Stuck on the climax

by Michael Benningfield
(Dallas, TX, USA)

Question: I am writing a crime novel (as if that hasn't been overdone already) and my climax is a bit of a rough one to hammer out. I want to give as much information here as possible without giving away the plot of my book.

Essentially, the main character (a detective) catches a killer, or so she thinks. But the climax of the book comes when everyone thinks the killer is caught, only to come into the police station the next morning and find the sergeant dead, with the same clues left as the prior murders. However, I am not sure how to write that into my climax because the climax is essentially the turning point, and well, that's essentially how my book ends. It's a cliffhanger that will lead into book number 2.

Any suggestions?

This is my outline so far (and I posted it on my poetry site to auto copyright the text thus far so no one steals it :D )


“A young detective with the propensity to daydream has a wake-up call when a series of dead bodies turn up in her small town. (Consequence) On edge and battling depression, she fights within her own mind to stay level headed and catch the killer at all costs. (Story Goal) Depending on her partner and a small crime lab; the clues are followed and interpreted. (Prerequisite) Feeling rushed and on edge due to the sizable media attention her small town is receiving, the detective misses clues and steps into a danger zone which may result in her losing her job. (Cost)
Fighting to keep her job and focus on the case; she sifts through the clues to figure out what she and her partner have missed. (Requirement) Her defiance towards superiors, and the will to prove to herself that she can do this job, lead to her being suspended, thus leaving the case in jeopardy. (Forewarning) While suspended, the District Attorney decides he would like to still discuss the case with the detective. When she refuses to break the rules of her suspension, he threatens to make her future a “living hell.” (Precondition) Despite the District Attorney’s low-balling, the detective dedicates her time to reading and relaxing while suspended. In doing so she picks up a murder mystery book that proves to be more than just a book. It just so happens that the author of the book is bragging within the pages about a crime he has committed; a crime, it appears, that follows her current investigation to a proverbial “T.” (Dividends) After catching who the police think is
the killer, life resumes as normal; that is, until one of their own is murdered, turning the entire investigation upside down. What’s worse – the murder is committed inside the police station and the killer leaves virtually no evidence behind. (Climax)

I'm just not sure that I like the "climax" on this one.

Answer: The challenge with this type of "false victory" ending is that, if done poorly, it invalidates all the work and effort that was done to accomplish the story goal. Thus, it renders the preceding story and the characters' choices meaningless. We think the character made the right choice and achieved the goal. We think we understand the meaning of the story. Then we find out it's all a lie.

A good twist ending, on the other hand, makes the preceding story more meaningful by taking the reader's (and the main character's) understanding to a new level.

In this case, the real story seems to be about something nefarious going on within the police department/DA's office. The murder is just a device to expose the real threat.

As the first part of a two-part series, it could work if the final murder validates the detective's growing suspicions and brings her to the point where she is ready to commit to the real problem -- rooting out the threat within the department. For the purposes of this book, the ending would be tragi-comic, in that the detective fails to arrest the right killer, but her inner conflict is resolved in a positive way that will carry her into the second book.

A few other points I think you should consider...

Why is the detective depressed? Unless you have a good explanation, it comes across as a cliche.

Suspension and the threat of being fired are also cliches, but they can work if you find an interesting way to justify them. (Are they connected to the real threat?)

How is she both "on edge" and relaxed enough to "daydream"? Why is she so on edge?

Why is the DA so keen on forcing the detective to break the rules? (I'm guessing it has to do with the real threat.)

You should review the definition of "dividends." Dividends are incidental rewards that boost the character's morale, so they provide a counterpoint to the costs. They are generally unconnected to the goal. What keeps her going when everything looks bleak?

Similarly, Prerequisites should be distinct from Requirements. Think about coincidences, for example, as a way to introduce prerequisites.

Best of luck.

P.S. You seldom have to worry about your ideas being stolen. Ideas are not copyrighted, only manuscripts.

Comments for Stuck on the climax

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Thank you for the reply (and a few answers here)
by: Michael Benningfield

Thank you for the reply! It was really insightful and I know I have a long way to go. To answer a few of the questions you posed, I leave these responses (and hopefully they make sense):

Why is the detective depressed? Well, in general I have found most people that are homicide detectives battle depression. (I come from a family of cops, customs agents, etc)... but in this book, she is depressed because her father committed suicide after a long battle with PTSD. He does this merely weeks before she graduates her courses and is accepted into law enforcement. (In the book, I don't go into detail, rather just a mention of it. Same in the synopsis.)

Suspension and Threat of being fired: This actually leads to the detective finding their initial killer. I have laid out the book so that the clues lead to one person, and yet, they don't have the evidence to arrest said person. So when she is suspended for a couple of weeks, she decides to try and get back to what she loves doing in her downtime: reading. It is here that she picks up a book that shares the same name as her main suspect. And when she reads this book, the clues within it and how it lays out essentially leads her entire department to thinking "this is our guy." This is how the initial arrest will be made.

On Edge VS Relaxed and daydreaming: At the start of the book, you'll see a detective that is faced with mainly small things like break-ins or petty theft etc, (small town, she is the only "detective" on a force of cops, so she covers it all.) She likes to daydream to pass the time because she honestly doesn't have a ton of work. But we see her on edge when the killings start, as she never gave a thought as to whether or not a killing would remind her of her father, and having to deal with those bad memories while trying to catch a killer. She becomes on edge when another detective in another city is called in to help out (even though he's her childhood friend) because she feels as though the District Attorney and the Judge (of whom actually requested that they bring in another detective) are trying to invalidate her work. (The judge character, I have written to be a man stuck in the 1930's way of thinking. To him, women have one job, and it's in the kitchen. So he's a real hard a**.)

DA Being keen on breaking rules: Oddly enough, this one is strictly political aspirations. He's in a small town and he wants to be a D.A. for a big city like Dallas, Houston, etc. In his mind, the more cases he prosecutes and the more ruthless he looks, the better the chances are of him being accepted in another city. He honestly doesn't care if someone's innocent or not. It's a small town. The way he figures it, as long as the townspeople can be swayed to see it his way, then who cares if he's right or wrong?

And I will most definitely have to review dividends again. When I wrote this initial soft plot, it was around 2. a.m. and I was half asleep, but I knew if I didn't jot it all down that I'd forget it. (My mind is like that at times!)

Thank you again for the response and help, and I'll be more than happy to answer anything else that crosses your mind!

To Michael
by: Glen

"Most homicide detectives are depressed" is not a sufficient explanation. Nor is the father's death, unless either of these are connected to the main character's arc.

Let's say you're going to take your main character on a journey where she starts out depressed (or perhaps lacking a true sense of purpose?). The events in your story should challenge her approach, usually by having her observe an impact character who has the opposite approach. Her personal crisis will be the moment when she decides whether or not to change, and the Judgement will be when we see whether she is better off for having made that choice.

Now, you could start her off in an environment so oppressive that she copes by not caring. Then have her encounter someone who cares. Let this person pressure her to change by his/her example, so that she eventually takes a leap of faith and decides to care. It's okay if she changes and is punished for it in this book if her new approach is vindicated in the next.

Alternatively (and this is a cliche), you could have her father be the impact character who died because he cared about something. He can continue to influence her through messages he's left behind, so that at the crisis she adopts his approach.

In other words, if you want to use the father's death, make it crucial to the story.

These are just possibilities, of course. I'm sure you can find better options. The point is to make her inner struggle essential to the outcome of the overall story.

Reply to Glen & a Question
by: Michael Benningfield

Thank for that reply, Glen, as it was much appreciated! I do have a quick question, however:

If I were to explore the father's death (and I think I will because I found a way to tie it into the entire story and thus make his suicide become "not a suicide" at all) I'm not sure if I should put this in my synopsis.

I'm trying to keep the synopsis at one page or shorter, and I am finding I can't hardly do that as I'm already over a page long and not even a quarter into my book, which tells me I must either be putting in too much crap, or else I am just over thinking all of this.

For instance, if I were to take a fiction book meant for youths, such as Nancy Drew: We learn in EVERY Nancy Drew book that Hannah Gruen is the housekeeper and she was hired after Nancy's mother died. However, I'm not sure if that is in the synopsis or not, as they never tell why Nancy's mom died, or how they knew Hannah, etc. It is essentially a detail that is left out of the books, and yet, Hannah plays an integral role in the books.

So it is in this area that I am struggling. The "don't put in synopsis vs put in book" area. This is probably why I tend to just write out my books and not do a synopsis. I usually just write, and then hand it over to friends that love to read, and they are pretty good at telling me "dude, I love this, but this one part made no sense" and then I know I have to fix it, etc....

So maybe a bit of help in that area would do me some good. I can work in many details, but when it comes to writing a stripped down version of the book that isn't bland, I am kind of lost.

to Michael
by: Glen

Don't worry about it. The synopsis is for your eyes only. You can put in as many details as you want. Some writers' synopses are only a paragraph. Others are ten pages. Some plotters may have hundreds of pages of background material including character sketches, notes on setting, etc.

Some people think of the synopsis as their first draft -- just without actual scenes.

The synopsis should include whatever helps clarify the story so you feel empowered to begin writing.

(If an editor asks you for a synopsis, that's a different situation and you would have to follow the guidelines they set. But in this case, it doesn't matter.)

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