L1 Commentary: The Anticlimax

In L1. The Expected Visitors Dan, Jay, and Bob visit Sheridan Cliff-Side College to learn about the Virgils—only to find the Virgils waiting for them. As Jango says, there are no coincidences: Virgil Skyy and Blue have come to see Faith, who has visited Jango on three notable occasions. The gang must tell them that Faith died only days ago when she was struck by lightning.

An anticlimax is the opposite of a climax. Instead of an impressive capstone, as in a climax, an anticlimax has a series of events concluded by an unexpected and often disappointing ending. Perhaps a problem which seemed imposing is solved in a trivial manner. (Think War of the Worlds, where the horrible aliens are totally weak against the common cold, you guys.) Maybe an obviously upcoming event is averted, or a mystery has a lackluster twist ending.

Anticlimaxes can pull the rug out from under an audience, so they power some nice jokes. Listen:

A traveling salesman is caught in a storm and must stop at a farmer’s house. The farmer says, “you can stay in the guest room—but so help me God, if you touch my daughter, I’ll string you up and let the hogs eat you!”

So, naturally, during the night, the salesman gets curious and knocks on the door to the daughter’s bedroom. He opens the door to see that she’s in bed with another traveling salesman. The first salesmen shuts the door and says, “gosh, I must be in the wrong joke!”

A traditional set-up, which begins many classic jokes, is suddenly sunk by a fourth-wall break. An anticlimax can make people groan or laugh, or even reconsider the structure of a narrative.

Akayama DanJay is no stranger to anticlimax. Recall Faith’s obliteration at the hands of Anihilato; in the next section, Dan saved her in a staring contest. Then Dan was obliterated, too, but he just woke up as someone else. On one hand, letting my characters off the hook this easily might wreck any sense of conflict or danger in my story. On the other hand, these anticlimaxes present the ineffectiveness of death and even obliteration in the story’s setting while (hopefully) intriguing the reader. It also warns the reader to fear bigger threats, like The Teeth that Shriek.

This week we see another anticlimax: just before they arrive at the college, Jay gets a phone call regarding visitors he did not expect. This primes the reader for a surprise, which I fulfill when Virgil Jango Skyy greets Jay in the hallway. Then Jango further delays the anticipated gratification of learning the meaning behind his arrival by telling the group a story with no obvious importance, and then reminding the reader of Faith’s three visits.

Then all is revealed: Jango is impressed with Faith’s peculiar appearances, and wants to take her as a student. Dan, Jay, and Bob have to tell him Faith died days ago. Jango came all this way for nothing. The moment fizzles.

But why? What does an anticlimax accomplish in this case?

Well, first, I hope it’s a little funny in a macabre sort of way.

Second, storytelling coincidences which help the protagonists are often considered “cheating,” while coincidences which get the protagonists into trouble are fair game. If Jango had appeared just to help Dan and Jay and Bob, it would be flimsy storytelling. Instead Jango appears to look for Faith, and Dan and Jay and Bob have to break the bad news. I hope that this anticlimax gets me off the hook for my “there are no coincidences” style of bringing characters together.

Third, because I get to bring characters together on a dime like this, I get to accelerate the plot and catch the reader by surprise. Next week, Jay interviews Virgil Blue.

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