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I have finally finished “The Vanity Set”,” a new story I’ve been working on since last year. Hard to believe it took me so long, considering I’d been writing about 6 short stories a year while in grad school. It figures that it took a deadline to get me to finish it.

I was going along at a pretty good pace (once I had a deadline) until I hit a snag. I appeared to be developing two climaxes or crisis actions, although I knew that couldn’t be,

since I’d intended a traditional plot structure for this particular story. Both are key scenes with significant actions by the central character, who is forever altered by the choices she makes. Because of page count restraints, I summarized wherever I could, but these scenes were essential to the arc of the character and the story.

I continued to develop these two scenes, hoping that eventually one would reveal itself to be the true climax of the story. I went back through my books and notes on craft. It was interesting to discover that while many of the books on writing on my shelf discuss aspects of plot, the climax or crisis action doesn’t get as much attention as the rising action or falling action (dénouement), other than it is a moment in the story that works like a hinge between the rising action and the falling action. I wrote an article on story structure, but even my explanation of a story’s climax didn’t shed light on why was I had two crisis actions.

In her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway explains that once the crisis action happens, “nothing will be the same again; change in the lives of all concerned is significant and permanent” (41). I view the climax as the point of no return for the character. I call it the knee of the curve which is borrowed from something I read on evolution a long time ago by Ray Kurzwiel, in his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines. Think of a line going in one steady direction. The way it can change direction is with a curve. It is during these curves when change is the most intense, the most destructive and the most constructive:

It is the nature of exponential growth that events develop extremely slowly for extremely long periods of time, but as one glides through the knee of the curve, events erupt at an increasingly furious pace. (77)

The crisis action is that knee or bend in the curve, before the chaos settles and the curve straightens out (the dénouement) toward its new direction. In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster likened a story’s plot to “a series of kiosks most artfully placed among wooded slopes, which they emerge with altered aspect” (90). So the climax is when the rising action, those series of artfully placed kiosks, leads to a particular moment, where a character emerges changed. But what exactly is that moment, that climax of the story? To me, as silly as it may sound, the comma within Forster’s statement represents that crisis action, because it serves as the hinge between the rising action (kiosks among wooded slopes) and the falling action (emergence of altered aspect).

The climax is when the heart of the story surfaces through a literal event (in present action). It is the moment when something changes on the inside and is expressed on the outside through the action of the central character. The best explanation of the crisis action I’ve read is in Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, by Catherine Brady:

In terms that do not require realization in the form of an epiphany, the climax can be defined as a decisive action that convincingly reconfigures what has come before; at this moment, the visible story comes closest to the hidden, untold story…. Particularly in a short story, the climax rearranges the elements in play much like a kaleidoscope radically transforms randomly aligned crystals into a beautifully coherent pattern, and resolution lasts only as long as necessary for the reader to recognize this new symmetry. (16)

I needed to find in which one of the two scenes did the visible story (the literal), comes closest to the hidden, untold story (the figurative). Brady explains the figurative or hidden story:

When you write a story, you have to create a coherent character and imagine a plot that feels complete, but as demanding a task as this is, it really serves as a camouflage for what else is going on. There’s always a story beneath the surface story, suggested by what gets left out or goes unexplained by images that disturb us or make us uncertain, by actions that convince us but also astonish us. (14)

She states further that story structure, often referred to as Freitag’s triangle or pyramid, “provides a template for devising a narrative, not its raison d’etre” (15):

Though suspense is essential, a story satisfies not because it pursues a literal chain of events but because it manages to make those events stand for something else. When the reader, not the writer, supplies the connection between the two, meaning is experiential. (15)

Looking at my two scenes more closely, while they pursue a literal chain of events, they in and of themselves do not ultimately stand for something else. Then I saw it: Forster’s comma. It was there all the time, in my original notes and scratched out scene summaries. The true climax of my story occurs during a quiet moment between the two big scenes. I was astonished at how understated this moment was. Not a fireworks or marching band moment. Yet it made perfect sense. The hidden story comes out in a simple yet emotionally meaningful movement by the central character.

As soon as I understood this, imagery, setting, etc. for the climax fell into place. Even more surprising was that the crisis action was all of three sentences, while the scenes that preceded (the rising action) and followed (the falling action) were paragraphs, if not a pages long. And once I was able to identify this hinge moment, opportunities on how to enhance the character and story arc opened up to me. I could see how to make the arc mimetic through imagery, action, language and setting in order to bring out the heart of my story. My hope now is that I’ve written my story well enough that my reader can appreciate how its kaleidoscope’s crystals change into its newly aligned pattern.

How about your stories? Have your stories ever surprised you while you were writing them? How do you work within story structure to bring out your hidden story?

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