Tuesday, September 9

Anatomy of a Showdown

By Paul Anthony Shortt, @PAShortt

Part of the How They Do It Series

One of the most looked-forwarded-to moments in a novel has got to be the showdown between hero and villain. It's the payoff of the entire novel, and for many readers, it determines how much they like the book. Paul Anthony Shortt visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on what goes into a great showdown.

A child at heart who turned to writing and roleplaying games when there simply weren’t enough action figures to play out the stories he wanted, Paul Anthony Shortt has been writing all his life.

Growing up surrounded by music, film and theatre gave him a deep love of all forms of storytelling, each teaching him something new he could use. When not playing with the people in his head, he enjoys cooking and regular meet-ups with his gaming group.

He lives in Ireland with his wife Jen and their dogs, Pepper and Jasper. Their first child, Conor William Henry Shortt, was born on July 11th, 2011. He passed away three days later, but brought love and joy into their lives and those of their friends. The following year, Jen gave birth to twins, Amy and Erica. Their fourth child, Olivia, was born in January, 2014.

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Take it away Paul...

The story has come to this. Battle rages all around. Victory hangs in the balance. The hero and the villain come face to face for the final time. This is the showdown, the ultimate confrontation, the moment the reader has been waiting for. There is perhaps no more important moment in a series, and certainly never before has so much depended on a single scene.

So much advice exists to tell writers about how to start their book and plan out the story, I find it surprising that the climax is often not mentioned. I’ve read a fair few books, seen plenty of movies, where the climax let down a great story in the end. Endings are my favorite part of any story, and that’s why I want to share some of what I’ve learned about them, and the pieces I think make up a great showdown.

1: Keep it personal

The best showdowns focus on two characters. You can have all kinds of action and drama happening around the showdown, but your readers will want something they can connect with. They’ll want to cheer for the hero, to see that personal victory take place, so that the showdown becomes a reflection of the larger action. Take Return of the Jedi as an example. While there’s all kinds of exciting action happening during the battle to destroy the Death Star, the real emotion lies with Luke Skywalker facing Darth Vader. The space battle and desperate struggle on Endor sweep you up in their fantasy action, but it’s Luke struggling to save his father and defeat the Emperor that keeps you grounded and focused on the outcome. Without that personal connection, you risk losing your audience in meaningless set pieces.

2: Lead up to it

Like building a house, the real work of preparing for a showdown is done well before the finish. If you throw your hero against a villain the reader has never met, or a confrontation no-one was expecting, it can look like you’re forcing something into the plot that doesn’t belong. It doesn’t feel natural. By the time the showdown comes along, the reader shouldn’t simply be expecting it, they should be hungry for it. Whatever form it takes, whether it’s physical, mental, or social, the showdown must follow the flow of the story so well, that when the reader thinks back, they’ll realize there could be no other way for the story to end.

3: Make it count

This is a tricky one. When planning the finalĂ© to a story, especially if that finalĂ© involves a large battle, or the hero’s allies helping them stop the villain’s plans, there’s a chance you’ll render the showdown redundant. How? By having the allies save the day. Looking back at Return of the Jedi, it kind of doesn’t matter if Luke defeats the Emperor, because the Rebels destroy the Death Star, which would have killed the Emperor anyway (I know the Star Wars novels say that the Emperor was using his Force powers to guide the Imperial fleet, so his death disrupted them enough to allow the Rebels to win, but that was an explanation added much later). This is not to say your hero’s friends can’t save the day, but you still need to make sure that whether or not the hero wins their final battle matters to the overall plot. The hero and the villain are the driving forces of your book. Their actions have led others to this point, and it should be their actions that decide the fate of things in the aftermath. Don’t throw away such an important moment on a meaningless fight scene. Make the outcome of their conflict impact the world around them.

4: Raise the stakes

The final showdown has got to be the most nerve-wracking, page-turning part of your book. Hit the hero, and the reader, with everything you’ve got. When things look their darkest, give the reader a moment of false hope, then dash it against the rocks. When the hero is just about to win, shank him with a hidden knife. When all hope is lost, have the hero reach for one last desperate act, find the last sliver of strength they have, and rip victory back from the villain’s clutches. Your showdown should leave your reader feeling breathless, scared to read on, but too engrossed to stop.

5: End it with a bang

All too often, I see heroes win through cheap tricks or deus ex machina. You don’t want that. You want your hero to triumph, not just because they have skill or bravery, but because they’ve learned something along the way. Because they’ve become a stronger, more powerful character through their journey. If you can tie the victory to an earlier challenge the hero has faced, whether that challenge was overcome or not, so much the better. As much as the showdown itself should bring together all the things that have made your story great, so too should the final moments bring together everything about the showdown. Bring all your hero’s pain, all their joy, all their setbacks, all their accomplishments, and let it explode onto the page.

Memory War is a book I’ve been waiting to see published for a very long time. The end of my first trilogy, it marks the closing of the first chapter of my writing career. Following my own advice, Nathan Shepherd and Athamar will face each other in this book, and their showdown will leave New York, and the world, forever changed.

About Memory War

War is coming to New York. Nathan Shepherd's growing band of followers is dedicated to protecting the city, but they now face their greatest threat.

Athamar returns, plunging the city into chaos. Uniting the forces of darkness against Nathan and his allies, Athamar strives to discover a secret hidden for thousands of years. A secret lost to Nathan's memories. Something so dangerous, even the gods themselves fear it.

Nathan and Elena were once the greatest of heroes, champions against evil. Now, haunted by Nathan's past-life betrayal, they must work together and brave the pain of long-buried lifetimes. Somewhere, locked within their former incarnations, lies the key to stopping Athamar, an enemy who has hunted them from one incarnation to the next.

As the city burns and innocents suffer, as heroes fall and hope dies, Nathan and Elena face their final battle, a battle where legends will be reborn.

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  1. Really excellent advice. I'm bookmarking this one. Thanks Paul!

  2. Thanks, Paul for the great post! I'm copying and pasting it for my notes :)

  3. These points are excellent. I couldn't agree more that a bad or disappointing climax is one of the worst sins a writer can commit. In fact, I'm in the process of rewriting a less-than-stellar ending myself. I'm definitely going to use the advice here as a checklist to make sure I get it right this time.

  4. This is a great article. Thanks very much.