Building tension is one thing. You can craft all the craziness you want, and ramp up the stakes in every conversation, but it’ll mean nothing if you don’t create a satisfying climax.
The other week, a string of storms blew several large, 30-40 ft sailboats onto one of the beaches here. I just so happened to be playing volleyball on the next sunny day when a crew of men were trying to pull one of the boats out of the sand. This boat was buried. Really, really buried. The keel probably shot 10 feet or so into the ground and wet sand filled the cabin.
The crew had decided to loop a chain around the base of the keel. The chain was connected to a tow truck that was in the beach’s parking lot. Of course my friends and I headed over to check things out. A bunch of other spectators had gathered around the boat with cameras and frowns and lots of curiosity. As people crowded to closer to watch and whisper, a security car showed up to keep things under control.
“Stand back!” one of the crew guys shouted. “When the tow truck pulls, this whole boat’s gonna blow up!”
We were stoked. What a cool afternoon!
“Stand farther back!” the crew guy and the security car told us. “The debris might fly fifty feet, and you don’t wanna get hit with any of it.”
Wow. Danger? Possible death? We moved back, but not too far.
As the tow truck started up, the crowd hushed. This was it. The boat was going to blow! The crew gave the signal and the tow truck shifted into gear. The chain made a grinding noise against the keel —
Lots of silence.
And then the security car drove up and told us to go home; the crew was giving up and the fun was over.
Lamest story ever?
Yes, I’m sorry I put you through it, but it proves the point.
When you make your book sing with tension, you’d better deliver. Build to a satisfying climax that tests your characters’ strengths and changes them forever. Don’t just wrap things up with a couple of hugs — or, in this case, a “just kidding”.
Maybe this seems obvious, but I can think of several books that ended with a huge anticlimax — okay, mainly the fourth Twilight book — and it can be tempting to reach the end of your book and just want to be done. Don’t do that. First blow up the boat, scatter some debris, and make the evening headlines. Then pack up and go home.