We all know the drill: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action. This is the formula for basic stories and a successful plot line, proven to be effective and hard to stray from as a writer.
And yet, in attempting a climactic moment, writers often get stuck in the mires of melodrama, falling prey to contrivances and tropes, even the dreaded cliché.
So how can one experiment with getting out of cookie cutter plot construction?
Try using bathos.
What exactly is bathos?
It’s an anti-climax device. (To see it for yourself, I recommend reading some of James Salter’s short fiction in Dusk and Other Stories and Last Night, especially the story Dusk, which was my first encounter with the literary device.)
Here’s how it works. You take your readers with you, through your world, through your character’s lives, through their thoughts, feelings, and desires; you present the conflict, the rising action, the triumphs and failures, all the elements of your story, the people, places, plot; you have all of that seeming ready to coalesce in one moment: your climax.
And then you have that moment not be there.
No climax. Instead you have a place holder that occurs in your novel/short fiction where the climax should be. But what is there now? A let down. A moment of quiet. Stagnancy.
Going out without a bang.
You whip away from your readers all the greater purpose of the story hinted at throughout the writing, all the promise of some greater resolution or conclusion. Readers hang in the air in a moment of suspension, waiting for the great reveal, but instead are sent back down, sent home with nothing to show.
This is not to be mistaken for an easy fix to a not-quite-there story. It’s not the ultimate psychological twist either. Bathos has a tone it carries about—a rather despondent one, at that—which may or may not be the perfect ending to your story.
That expectation of—or even sense of entitlement to—the moment of clarity when the meaning of a story becomes clear, and the rejection of that expectation, are what make the let-down that much more powerful.
To achieve bathos the writer must turn back to the mundane, must leave behind the satisfaction of resolution, must opt to subject their readers to unfinished business, denying the sublime for the trivial.
Ultimately, it must be purposeful that there was no greater meaning all along. No message or greater truth. We build and build only to walk away empty handed.
So why does bathos leave its readers so uneasy? How does it devastate us so entirely?
Maybe, it hits just a little too close to home.
— Georgia Peppe, BFR Editorial Staff