The crisis is the ultimate point of tension in a literary work. It’s when the big bad guy and the big good guy face off, and to the victor go the spoils.
If you want to write a story, you need a good crisis point.
In fact, when you leave a story feeling unfulfilled, it’s almost certainly because the climactic moment of the story didn’t live up to its role.
The Anatomy of a Crisis
The crisis can be simple if you write it on a napkin. 95% of the time, it will be “the good guy fights the bad guy and wins.”
There is nothing wrong with this formula, and it leaves plenty of room for variety.
What you need to figure out is if your story provides that variety.
A good plot and decent characters lend themselves well to this.
Typically, a crisis has two major points: a time-critical situation arises that demands a single person deal with it, and the character in question handles it.
This means that you should be able to identify two things:
- What sparks the crisis?
- What happens during it?
This is important because the development of a story can easily fizzle out. If you don’t know when things are going to move from one point to the next, you’re writing disjunct pieces and hoping they work together.
One thing to consider is that the spark often aligns with the protagonist discovering the information, ability, or item they need to succeed.
There is a natural reason for this: it avoids anticlimax (if the hero could succeed the moment they left their home to slay the dragon, what’s the point of reforging the blade that shattered in the first era?), and it keeps you from boring your readers with development that isn’t important to the plot.
If your development ends with something less important than something found along the way, it’s probably time to reorganize that, but it’s not a crucial flaw.
A crucial flaw is not being able to think of anything that prepares the hero for the crisis. This makes the development an exercise in frustration.
If you have an anti-heroic or tragic character who’s been doomed to fail from the start, consider that you still need something here. An anti-hero needs something to give them hope, like a friend in high places (1984). A tragic hero needs a development that furthers their transformation from noble to ignoble, like being convinced that their wife is an adulteress (Othello).
The next step is to have that action play out. It’s a logical step: the hero slays the dragon, the anti-hero is betrayed by their friend, or the tragic hero does something horrible and pays the price for it.
You aren’t looking at the resolution here, you’re looking at exactly how it plays out in the moment, and there’s a good reason for this:
Obviously there’s a natural flow for the crisis, but the best crises have some added element. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, Frodo has a last-moment failure of willpower, and it’s only a confrontation with Gollum (who symbolizes the worst parts of human nature) that leads to the ring’s destruction.
That’s why I suggest treating both these separately; it encourages you to come up with something special and not just trivialize them into forms to be filled out.
A Caution on Cliffhangers
As I’ve done more serious scholarship on writing, I almost never hear people talk about cliffhanger endings.
I think there are two reasons for this:
- They’re sort of a “you know it when you see it” deal and you can’t predict a good cliffhanger ending.
- If you start out a story aiming at a cliffhanger as your crisis, you might miss the point.
When I think of cliffhangers, the ones that are most satisfying are those that fall in the place of a resolution. For instance, Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” features a crisis that gets fully resolved, and he puts the cliffhanger in as a resolution.
You can have a cliffhanger at this point in your story, but some stories will lend themselves more to that than others.
Stories with flawed protagonists do well with unresolved crises. This comes down to a mixture of evading consequences, since it is generally considered “a downer” to have the protagonist suffer for their good deeds, and letting the story end on a high point.
Be careful, though. Ending on a high point is not always a merit, and the resolution has a powerful role as a vehicle for catharsis.
The crisis is a high point of emotional investment for your audience, so make sure you know what it is before you write.
It should be something that matters, that has a chance of going wrong, and that involves your characters intimately.
If you can’t check those boxes, you’re going to wind up with issues when the audience views the result as an anticlimax.