July 16 – 22: “How do you set up those grand, loud, all-out climaxes?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Post ThrillerFest we’re discussing those grand climaxes so often associated with thrillers. We’re joined by ITW Members Martin Roy Hill, Alan Jacobson, Sandra Block, Robert J. Stava, Sarah Simpson, J.H. Bográn and Carole Lawrence as they answer the question: “Thrillers are known for their grand, loud, all-out climaxes. How do you set them up?” Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t be sorry!


Carole Lawrence (C. E. Lawrence, Carole Bugge) is the author of eleven published novels, award-winning plays, musicals, poetry and short fiction.  Her most recent novel is the historical thriller Edinburgh Dusk, the second book in the Ian Hamilton Mysteries series.  Her “Silent” series (Silent Screams and its sequels) follows NYPD profiler Lee Campbell in his pursuit of serial killers. Her plays and musicals have been performed internationally – including an original Sherlock Holmes musical.  Her most recent musical is Murder on Bond Street, based on a true story.  A self-described science geek, she likes to hunt wild mushrooms.


Alan Jacobson is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of a dozen books featuring FBI profiler Karen Vail and the OPSIG Team Black covert ops group. His 20+ years of research and training with the FBI, DEA, ATF, SWAT, Scotland Yard, and the US military infuse his books with verisimilitude. His novels have been optioned by Hollywood and both series have been raved about by federal agents, police captains, FBI profilers, and Navy SEALs.


Sandra Block graduated from college at Harvard, then returned to her native land of Buffalo, New York for medical training and never left. She is a practicing neurologist and proud Sabres fan, and lives at home with her husband, two children, and impetuous yellow lab. Little Black Lies is her debut, a finalist in the International Thriller Awards, and The Girl Without a Name and The Secret Room are the other books in the Zoe Goldman series. Her latest stand-alone novel What Happened That Night comes out in June 2018.


A veteran of the NYC advertising business, Robert J. Stava is a horror & science fiction writer living in the Hudson Valley, apparently not far from the village where many of his stories are set: Wyvern Falls. His last novel, Nightmare From World’s End, was published by Severed Press in 2016 and his next science fiction-horror novel, Neptune’s Reckoning, set in Montauk, is due out the end of 2018. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies over the last several years and he has also authored one YA novella, The Devil’s Engine, published by Muzzleland Press. He’s also a musician, artist and historian. His non-fiction book Combat Recon was published in hardcover by Schiffer Publishing in 2008, encompassing the history and photography of his great uncle John Stava, a combat photographer with the 5th Air Force in the SW Pacific during WWII.


Martin Roy Hill is the author of the Linus Schag, NCIS, thrillers, the Peter Brandt thrillers, and the award-winning short story collection DUTY, and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. Martin’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Crimson Streets, Nebula Rift, Devolution Z, and others. A former national award-winning investigative journalist, Martin is now a military analyst.


Always a deep thinking child, Sarah Simpson supposed that one day – she’d become a writer. So many hours consumed by reading, lost in the fantasy worlds of Enid Blyton. Always a people watcher, wondering what is ensuing behind the eyes. But as is often the case, life gripped her hand, and led her along a different path. She graduated first with a business degree and then with a psychology degree. After completing post-graduate studies, Sarah worked as a therapist within the varied field of mental health. This path has gifted her an invaluable understanding of life and of people. Now a writer; she could never have been without these experiences. She wanted to write about life and as with her debut novel, HER GREATEST MISTAKE – perhaps travel the darker aspects of life and relationships.


J. H. Bográn, is a bilingual author of novels, short stories, and screenplays. In addition, he contributes columns for several notable publications, including Yale Global, The Big Thrill, and TopShelf Magazine. He works at Habitat for Humanity Honduras, and as a part-time college professor of Writing, Spanish, and English as a foreign language. Follow him on Twitter (@jhbogran).


Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. For me, it is important to know what the climactic scene will be before I even start writing a thriller. It isn’t enough to just have a slam-bam ending; for me it has to be believable and it has to fit the plot. And that means I have to plot the whole book out before I start writing it.

    In my first thriller, THE KILLING DEPTHS, I had two intermingled plots—one dealing with NCIS Special Agent Linus Schag’s investigation into a murder aboard a joint-crewed American submarine, the other involving a cat-and-mouse conflict between that sub and a rogue Iranian submarine. Right from the beginning I knew I wanted the climax to be a battle between Schag and the killer that occurred at the same time the U.S. submarine was engaged in underwater combat with the rogue sub. That required a lot of buildup in the middle of the book so the dual climaxes appeared to the reader to occur naturally.

    When I wrote my first Peter Brandt thriller, EMPTY PLACES, I knew I wanted the climactic scene to be Peter’s escape from the bad guys and near drowning in a flood-swollen river. Since the plot takes place in the normally dry desert community of Palm Springs, I needed to set the stage for the flood to come. I started doing that right from the beginning when, in an early chapter, I have Peter quote an old (and probably apocryphal) Indian saying about the stupidity of building in a flood-prone valley, “White man who live in wash, get washed.” Midway through the novel, the dry, sunny weather changes. A light rain begins to fall, which then becomes a heavy rain, then a torrent. By the time the reader reaches the end of the book, they are prepped for the climax.

    With the exception of the climax to EMPTY PLACES, which was based on a real-life Palm Springs flood I lived through and covered as a reporter, my climatic endings take a lot of research. For the ending to THE KILLING DEPTHS, I had to research submarine operations and tactics. For the second Linus Schag thriller, THE BUTCHER’S BILL, I had to do even more research.

    I originally created the Linus Schag character for a short story, Destroyer Turns, published by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the mid-1990s. I conceived Schag as an “agent afloat,” an NCIS investigator who sails with the fleet to investigate crimes at sea, thus combining two of my loves—mysteries and the sea. I kept that premise in THE KILLING DEPTHS. However, the plot I drew up for THE BUTCHER’S BILL, which was inspired by a real-life event involving a cop gone rogue, took place on land. I wanted an ending that would take Schag back out to sea, or at least offshore. I decided that the bad guys had a ship offshore on which they held a hostage. Not just any ship, but a Very Large Crude Carrier or VLCC, the biggest oil tanker in the business. And I decided to blow it up.

    I am personally familiar with oil tanker explosions. As a young U.S. Coast Guardsman, I witnessed firsthand the carnage resulting from the explosion of the oil tanker Sansinena in Los Angeles Harbor. I knew the cause of the Sansinena accident, and also knew that new safety measures should prevent a similar explosion today. So, I had to research another way to blow up an oil tanker. After weeks of online research—constantly expecting Homeland Security or the FBI to come knocking on my door—I finally discovered how explosions still occur on modern tankers. My climatic ending was not only explosive (pardon the pun), but well based on fact.

    Now, as I said, that’s how I work. But I’m reminded of the story Nelson Demille told about how he came to the climatic ending of one of his John Corey novels, NIGHT FALL. If I recall the story correctly, he had written most of the book but didn’t know how to end it. His son finally gave him a suggestion, and Demille went on to write one of the greatest climatic scenes I have ever read.

  2. Thrillers are also known for their intermittent twists and turns, shocks and surprises, along the way, lots of mini climaxes. So, all of these need to somehow feed, relate or point to the grand finale. I tend to write my climax before I write anything to help me do this, knowing how I want the story to end, what I want to leave with the reader before I know how I want to write the story, how I want it to begin, how I need the characters to behave/ deliver is really important for me. Then I re-write it many, many more times before completion.

    But what always remains the same is the feeling…

    Always in mind when writing thrillers, is the need to keep the reader on their toes but also satisfied, where the story could end several ways, so I hint and guide throughout. The climax doesn’t always need to be a happy ending but it must make sense and satisfy the reader, whilst still having that – oh my gosh factor. Each and every paragraph I write, I have the climax in mind, even if I’m deliberately throwing the reader off course, to ensure it always makes sense in the end. But perhaps most of all, with Her Greatest Mistake my debut book, I really wanted the climax to plant a certain feeling. This feeling is reflected throughout the plot, with a combination of evocative scenarios and challenged characters. Possibly, as I present some extremely sensitive, heart-wrenching issues – the climax needed to do these justices.

    With my second book, the ultimate climax still hangs on a feeling, the story and plot is extremely different but still it is always about – feeding the reader scenes that I believe will provoke certain thoughts, emotions and expectations. Providing sufficient information so the ultimate climax makes sense but perhaps leading the reader down many alternative but viable paths.

    So, for me, considering emotional reactions, delivering scenes to evoke emotions is key. I usually write each chapter with an emotional response in mind and one that will fit the ultimate feeling the climax will then hopefully deliver.

  3. If I’ve done it right, everything that has happened in the novel is moving toward a collision and/or resolution—and this occurs in the climax. If there are multiple storylines, they all come to a head around the same time. If it is a matter of a plot point that has reached its pinnacle and must be resolved by the ending, then all the events that have been leading up to this impending resolution have built to this point.

    In retrospect (after finishing the book), the reader should be able to see that the climax—and ending—were inevitable, even if the inevitability was not evident while they were reading. A lot of my readers go back and re-read my novels three, four, five times. I was shocked to hear this, but it showed me that my climaxes and endings stood up to the scrutiny of multiple reads, even when they knew what was coming.

    In essence, I consider climaxes to be a prelude to the ending, and the ending to be merely a resolution of the climax. Essentially, I see the climax as the beginning of the end of the book, although that is not always the case.

    I’m usually very conscious of when the climax is about to begin, and typically they run anywhere from 40 to 60 pages, depending on the nature of the story. If it’s an action-based thriller, it will tend to be on the longer side, while a suspense-based thriller may conclude in a fewer number of pages.

    I think of the climax as a trek up a mountain: you and a number of others are camping out in the foothills in different tents. But you’re going to make the journey to the top together. That trek up to the peak is the climax—including the hazards, obstacles, and conflicts you encounter along the way—as well as the resulting resolutions you find as you near the end of the journey.

    The climax to DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, my new novel that is best summarized as “a special forces mission to the Moon,“ is about 50 pages and leads right into a four page ending. That’s not always possible to do, but it’s definitely my goal—because it’s always desirable to hit the ending and get out, leaving the reader still enjoying the high of an exciting and satisfying climax.

    1. >>In retrospect (after finishing the book), the reader should be able to see that the climax—and ending—were inevitable, even if the inevitability was not evident while they were reading.<<

      Alan, I totally agree. The Hollywood practice of releasing movies with "a new alternate ending" drives me up the wall. The ending should be the summation of everything that comes before it, not just a "let's try this" decision.

  4. As someone who pretty much writes on instinct, I can’t say I put a lot of thought into ‘setting it up’, per se. Yet somehow one has to get there, so here I am really facing the question for the first time.

    In my first novel, “At Van Eyckmann’s Request” I did take a classic John Dickson Carr approach with hiding the clues in plain sight right at the beginning, built up the narrative alternating the confrontations between the past and present and tossing in a double whammy with two climaxes, the first one really a false climax to fool the reader. Probably didn’t but you have to start somewhere.

    In “The Feast of Saint Anne’s” I took a :Trick R. Treat” approach with setting up four overlapping narratives that required four overlapping climaxes (no idea if it worked) while in “Nightmare From World’s End” & “The Lost World of Kharamu” I simply went for the “everything that can go wrong goes wrong” approach and the protagonists have to slog through it. The latter does have a twist inspired by Blade Runner.

    I guess the trick is to invest a lot into your characters and hope the reader does too – the more emotionally you are involved in a story (and the more things that go wrong) are in direct proportion to how good the climax is perceived: keep that stress level up and most readers will forgive even the most blatant plot holes, which even the most spectacular climaxes in literature and cinema are guilty of.

    At the end of the day it’s a matter I’m constantly trying to improve upon. There’s no correct way to write a story, but I personally go by the Robert Frost dictum “No surprise the writer, no surprise the reader”. So, I find that if an unexpected twist develops in the climax – and if you’ve really done your job as a writer it should suggest itself – then I run with it. There’s a real thrill when something just pops into your head out of left field! You can always go back and fudge the story line to make it work better.

  5. For me, it’s all about the build up.

    In my latest, WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT, the protagonist Dahlia plans to steal evidence from a party – at the same club where she’d been attacked years before. We see the outline of the big night for some time before it happens.

    She buys a spy-camera necklace so her partner can help out if need be. You just know something will go wrong there. The reader sees the party hosts getting her description, so they can “teach her a lesson” if she intrudes. And earlier flashbacks to her attack let the reader know what’s at stake if she loses.

    You can have guns drawn, police charging and punches thrown – but if the scene has not been set up as a final catharsis to the tension ratcheting up before it, the climax will fall flat.

  6. I have an attraction to climaxes that are in big, allegorical places – mountaintops, graveyards, churches – to name just a few I’ve used. It’s the most elevated moment in your story, and I feel the location has to match that grandeur and importance.

    I’m also partial to chase scenes, so I almost always have some kind of weird, wild chase scene leading up to the climax. In SILENT KILLS I used Google Maps to trace the journey from a Steampunk party at Herman Melville’s house in Troy to the famous graveyard where I staged my climax. By the time I finished, I felt I’d “driven” the entire route my protagonist used to follow the killer!

    As for setting it up, I think it has to match the elements of your story – so a graveyard seemed like a perfect place to confront a Steampunk-inspired killer, for example.

  7. Another thing I’ve tried to do at times is set up a climax that plays into my hero’s fears – for example, in EDINBURGH TWILIGHT, my detective Ian Hamilton has a fear of fire and enclosed spaces, as a result of being trapped in a basement during the fire that killed his parents.

    So where does the climax take place? SPOILER ALERT: Yes, in a basement, and of course the bad guy sets some straw on fire . . . what a world, what a world. . . . and your little dog too.

  8. Sorry to be late to the game. I’ve been leading a build team for some volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity. Not exactly and excuse, just trying to show I cared for things other than books. 🙂

    Now, about those big scenes. I’m a plotter, so I’d always set a few big scenes that must happen. They may be the end of a subplot, or mean a twist in the story. Knowing that they will happen allows me to plant little clues, or take the time to make sure when they happen, it’s a natural occurrence of the story and not something completely out of the blues. In other words, the big scenes must be within the flow of the story. (Aliens landing on chapter 21, here’s looking at you).

    I love working on those scenes and really spend time on them, working out every detail, sort of choreographing the fight (not that every major scene must contain a fight), and most important, I set up the outcome.

  9. I always knew you were awesome, Jose, but this confirms it. Wow, I feel like a piker. I’m the one who should be building houses, since my sociopathic brother is actually the first person on record to burn down a Habitat for Humanity home. And people wonder why I am interested in crime.

    I think it’s cool that you broadened the topic to include other big scenes, and not just climaxes.

    I wonder if anyone out there is worried that these other big scenes will detract from the climax? Any thoughts?

  10. It’s very interesting to hear so many approaches to solving this issue. As a visual artist by training I tend to see it it first, but also hear the dialogue in snippets, kind of like eavesdropping. It’s a painters approach: work in the broad strokes first then fix the details later.

    1. Robert, I can really relate to your comment. I mostly see the scenes I write, rolling out in my mind sometimes for weeks before I write and with this I hear the voices of my characters too. Sometimes I do just sit down and write to an objective but more often than not, I see and hear first.

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