Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)
Your character has come a long way since the beginning of the story. He has lost things he didn't know he could survive losing. He has done things he never thought he would do. People around him have disappointed him, scared him, and surprised him. And now his story—at least this part of it—is coming to a close.
In my last few posts, I've talked about several types of plot points that can create a satisfying conclusion. We talked about your character having a black moment or a dark night of the soul, when they feel all is lost. When this moment is done well, your character should be so low that another character needs to help them see their way out of their despair.
Then we talked about how your character needs to act on what they learn. Some teachers call this the "crazy plan" element of the last act. Your character's changed perspective leads them to make a plan.
But something about the plan goes awry, and that leads to your character's final test. This plot point is frequently referred to as "the final battle." A literal final battle works great in a Star Wars movie or The Lord of the Rings, but if you're writing a contemporary young adult story or a historical romance, then what? That's why I find the phrase "final test" to be a more helpful way to think of the climax.
I try to do two things with my character's final test:
1. I want to show readers that my character has really, truly changed. That the journey I took my character on was worth it because they will now struggle through this test and come out on the other side a victor. (And "victory" doesn't necessarily—maybe, even, shouldn't—mean living "happily ever after," exactly how they always imagined it would be.)
2. I want to bend or twist the plot in a way that surprises my readers.
Let's go through some examples of final tests from several very different types of stories. I've picked stories that have been out for a while, but if you don't want to know the ending of Frozen, The Hunger Games, or Pride and Prejudice then you can just skip those sections.
You could pick from any number of Disney movies, but since we've been using Frozen as an example these last few posts, let's keep going with that.
Anna's crazy plan was to go out into the cold and find Kristoff because she thinks if she kisses him, it'll save her, but she sees Hans is about to kill Elsa (this is her Oh, Snap moment). It's impossible for her to get to Kristoff and save her sister, so Anna makes the decision to save her sister.
This is a great final test for Anna because last time when she had the choice of her sister or The Guy, she chose The Guy and it turned out badly. This time she chooses her sister, even though it means sacrificing her own life. Then for the element of surprise—Anna's sacrifice is an act of true love and by choosing it, she saves herself from dying of a frozen heart.
The Hunger Games
Katniss and Peeta have a literal final battle and wind up the remaining two tributes in the games. Because they're from the same district, they've been led to believe that they can both win. Then the Game Master announces the rule has been revoked and there can only be one victor.
Katniss could kill Peeta and win, and she once believed she would do whatever it cost to get out alive. Instead, Katniss gets creative—if they both eat poisonous berries, they'll both die, and the capital won't have a winner. She thinks the Game Master will stop them, but she can't know for sure, and her willingness to sacrifice herself rather than kill Peeta shows growth.
Pride and Prejudice
In a romance genre, our climactic scene is when the hero and heroine are finally able to be together. This is sometimes done by getting another obstacle character out of the way. (In Eleanor and Park, Eleanor's step-father gets in the way. In Anna and The French Kiss, we need to get rid of that guy's girlfriend.)
In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh represents everything that separates Lizzy and Mr. Darcy from being together. She is Mr. Darcy's proud and prejudiced aunt, and if Lizzy and Darcy stand a chance of being happy together, the reader needs to know that she can be overcome. When Lady Catherine drops in on Lizzy to try and scare her away from a match with Mr. Darcy, Lizzy is both strong and respectful in the face of it all. After that, we can relax that Lizzy and Mr. Darcy will live happily ever after.
If you're writing a realistic book about everyday sorts of people—no magic, no berries, and the romance isn't the main story line—what should your final test look like?
A story like this, where the focus is the main character's growth, needs a conclusion that showcases how much the character has grown.
In my Ellie Sweet books, Ellie struggles with friendships. Instead of finding ways to work through conflict, she has almost always opted to find ways to cope rather than resolve any problems. I wanted the final test to show Ellie had learned she needed to work through issues with people instead of just holing up by her lonesome and getting snarky.
So Ellie makes a difficult phone call to confront a friend and mentor, but it doesn't go well and she falls into her All Is Lost moment. Her dad rouses her to action with fatherly advice, and Ellie tries again to resolve several broken relationships, this time with great success.
I'm not trying to hold up my book and say "Hey, I did this perfectly." Rather, I want it to be clear that books don't always need the main character to save the world for the end to feel satisfying.
Does your character's final test show how they've changed? Does it have an element of surprise to it?
Also, today is the last day of NaNoWriMo! If you've won—or if you've done more than you normally would because you participated—let us know in the comments because we'd love to celebrate that with you!