I recently read Linsday Buroker’s Death Before Dragons novella The Forbidden Ground. I’ve found her other books to be a lot of fun—banter, action, fast-paced, exciting—and this one was no exception. But what struck me was the increase in tension in the climax.
This scene takes place after the antagonist falls through a hole in the ground, discovering an underground lair. She’s joined by a dragon (in human form), but he’s caught in beams coming from four mysterious orbs. Buroker has already established the relationship between the antagonist and the dragon (not a romance, but there are hints that it could become one), so it’s obvious that our hero wants to free him.
The beams are weakening the dragon, so the antagonist must act fast. Already, we have tension—a life-or-death situation and a limited time in which to act.
She attacks the first of the orbs, using her magical sword. It’s hard-going, but she manages to destroy it. The beam from the orb disappears—but the dragon is still held by the other three beams, and is now on his knees, clearly in pain. There’s no option but to attack the second orb. She does this, destroying it. The dragon is still held, growing even weaker.
Buroker could have had the antagonist destroy the final two orbs just as the dragon is about to breathe his last. That would have been satisfactory, if a little underwhelming. Instead, she adds another element to the tension.
Up to this point, the antagonist has been in no direct danger—she’s not the one slowly dying. If she fails to free the dragon, she still gets to live. But now, things become personal.
She strays too close to one of the remaining beams, and immediately feels the urge to turn her sword on the dragon. The beam—or the magical force behind it—is telling her to kill the dragon in his weakened state, and it’s taking everything she’s got to fight the compulsion.
The stakes have changed. This is no longer about life and death, but about something far stronger. If she can’t resist this urge to kill her friend, she’ll have to live with the knowledge of what she’s done for the rest of her days. She’s facing a ‘fate worse than death’, or a ‘damnation’.
This shift makes the climax far more exciting—and far more effective—but it took setting up. Throughout the short book, Buroker ensured that the reader understood the relationship between these two characters. As readers, we went into this climax knowing that, as annoying as he could be, the dragon has previously saved the antagonist’s life. They have a bond. As dismissive of ‘lesser beings’ as the dragon is, we get the impression he’d miss the antagonist if she were not around—and she’d definitely miss him if he were to go.
This increase in tension emphasises something that is at the heart of most (all?) good books, and is something that Buroker excels at—relationships are more important than plot. Without some kind of meaning for the characters, action in a story is nothing more than ‘stuff that happens’. For it to become a plot, for it to become a story we remember, we (the readers) must be engaged. We must care what happens to the characters.
This is especially true of the climax. In The Forbidden Ground, Buroker gives us physical danger and physical action, but ups the tension by making the whole battle personal. She makes things more exciting by engaging the emotions of both the characters and the reader.
It’s a solid story-tellling rule—the final climax of a story should be personal to have the most impact