In the end, climax with them.
There is a reason every story has an antagonist, even if it isn’t always a human being. To them (the audience) seeing the protagonist overcome, survive or triumph speaks to their own journey. With these 7 steps to engaging the audience any work can be popular too. In step #7, the protagonist overcoming their enemy alone, under their own power and in character satisfies the audience.
A Hopeful Climax
In The Shawshank Redemption Andy’s antagonists take many shapes and forms. The obvious ones are the Warden and the gang of rapists. He uses a third, Captain Hadley, more unconventionally, to get to both. These are all physical manifestations of his real enemy — a loss of hope.
For over 18 years, since Andy requisitioned the rock hammer from Red, he’s been digging his way out of the prison hiding the hole under movie star pin-ups. His chess and daydreaming all a sham to cloak his real intent. He couldn’t let on even to the audience, because anyone could snitch on him or reveal it accidentally. It was the only hope he could maintain through anything. He had to fight the gang and rebel against the Warden otherwise despair would have crowded out his efforts.
As it is Tommy’s death and the Warden’s rejection of the truth nearly cripples him. We forgive his secret keeping because he did it to survive. He lets us in on the escape though. It’s too late, we can’t squeal. We revel in his daring, he’s planned for every step and obstacle. We realize his withdrawn demeanor hides a sharp mind. We had glimpses of it but now we see the fruits of his efforts to bring justice to his world.
Andy couldn’t even risk telling Red. He’s done all he can for the other men, to fortify them to endure their time and be able to reenter the world with more of a chance to acclimate to society. He knows for Red it will not be enough. I really appreciated how Andy gave Red the tools to save himself, but still left it up to him to use them. I loved the image of a tree of life with Red sitting at its roots with his unearthed treasure. Andy is an extremely internal man, it was no surprise he defeated his enemy alone, that it was an ingenious long-term plan he had to consistently carry out over many years time.
For Red, one among a whole population, with a known fate hanging over his head we aren’t so sure. We see him tempted to rejoin his crew, his prison more comforting than his freedom. With no explicit instructions as to what to do it takes Red a little time to work it out on his own. We feel his triumph equally as powerful as Andy’s because he is able to overcome his conditioning. Red and Andy remade their fates alone and in their own ways. The audience is influenced by their survival and the power of hope that made it all possible.
After going on this journey with Andy and particularly Red I will never be able to see The Shawshank Redemption in the same light as before. There is a reason Stephen King is such a popular writer and Frank Darabont masterfully adapted it for the big screen.
A Progressive Climax
In The Twilight Saga, how Bella’s enemies are overcome is more important than who those enemies actually are. Each book takes a slightly different slant on the vampire world and Bella must defeat them. As we progress through the series the challenge is developing each story so the present climax is as powerful as the previous one.
In Twilight, James lures Bella away from her protectors by pretending he’s taken her mother, Renee. If it had been her dad or even Edward it would not be in character for Bella to go alone. She’s always protected Renee and feels it her responsibility. We know this from how Bella dealt with receiving the scrapbooks and camera for her birthday and through her motivations for moving to Forks in the first place. I obviously would have wanted to wait and go in with the entire Cullen family as they are stronger and bad-assier than I am. She instinctively knew she had to go in alone and stand up to the physical manifestation of all the dangers the vampire world holds for her. If she couldn’t stand up to it and survive she wouldn’t be worthy of Edward’s love. Later when the Cullens fly in, we have no problem with them mopping up.
There are actually two climaxes in New Moon, like book-ended short stories. The first when she must figure out what is going on with Jacob without help from him. Then another when she stands up to the Volturi and offers her life for Edward. She isn’t physically alone here but as a legitimate eighteen year old girl it’s hard to be willing to give up your life for another, especially when that person is a hundred and four years old. You see it all the time in TV shows, an older person giving their life for a young person’s future. The opposite is unheard of yet it works here. Edward too must deal with his own demons about Bella becoming a vampire. He’s not afraid of death we know, his antagonist is this idea he’s stealing Bella’s humanity. Alice says she will change Bella if she must when the time comes. He has no choice now but to face it and since no one else agrees to his sentiments he is emotionally alone in them.
In Eclipse, Bella fights to remain in both Jacob and Edward’s lives. It’s rather selfish of her to do so for it sets Jacob up to push for his suit. Edward, the older and wiser of her suitors awaits her decision, he’s set her free. They don’t make it easy for her, both are true to who they are and why she loves them both. Once the battle with Victoria is over she must choose, no one could make up her mind for her. Bella shows us how who we are as individuals really defines who our soul mate will be and that in the end we’ll stay true to our characters.
In Breaking Dawn, the final installment, Bella is left a series of clues by Alice which she must put together but keep hidden from Edward. When you find “the one” and it’s good between you, it’s massively hard to keep secrets from them, the same is true for Bella, but she does it for Renesmee. I find this one of the smartest climaxes of the series. Sure there’s a battle and vampires must be defeated but the struggle is between mate and child. Of course Edward understands.
Twilight is a good example of why The Twilight Saga is so popular. We fell in love with Bella and Edward and were willing to follow them to the end of their journey. Sure Stephanie Meyers isn’t a supremo writer just yet but she’s on her way and I can tell you she’s already a gifted storyteller.
An Unhappy Climax
In Mad Men there are no clear-cut villains and every one of the characters act as an antagonist for someone else. For the audience we see character arcs play out, and dynamics morph and grow. This is the calling card for soap operas, Don and his gang play it well. The climaxes themselves are brief moments of change where problems recycle or a character actually learns and moves forward.
This season Don took on a load of guilt about Lane but he wasn’t the enemy, Lane in fact fought with himself. His pride falters under Don’s disapproval, he worked so hard to maintain appearances and now it matters naught. He failed in his first attempt to take his life. How in character I thought. His second attempt does succeed – for the first time the self he’s hidden behind a stiff upper lip, is revealed to the whole office. While his character lacked the strength to face them alive, he did come clean so to speak, in his own weak way.
As a character who won’t be dying, Don has the most fascinating of climaxes. He dealt with Lane’s death by cutting a check with his $50,000 investment, something he wouldn’t do when Lane lived. He gives it to Lane’s wife, he sits and listens to her accusations. He takes them with dignity and good grace, he did play his own part in Lane’s death, it’s the least he can do for her now. I love this side of Don, the man he could be all the time but isn’t capable of maintaining. We see his darker side when he deals with Megan. He’s not physically alone but mentally, you can see it visually by how he stands in the dark contrasted to Megan’s bright, colorful, fantasy, dream world where she’s an actual star. Megan rejected the advertising world where she would have had to share her successes with Don, so now he’s left out in the dark. We see him come to terms with this as he watches her film and when he decides to push to cast her in this commercial. And so he prepares mentally to move on from Megan, how this will manifest itself we won’t know until next season.
I particularly empathized with Pete’s climax. Sure, he’s a rotten, cheating boot-licker but he fell in love with his exact opposite. Attracted to her moral goodness she was a shiny object he could play with for years. Only her morality got in the way. First rejecting him after one tantalizing night, she changes her mind because she’s to kill her memories on the morrow with shock therapy. She remains the same person but all the filthiness she’s come into contact with is gone. He slumps, alone, unable to overcome his cheating himself. The girl took care of it for him, Pete’s never one to do the heavy lifting after all. His seeds with his wife though take root and she is convinced he needs to be set up with his very own love nest in the city.
Goodbye Lane, we will miss you. Oh Petey, you never learn. With Don Draper on the other hand, no matter how many climaxes we reach with him he continues to move forward. He deals with the world the best way he can, sometimes failing and sometimes winning. Isn’t that the way of life?
Mad Men will never be my favorite show, now or of all time. I can certainly appreciate a popular man who is still unhappy as one doesn’t buy us the other. I do admire the writing, production and the cast for shedding a light on unhappiness and how it was no easier in the 60s than it is today in 2012.
I wanna be popular too you say…and you can be. In the end, climax with them. In literary terms, a climax is a decisive moment in the plot of maximum intensity and a major turning point for the protagonist. Physically, a climax is also an orgasm and in general is the highest or most intense culmination of something. This is how the audience (them) wants to feel about the end of a story. We can satisfy all these conditions when the protagonist takes care of their enemy alone, under their own power, and in character. Friends and family are important for they make our lives worth living. In the end though we must prove to ourselves that we are capable of securing our own survival. Characters and human beings alike.
As a writer, take the seventh step in your own work to engage the audience: in the end, climax with them. If you missed any of the steps, continue reading how with these 7 steps to engaging the audience any work can be popular too.