The Trouble with Orgasm; Unsatisfying Endings

The trouble with orgasm, according to Marie Stopes, is that it’s too obscure. Not the orgasm itself, which seemed to function just about the same a hundred years ago as it does now, but the word. Dr. Stopes, in her 1918 Married Love (a treatise on marriage, sex, and birth control, among other things), used the word climax instead of orgasm. She thought it was more straightforward, more intuitive to her readers, and her use of it helped to promulgate a new, sexual meaning of a very old word.

Climax wasn’t always so sexy. In the 16th century, it was a rhetorical term used to describe a chain of logical reasoning – not surprising, given that the Greek, klimax, from which it descended, meant, literally, ladder. Ladder to rhetoric to orgasm. Not a bad career for the word.

Of course, story-lovers tend to use it in yet another sense. When someone mentions the climax of a book, they’re not usually talking about a massive ejaculation or feat of rhetorical bravado (unless it’s a book about sex or rhetoric). A dramatic climax is one in which the tension building throughout the novel comes to a head. Everyone’s seen the graph – tension on the y-axis, time on the x-axis, and a rising line that looks like the stock market in a good month.

I hate that fucking graph.

The problem is that it makes the climax of a book look pretty straightforward. Just pile on more stuff (the graph seems to say), more tension, more fights, more speed, more volume – make that mountain higher! – and the pile becomes a climax. If you had two people dueling in the first scene of the novel, you should have two thousand at the climax.

Seems straightforward. Trouble is, the sex/stock index approach to literary climax doesn’t work.

I was reminded of this just recently, as I worked through the final chapters to the second book of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. While I’d started writing with a spring in my step and hope in my heart, the ending pretty near killed me. The walls of my house were covered with huge sheets of paper, each of which mapped out an abortive attempt to pull the plot threads together. Then I gave up on the papers and switched to a dry-erase board. Then I gave up on the dry-erase board and started wandering the streets of Brattleboro muttering to myself, my pockets stuffed with color-coded index cards. It wasn’t pretty.

It’s easy enough to have the characters pair off, protagonists and antagonists, like square dancers preparing for a particularly bloody number in which half the group ends up dismembered on the parquet floor. While that can be fun and useful, it’s not enough. We’ve all seen that movie, the one that ends with a long, loud bloodbath. If that’s all there is to it, the climax tends to be somewhat less than orgasmic. We want something more, something better, something deeper…

Sure. Ok. But what?

In an effort to save the ending of my book and my sanity both, I charted out the elements that I need in a satisfying ending. As far as I can figure it, there are five.

Mysteries Resolved: It’s human nature, when we encounter a riddle, a mystery, or a question, to want to know the answer. Most shrewd writers capitalize on this. In N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, we want to know the identity of the Reaper (among other things). In Martin’s Game of Thrones, we want to know who murdered Jon Arryn (among other things). In Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, we want to know the name and nature of the shadow that is chasing Ged all over creation. All of these books eventually give us a degree of satisfaction, but there is a danger in relying too much on mysteries and their resolution: the satisfaction of learning the truth tends to be intellectual rather than emotional, and we want an emotional reward at the end of a story.

The Slaughter of the Bad Guys: As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I will read thousands of pages to see a detested villain get his or her comeuppance. Penthero Iss and Marafice Eye, from J.V. Jones’ wonderfully imagined A Cavern of Black Ice spring to mind. Fifty pages into the first book, I wanted to see these dudes painfully slaughtered, and, as a result, I read on. And on. And on.

Protagonist Reaches Her Potential: The main characters of most stories are not fully formed. We endure chapter after chapter in which they are unable – either through inexperience, confusion, or some outside constraint – to operate at their full potential. This inability frustrates a reader, but that frustration can lead to release, when, at the very end, the protagonist achieves a breakthrough. Think of Katniss’s cold resolve at the end of The Hunger Games.

Separate Threads Converge: A few weeks back, I helped a friend’s four-year-old daughter put together a puzzle. Actually, we put together the puzzle about a dozen times, giving me time to reflect on the pleasures of puzzle-putting-together. The joy, of course, comes from connecting seemingly disparate elements. We like watching order emerge out of chaos. This is why it’s so great at the end of Empire Strikes Back (SPOILER ALERT. ACTUALLY, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE, QUIT READING RIGHT NOW AND GO WATCH IT) when we discover that Darth Vader isn’t just some random galactic tyrant, but Luke’s father. And Leia isn’t just a woman with a pluck, grit, and great hair. She’s his sister!

Apocalypse: I’m using the word in its old sense here: unhiding or uncovering, that moment in which the seemingly irrelevant or insignificant reveals its true importance: There is a tiny detail in Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead (I won’t reveal it here) that appears trivial for most of the novel… until, at the very end, we discover that this same detail is, in fact, crucial. It’s an astounding moment, and one that makes the ending of the novel deeply satisfying. We like to feel as though there’s an order in the world, “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (although Hamlet defies this augury) – books can uncover this hidden significance.

What have I missed here? Are there any other structural elements that you look for in a satisfying ending? (Aside, of course, from convulsive multiple orgasms and sweaty naked bodies strewn across the page.)

7 thoughts on “The Trouble with Orgasm; Unsatisfying Endings

  1. Don’t forget ‘guy gets the girl’ or ‘girl gets the guy’ or ‘girl gets the girl’ or ‘guy gets the guy’ or… You get the idea.

  2. Excellent breakdown of the climax of a story, I had not considered that there were so many facets before.

    One other facet to the climax could be the “Happily Ever After” part, what happens to the protagonists after the denouement. Its that little trailing off part at the end of the graph. It is a part of the climax because it is what the characters are fighting to get. To survive, bring peace to their country, become wealthy and powerful, or whatever. The climax largely determines how much they get of what they want: some of it, all they wanted, more than they thought possible, or perhaps even none. The reader can feel the pages getting thin in their right hand. They know what is happening at the climax will determine their lasting impression of the book and the characters they have come to like. Do all the protagonists survive? Are some missing limbs or blinded or gone mad? Or do they all ride off into the sunset, with all they wanted and more, to live happily ever after? I think most good modern books end with some combination of those outcomes. (Although many 2 hour movies are “Happily Ever After”).

    For the second installment of a three part series, the ending must be especially difficult. Things cannot be drawn up too neatly because there is a whole nother installment to come. Yet it still needs to be an ending. The Empire Strikes Back really comes to mind. Great movie, maybe even the best, but when the good guys were staring peacefully and expectantly off at the stars, and then the credits suddenly popped on, wow I almost threw my cup of ice cubes at the screen. OK, I was just a kid at the time, but the ending to The Empire Strikes Back was one of the worst, and one of the best, in my opinion. Good luck Brian.

  3. Louis Anders, I believe, also mentions the reconciliation between the main character and the relationship character. As a prime example, think of Thorin and Bilbo’s reconciliation at the end of the film. This doesn’t always have to refer to a romantic interest either.

    • Somehow I missed this when you posted it, but reconciliation is a great element to add to the list. In fact, I’m putting the finishing touches on book two now, and I think I might just take another look at this reconciliation scene… Thanks!

  4. I love this list, and I think it’s a great summary of the elements needed. I’ll definitely keep this saved somewhere for personal reference.

    I would add challenge. Even if the ending has all of the elements above, but feels easy for the characters, I don’t find it satisfying. The characters should have to try hard–and give everything they have–to succeed. It’s the challenge, the potential to fail, that adds tension and makes the climax of a book satisfying and realistic for me.

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