If you’ve ever hiked a mountain, you probably know what a false summit is: it’s the rise up ahead of you on the trail that looks like the top of the mountain… but isn’t. Unless you are hiking a perfect pyramid or climbing some weird concave face, you can almost can never see the true summit until you’re almost at it. False summits aren’t as bad as you might think. If you’re a novice hiker, panting for breath at 13,500 feet wondering if you can push on for that last little bit, the lure of a tantalizingly close goal, ersatz as it may be, can help you go a little further. Even a seasoned hiker can appreciate the false summit: you know it isn’t the end of the hike but it’s a nice milestone you can focus on, ignoring the effort beyond it.
In the realm of fiction, false summits (or in this case, false climaxes) are a bit more complicated. For the reader, they can be great: you think you’re done: but wait, there’s more! There’s much more that had never occurred to you. And so you read on, flipping pages so fast you almost rip them from the book (or smash a hole in the screen of your e-reader, these days). For the reader, false summits are generally a wonderful thing: the book you have come to enjoy, hopefully come to love, has still more to dazzle you with. Certainly, you can over-do it as a writer but some of the best plot twists could be classified as a false summit.
But false summits don’t stop there when you’re writing. We authors can find them in our on drafts. Here, they are a bit trickier. As with hiking, an ending to your book that proves to be pre-mature but helps you get that much farther in your draft isn’t bad. You may have planned at stopping at point X only to find the story isn’t really done there. However, by focusing on that point, the task of completing your first draft didn’t seem quite so daunting so you wrote that much faster and got finished that much sooner. No harm done. In fact, that’s just an example of one of the many self-delusions we writers use to goad us along (this will be the best fantasy novel ever, honest!).
Sometimes, it is a little harder to recognize the false summit. I wrote the synopsis for my first draft with an ending at a deus ex machina. It wasn’t unintentional; that’s a key part of the book. But as I got into the story I quickly realized that such an ending would be a cheat for the readers. Not the god swooping down from the heavens bit; that’s actually quite germane to the novel and with a lot of work, I was confident I could make that work. No, the real problem was that the book as I wrote it came to be less about this god-fellow and more about the two characters vying for his inheritance. The whole story was about the conflict between the two and I couldn’t end the story with that resolved by some long-sleeping Archon waking and setting things aright. The two had to have it out and so they have– now. Now the deus ex machine, while it still takes some effort to make it feel right for the reader, isn’t the end. I can still try to make it look like the end to the reader but the story continues to a (hopefully) satisfying resolution with the real foe. And now that, the book doesn’t end with a divine (-ish) intervention, it doesn’t have to be so precisely set up.
So, there’s an example of a false summit where, as a writer, I realized that the story needs more. It wasn’t right to end it there.
Fortunately, I saw that very early on but even as I wrote the climatic chapter I encountered another false summit: yesterday I told my wife I had reached the climax, only denouement to write now. Woohoo! But overnight, I realized, that, too, would be a cheat. My story ends with the hero holding back a vicious dragon as his shield buckles under her assault. Then the sorceress he has been helping drops a protective magic screen in front of him, having solved a puzzle set by said earlier-mentioned Archon. As I left it yesterday, the barrier simply appears. But the sorceress is also a POV character and her struggles to solve the last puzzle couldn’t be glossed over. So today, I re-wrote it to switch to her POV before coming back to the hero at the last moment. We’ll see if it works, it is just a first draft but it feels close enough that it’s off to the denouement now. I kind of knew even as I finished up yesterday that I wasn’t really at the end but it was nice little fiction to see me through the day. And, of course, now this really is the best fantasy novel ever written (humor me, I still have the closing chapter to write :))