing up the bad guy's base spectacularly, killing a major enemy), or a revelation about reality that changes perceptions so much as to silence conversation (he's Darth Vader's son) . You can shift the perspective character to someone who isn't involved with the tension (a medic tending the team) but I don't like a lot of perspective shifts.
    – DWKraus
    Apr 15, 2022 at 18:21
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It looks like you are describing a Bittersweet Ending (TV tropes warning)

The tension should be gone, but the mood is not lifted by much. There are many examples of this being done in literature. You can do a few things to make a proper transition from climax to post-climax.

  1. Chapter break. The climax chapter ends where the action ends. New chapter starts immediately afterwards, but at much lower tempo;

  2. Change in dialogue. During the climax, characters would likely speak shortly and say only what's necessary. After the climax, they would discuss the aftermath in more relaxed manner;

  3. Main character reflection. If you are writing in 1st person, or close 3rd person, this may be a good time for your protagonist to do thinking, perhaps melancholically;

  4. Extensive descriptions. If your characters are not in a mood for talking, and you are not privy to their thoughts, you can just focus on describing their actions and surroundings, conveying a clear idea that the climax is over.

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You're asking about how to diffuse the tension after the first act climax.

Technically speaking, that could mean one of two things. Either the first plot point at the end of the first act or the climactic moment, the culmination of the last eighth of the story, also called the climax. (For more info on story structures, see K. M. Weiland.)

The First Plot Point

When it comes to the first plot point, it should act as a point of no return.

For example, Katniss volunteering to be a tribute for District 12 or Gandalf realizing Bilbo's ring is The Lord of the Rings. Katniss cannot undo volunteering and Gandalf cannot, even with lots of ale, forget his discovery. Neither one of them would...

The first plot point usually also represents some form of transportation. This transportation is from "the Normal World" to "the Story World". E.g. in "The Writer's Journey" the first plot point is "Crossing the First Threshold" meaning the hero enters the world of adventure, sets out on the journey, enters the underground, climbs the beanstalk, etc.

If this change or transportation takes the hero from the normal world to the adventure world and in such a way there is no going back, it will naturally result in a moment of having to figure out what just happened, even confusion as to what to do next.

Another thing that can help is the midpoint. In most cases, you don't want the protagonists to start being proactive until you reach the midpoint, but in order to do that, you need a cunning antagonistic force that can keep the protagonists in the dark enough to prevent them from figuring out entirely what is going on until the midpoint.

This suggests that the first plot point could also be confusing, enigmatic, or in some other way transporting the hero not just to an adventure world but also to a strange world, maybe even one with magic and dragons...

What you should not do, however, when you're this early in the story, is to even try to dissipate all the tension... there should always be the orchestral equivalent of at least one quivering violin keeping the reader glued even here.

If you grade the tension of your scenes on a scale from 0 to 10 (10 being the most intense), you should always rework or remove any scene with a tension of 0! No tensionless scenes!

On the other hand, your instinct is right. Good tension does need to vary. Usually, the tension builds until a plot point, then it goes down, but never to 0, and further into the story, the tension might not go down to 1, 2, or even 3 either...

The Climactic Moment

The climactic moment (also "climax" below, even though they are, technically different), should be the biggest moment in your story. It should also be the last scene in your story, except for one or two wrap-up scenes (e.g. showing the new normal to drive home the effect of the climactic moment).

It's definitely "go big and go home" that's the way to go here.

This is the final showdown between the protagonistic and antagonistic forces. This is where your hero definitely defeats the villain or vice versa.

It doesn't have to mean either one of them has to die, just that their plans are thwarted indefinitely; armies routed, plots unveiled, bad guys arrested, etc.

If you feel there's tension and issues left after the climactic moment you can change things like:

  • Make the victory/defeat bigger and more permanent
  • Raise the stakes
  • Of course, prolong the conflict and climax

If you have subplots that need wrapping up after the climactic moment, you can either interleave the subplot climax in the main story climax or try to place the subplot climax before the main story climax.

But even here, you might want to leave some tension to bridge over to book "two" or to just make the reader continue thinking about the story after it's told... (Just don't do a cliffhanger ending, not in the climax... the worst you're allowed to do is to hint at future problems in book two in the wrap-up after the climactic moment...)

Sequel

For one example of how to do emotional reactions (which may come after at least the very large plot points), you might want to use Dwight Swain's notion of a "Sequel".

In essence, this theory divides the reactive scene/Sequel into three parts:

  • Reaction—this would be a kind of reaction that is so strong the character might not be able to do anything else
  • Dilemma—this is the part where the character ponders their new situation
  • Decision—the result of the "dilemma"-phase is a decision, that will then become the new goal of the character

A lot has been said about the Sequel/Reactive scene/Reaction scene. I might add that I find it helpful to separate it into two types; either it represents a transportation from one scene/time/place to another, or it represents a scene showing a super-strong reaction.

The transport may not even be needed, but if you do need it, keep it short and quick, as few sentences as possible.

The reaction scene, on the other hand, should be written like any scene but the implicit goal of this kind of scene is to react and then figure out a new goal. This scene should be as long as it needs to be.

Also worth adding; of course, your character must react to every stimulus. A golden rule in writing is action followed by reaction, in small, sentence by sentence, as well as larger structures. The reaction type of Sequel is for the large, visceral reactions, for instance, what you would expect from someone having lost a limb.

Of course, all this is a theoretical construct, and apart from not having to have all parts of a Sequel (or one at all), you might also find you'll have to intersperse the parts of one character's sequel or reaction to a big event, with other scenes and events.

Though, your main character, the engine of the story, should probably force the whole thing to stretch out if they need to react over, say several weeks... But then again, if you're hunted by wolves, you may not have time to stop and have lots of reactions either... but of course, reactions add to the story so, even in intense action, some could be used to great effect...

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  • The first meaning is correct. I used climax in the generic sense, a peak of tension within a structure, rather than the literary sense of "the climax of the whole story". The point fulfils all criteria you gave; it is the point of no return and only after they start to act against the threat. I don't want zero tension; I just need help to write the prose immediately after this plot point with more "breathing room"; contrastingly calm and relaxed, despite the fact that the characters carry great trauma from the violent preceding events and would not be feeling calm/relaxed themselves.
    – KeizerHarm
    Apr 16, 2022 at 20:10
  • The pages you linked are very enlightening. I did use that structure (probably too messily, I can sharpen it), but the problem may be that I cannot effectively contrast a Reaction from the preceding Disaster scene (other than by chapter break, which doesn't mean much when my Disaster already covers several chapters). Or, perhaps the fact that I am so longing for a way to defuse tension is that my Disaster is taking too much time and space and I can't spare the energy to write post-event trauma on top of it...
    – KeizerHarm
    Apr 16, 2022 at 20:19
  • @KeizerHarm, thanks! The first draft is usually/always messy. I suggest pushing on and seeing where things end. Here's a discussion on editing or not editing as you go (I've so far had the best results just going on... especially since I have a very structured outline and the drafting phase needs to be about getting the story down—in my case): helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/should-you-edit-as-you-go-2
    – Erk
    Apr 18, 2022 at 8:16
  • Also, if your story doesn't want to slow down after the first plot point... just let it keep going and see where you end up... perhaps you need to add some low-intensity scenes just after the plot point, but you won't realize you need them until you've written more... Writing a first draft isn't like taking a test... because in editing you can go back and fix your "answers"...
    – Erk
    Apr 18, 2022 at 8:20
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Being relaxed is not always the same as being happy

I think you're confusing or mixing some concepts here; you should take each point separately an maybe take them as steps.

You mention that one of the problems you're facing is that...

(while) the literary tension should be contrastingly reduced, the characters themselves are very much reeling from the effects of what happened

but as I mentioned at the top of the answer, just because the tension should be gone doesn't mean everything is fine: after you lived a strong, traumatic event, relaxing also means that, now that the adrenaline is gone and the survival instinct is at ease, your mind and body can let all the other emotions flow - maybe you blackout, maybe you cry, maybe you laugh incontrollably, maybe you scream... all this also means that you are getting relaxed (and processing as others answers have mentioned) after the trauma.

So, if we take your scenario, I could suggest the following according to your needs:

  • I feel the need for a breath of fresh air... I want to ease up the tension

Your characters just barely escaped from the villain's lair. If you want to ease the tension, you need to make sure the readers know that the immediate danger is gone - even if the environment is still hostile. You can say that the heroes are now hiding in a place where no one could find them, or that they're being transported to safety by allies, or they're walking away with nobody following them... the specifics depend on the setup, but the point is to show that, for now, they're safe.

  • the characters themselves are very much reeling from the effects of what happened, what they discovered and what they lost

So, your characters are now safe... what's next? Well, you (the writer) have bought yourself a small frame of time, so now your characters talk; and of course, they can only talk at first about everything that just happened. The way the conversation flows here depends heavily on the chemistry and the relationship amongst the characters. You say that the amputee is playing tough, so you can have some other character trying to be supportive only to be responded aggresively, or maybe this character starts to blame other(s) for what happened to itself, or maybe the comical relief character makes a joke about the amputee, who starts to laugh and then cries... Just keep in mind that, whike the focus is on the character who lost a limb, it is something eveyone else also experienced - one way or another.

  • There's also some stuff happening post-event which should be mentioned somehow; a few logistical things

Your characters are away from immediate danger, and have now expelled what they had inside; they have also changed because of what just happened. It's time for them to come back to reality, back to the rest of the world. Depending on how the previous two points were handled, they can either find out by themselves or be informed about what has happened while they were in the villain's lair. You can have this as an interruption (e.g. the classic trope when people are talking and suddenly a breaking news report comes on the TV), but it's better if the previous conversation flows more naturally into what's the next step. Maybe someone mentions a place where they should take the amputee, or someone talks about a place they should go to relax only to find out such place is now under siege; maybe they have to report their findings to someone else; or maybe during the talk, thanks to the recent events they realize something they didn't knew before which takes them to the next step in their mission. This is the moment where you take both the characters and the readers back to what's the rest of the story.

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  • I appreciate the answer; but I don't see how some of your suggestions result in a less tense chapter. A comedic character joking about the amputee, who breaks down over it: that is a logical and even an engaging thing to happen, but describing such an event reintroduces drama and conflict into the prose. Maybe my problem is really making that manner of conflict effectively contrast with physical conflict, so that many pages of actual fights/stakes followed by a chapter governed by the emotions doesn't tire the reader out.
    – KeizerHarm
    Apr 18, 2022 at 21:31

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