Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.47: NaNoWriMo Week 4 – Climaxes, or OH MY GOD NO

It’s week four of NaNoWriMo! Or, National Novel Writing Month, which happens every year for the month of November. This week, we are talking about how to write climaxes, how to write resolutions, and what exactly the three-quarter mark is. 

How do you write a climax scene? How to keep your tension going while also finding some resolution. How do you keep track of what you promised your reader at the start of your book? Our hosts dive into these topics and share examples from their own published writing. We talk about how to write emotional resolutions before a novel’s climax. 

We also learn how Dan taught Mary Robinette to use the 7 point plot structure, and how you can use it while you’re writing your novel (or short story or general writing project). 


Read through what you wrote during your last session. You can make minor edits, but you can’t edit anything. Use brackets to make notes about things you want to plant earlier. But don’t make any of these changes! You’re just using this as a launching pad for yourself and your book. 

Thing of the Week: 

A pep talk from DongWon

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Join Our Writing Community! 






Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Making the turn from opening to closing. Beware the three-quarters mark! Switching modes, from opening questions, introducing new problems, etc. to solving problems and wrapping things up. Treat yourself with candy bar scenes! Switch from yes-but to yes-and. Keep track of the questions and promises from the beginning. Use the MICE Quotient! What’s the impossible choice the character faces here? Concentric circles of nested problems! Write yourself notes. Leave notes in square brackets. Ask your writing group what you forgot. Ask yourself what new goals your character has.

[Season 18, Episode 47]

[DongWon] Hello, writers. Whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo, editing your newest project, or just desperately trying to keep up with your TBR pile, it’s hard to find the time to plan and cook healthy and nutritious meals to keep you energized on these jam-packed days. So, I’m here to tell you about Factor, America’s number one ready to eat meal delivery service. They can help you fuel up fast for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with chef prepared, dietitian-approved, ready to eat meals delivered straight to your door. You’ll save time, eat well, and stay on track with one less excuse to keep you from writing. This November, get Factor and enjoy eating well without the hassle. Simply choose your meals and enjoy fresh, flavor-packed deliveries right to your door. Ready in just 2 minutes, no prep and no mess. Head to and use code WX50 to get 50% off. That’s code WX50 at to get 50% off.

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 18, Episode 47]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] NaNoWriMo Week 4. The three-quarter mark. Making the turn from opening to closing.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Erin] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] And I’m Dan.

[Erin] Today, we’re going to talk about, as we move from the opening part, the gallop away of writing through NaNoWriMo, to the end. Which is near. But my question for you all is what is the difference between the way that you write when you’re starting something in the way that you write when you’re ending something? Because we’re going to be transitioning between these two. What are we transitioning between?

[Mary Robinette] So, this is a thing that it took me forever to figure out. Why I always bogged down at the three-quarter mark. I think it’s because you’re switching modes. So, for me, what I find is at the beginning, I am opening questions, I’m throwing out possibilities, I’m making things worse. I’m introducing new problems. At the end, I have to start solving problems and wrapping things up. It’s like the difference between when you arrive on vacation and you’ve got a bag and you just open it and you pull your stuff out, and then when it’s time to go home and you have to somehow get everything back into the suitcase. It never goes back into the suitcase the way you think it’s going to. But also, you don’t want to. Because you just want to keep pulling things out. So, for me, it’s the difference between asking questions, in a general sense, and answering them.

[Erin] That makes sense, but it almost sounds like it’s the anticipation of that ending part. So, like, it’s not the last… You’re not throwing the things in the suitcase yet, but you’re figuring out what you’re going to wear the day before the last day, and you’re like, “Oh, gosh. There’s stuff all over this hotel room.”


[Erin] All over this cruise cabin, and at some point, I’m going to have to do it. It can almost make you not enjoy the thing that you’re doing right now, as you’re like thinking ahead to what’s coming.

[Dan] One of my favorite stories about writing is an interview Neil Gaiman gave when he was writing… I think it was Coraline, it might have been The Graveyard Book… He said that he hit this point in the book where he just hated everything, the book was not working, the characters didn’t work, the story was terrible. He called his agent and he said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can write this. It’s awful.” She laughed and said, “Oh, you’re at the three-quarter’s mark aren’t you?”


[Dan] “You call me every single time and give me the same thing. Keep going, you’ll be fine.” A lot of it is just our tendency to get inside of our own heads and to think I’m almost to the end of the tight rope. Of course, I’m going to fall off these last few feet. No you’re not. You’re doing great. We have to… Like Mary Robinette said, start answering questions instead of asking them. Asking questions is so easy because we can ask anything we want. That’s a problem for future Dan…


[Dan] But then…

[DongWon] Now you’re future Dan.

[Dan] Now I’m future Dan, and some jerk asked a bunch of questions. I have to find not only answers, but good answers that make sense and pull all the threads together that I’ve been carefully laying out and make them into this beautiful, beautiful perfect ending. It can be incredibly overwhelming even if it isn’t actually difficult. It’s just it looks like it’s going to be so hard.

[DongWon] I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that exact same phone call…


[DongWon] Where I told my writers, “It’s okay. You’re most of the way through a book. You’re two thirds, you’re three quarters. It just feels not great sometimes when you’re there.” I do think it’s really interesting to hear from your perspective why that is, that making this turn from rising action, where you get to be introducing things, and now you start having to answer the questions that you’ve asked. Right? So, I guess my question for you guys is how do you start answering those? Right? Like, how do you start bringing people moving away from each other and having to have them re-intersect, having your villains and your heroes, your antagonists, romantic interests, whatever it is, start actually reaching the point that they’re on their collision paths and start colliding?

[Erin] I think that’s a great question. But, actually even before that, just to kill this metaphor of the vacation, is that there’s something nice about like you’ve got the outfit that you feel really great in for that particular day, and it’s that you want to find something that you can treat yourself with in this part of the book. Like, there’s something at the three quarters mark that you get to do, which is that the big huge explosions, whatever those are, whether they’re literal explosions or emotional explosions, like those get to happen at this moment. There’s a person that I know calls them candy bar scenes. The scenes that you’re sort of waiting for that are rewarding yourself. So, if you think, yes, I do have to bring everything back together, but also, this is the part where I get to open and eat this candy, it’s a way to keep yourself excited while you answer that question of how you’re going to pull everything back together.

[Mary Robinette] I think that’s a great idea. I’ve talked before about how there’s scenes that I’ve been waiting to get to. Like, just eager to write. One of the tricks that I use is that I shift the way that I’m handling try-fail cycles. So, up to about this point, I’ve been doing the yes, they succeed, but something goes wrong. So if you think about yes as a progress towards a goal, and no as progress away from a goal. Reversals. But you think about and as a continuation of motion, and but as a reversal. So, I switch from going yes-but to yes-and. So I start giving my characters bonus actions. Like, we’re trying to break into this safe. Does it work? Yes. And there’s also this other piece of secret information in the safe that we weren’t expecting to find. So I’ll give them bonus actions. With the no, it’s like are we able… If, instead I’d been like, are we able to get into the safe? No. But in the process of doing that, we accidentally set off the alarms, which is now preventing the cops from getting to us. So we have extra time. So, like that, giving them that tiny bonus action, I start sprinkling those in. So when I’m starting to move to the end and I can sort of feel story bloat happening, I will look at it and be like, “Okay. How can you give them success and a little bit of a bonus action?” If  I want to keep the tension going, then I give them no and then a little bit of a bonus action.

[DongWon] I love this idea of candy bar scenes. This plays really well into what you’re saying in terms of switching from one model to the yes-and. Because there should be joy as you’re heading into the climax. There should be emotional resolution. Right? I was thinking about the Spider-Man into the Spiderverse. Right? Where before you get to the big climactic battle, there are all of these like incredibly heartfelt emotional scenes that lead to this… one of the most triumphant scenes I’ve ever seen in cinema, when Miles like finally owns his own power and does an incredible jump off the building. That’s such an iconic shot. It’s like you have these incredible emotional highs in that that come from getting to have… The candy bars of his dad telling him that he loves him and he’s proud of him and all these things. Of him believing in himself. Like, we’ve been going through it with him for so long and so hungry for that, that by the time we get that treat, it’s a whole feast. It’s such a powerful moment. So, I think when you’re thinking about how to go into… We started by talking about why this is also hard. This doesn’t make it easy necessarily, but I love this idea of framing it as a treat for you, the writer, a treat for the character, and a treat for the audience. This is the reward we’ve been hanging out for this entire time.

[Dan] It always helps me to remember that so many writers are also bad at this.


[Dan] Right? We talk so much about movies. How many action movies have you seen that have two acts, an hour and a half, whatever, of brilliant dialogue and funny stuff, and then Act III is just a gunfight or a chase scene and then it ends? Right? Like, most of the Marvel movies are this way. Incredibly interesting questions in Winter Soldier about the… Where’s the line between safety and security? How far can we push this? What are we going to do? What’s the answer to this question? At the end, the movie doesn’t answer that question, it just has a big fight scene. But then, one of the ones where they did it really well was in Endgame. Where, yes, the 3rd act is a giant fight scene, but it is filled with these candy bar scenes, these character moments. That’s when we get on your left, and all the people show up. That’s when we get Avengers Assemble that we’ve been waiting 23 movies for. That’s when we get all these little heroic stand up and cheer moments. So it’s not just a fight scene, it’s more than that.

[Erin] And, at this moment, we’re going to take a break. When we come back, more candy.

[Mary Robinette] NaNoWriMo is just around the corner and it’s time to start planning. If you’re aiming for 1600 words a day, it’s easy to de-prioritize eating, but you need to keep the brain fueled. During Nano, I turn to meal kits. Hello Fresh makes whipping up a home-cooked meal a nice break from writing with quick and easy options, including their 15 minute meals. With everything pre-proportioned and delivered right to your door every week, it takes way less time than it takes to get a delivery. I find that stepping away from the keyboard to cook gives my brain time to rest. I love that with Hello Fresh, I can plan my meals for the month before NaNoWriMo begins, and then, I can save all my decision-making for the stories. With so many in season ingredients, you’ll taste all the freshness of fall in every bite of Hello Fresh’s chef crafted recipes. Produce travels from the farm to your door for peak ripeness you can taste. Go to and use the code 50WX for 50% off plus free shipping. Yeah, that’s right. 50WX. 50 for 50% off and WX for Writing eXcuses. We are terrible with puns. Just visit and try America’s number one meal kit.

[DongWon] Hey, writers. You’re doing a hard and difficult thing. I’m sure at this point it feels like you’ve been doing it forever, and will be doing it forever. That said, I’m not going to tell you it gets better. I’m here to tell you that you can survive this. Doing hard things is hard. That’s okay. Making art should be hard. Especially in the middle of it when you’re past the initial rush of starting and you can’t yet see the finish line. It’s like walking a very long way. When you’re doing something like that, I think a lot about the mile markers. For me, they’re a blessing and a curse. They remind me of how far I’ve come, and how far I have to go. For me, surviving any kind of endurance activity requires focusing on the present moment. Thinking about the next step that’s in front of me and putting out of my mind how far away the end is. So, sometimes I try to ignore the mile markers. To refuse to acknowledge how long I’ve been walking and how long I will be walking. But the problem with that is it means I forget to have joy in the process. I forget the mile marker means I’ve accomplished something great, I walked another mile. I took another step. If the answer is to be truly present in the moment, that also means honoring what it means to have made it this far. So, I’m asking you now to stay in the moment. I want you to celebrate today’s word count. Don’t focus on the total. Focus on the accomplishment. Focus on what you’ve done. I know it’s hard. I know it’s long. But you’ve come this far, and I’m so proud of you for doing so. You’ve got this. Keep taking that next step. Keep putting the next word down and keep going. I’ll see you at the end.

[Erin] All right. So we are back from our break. I actually want us to answer… Sort of answer a little more the question, DongWon, that you asked earlier before we got distracted. Which was how do you actually start bringing things back in. So you’re treating yourself, but you can’t treat yourself so much that you forget the story that you’re telling. I think one way, actually, is to be more explicit about the questions that you’re asking. Because I think what happens in those action movies, Dan, that you were talking about is that sometimes the story gets so excited by the treats that it forgets the questions that it’s set up in the first half and actually doesn’t think to answer them because there’s so much like, “Oh, I’ve gotta do this,” or, “I’ve gotta get to the ending.” But you forget that you left out the questions about safety and security, or these bigger thematic issues. So, I’m curious, how do you keep track of like the promises that you made at the beginning and sort of how to make sure that you’re keeping track of them as you move towards the end?

[Mary Robinette] I mean, this is why I lean on the M.I.C.E. Quotient so much. Because it… Usually, there’s a fairly clear question-y kind of thing at the beginning and… So, like… I often describe this area of the book is one of the places where the character has to face an impossible choice between their goal and a failure state, or between which goal they’re willing to sacrifice in order to obtain the other. So, like, if they’re afraid of heights, they’re absolutely going to have to go out on a ledge right now. So, I will often look back at what I have at the front of the book. Part of my mechanical process, which is harder doing Nano, but I will often pause at the three quarters point and read through what I’ve already written. Then keep going with the pieces I’m excited about, knowing that some of the stuff I’ve written I’m going to discard because it’s less exciting to me. So it’s less candy. But, for me, those are some things. The other thing, for me, mechanically, is something that Dan taught me, which is the 7 point plot structure. This is the point where I’m going to look at Dan meaningfully…

[Dan] Oh.


[Dan] I was excited for you to just talk about how smart I am for a while.

[Mary Robinette] so, yeah, the 7 point plot structure is specifically… There’s the point where, right around in here, the hero finally has all of the tools that they need in order to solve the problem. So, recognizing… It’s like, “Oh. This is something that I can do on purpose. I can look for what does my main character need? What are the problems? What is the goal and the failure state?” They’re going to have to make that impossible choice. Then, like, what tools… we’re coming up on that impossible choice. What tools do I need to have in their hand so that when they get to that choice, they can make it?

[Dan] Yeah. I love to think of these choices specifically as like kind of concentric circles of nested problems. The example that leaps to mind is The Nice Guys. That’s probably my favorite detective movie ever. So we start with this kind of outside problem. Here’s a weird mystery, we need to solve it. Then, we introduce, here’s this detective who’s an absolute mess and his daughter doesn’t respect him. Then we introduce here’s this other detective who the daughter thinks is probably a bad guy. Then we’re going to resolve those in opposite order. In the final fight scene, we get Mr.… Is it Haley or Holly, whatever his name is… If you kill that man, I will never speak to you again. Of course, at this point in the movie, that means something coming from this 12-year-old girl. We love her. She’s the best character in the story. So he leaves the person alive, and we get… We’ve tied off that inner circle. He has proved himself a good person to this girl. Then we tie off the next one. Ryan Ghosling succeeds, he saves the day, he doesn’t screw up for the first time in his life, and his daughter smiles at him. Okay. We’ve got that respect. Then, at the very end, we tie off the whole thing, we’ve solved the mystery, we know what’s going on. So if you think about it in those terms, of there’s not just one conflict, there’s several, you can nest them like that and then solve them in reverse order. That gives your ending a lot of structure that you might not have known was already there.

[DongWon] This really ties into one of the things we were talking about last week when we were discussing raising the stakes, which is introducing multiple threads of stakes. Right? This gives you the opportunity to build to your… Keep increasing the tension and ratcheting things up, even though you’re closing things off, because if you do have those nested stakes, if you do have that multiple thread, your heroes can defeat a mini bot, have an emotional resolution. The big conflict is still coming, the last sort of act of this is still playing out, but you have these beats to give you those candy scenes, to give you those points of resolution. The more you have those little things closing off, that is a signal to your audience that, okay, we are in the denoue… Not denouement, but we’re making the turn here. Right? We’re in the three quarters mark, we’re moving towards the big climax here. So giving people those little signals can be a great way to build tension as well.

[Erin] This can be difficult, definitely, all of this during Nano because you’re just… You’re moving at a pace. You’re going really quickly. But one thing that I like doing during a Nano project is actually writing myself notes about what threads might be or what the concentric circles might be as I’m going. So, like, at the end of the day, I might write, like, one note of, like, the coolest thing that I randomly wrote that day. Like, I’ll be like, “He [garbled smashed?] the spider.”

[Laughter garbled comments]

[Erin] Maybe that doesn’t come up again because I forget about it but then when I get to that three quarters mark, I can’t do the thing Mary Robinette was talking about, where you read the whole book, but I can read back a page of very slightly incoherent notes, and be like, “Oh, yes, that is a spider…”


[Erin] “This is a chance for me to like make that kind of come back.”

[DongWon] Erin, I’m not sure about this Spider-Man reboot. I know it’s like any other one, but this one might be a little tough for me.

[Dan] I’m hoping this is part of the “the house is full of bees” universe.


[Erin] It is.

[Mary Robinette] That’s why it’s so traumatic for him. I do a very similar thing during Nano because, as you say, I do not have time to read through the whole thing at this point. But I… All through the process, I am leaving notes for myself in square brackets. So I will, at this point, just look for any note that I have left for myself to see, like, what great idea I had earlier that I’d totally forgotten about by the time I get to this. Because you’ve probably left something to yourself, a note someplace. It doesn’t make any sense. That’s okay. You can still, like, try to fold it in here.

[Erin] Yeah. Even if you haven’t left a note to yourself, a lot of times people work collaboratively during Nano so if you have any friends that you’re working with in your writing group, you can ask them, “Is there something I was mentioning like 2 weeks ago maybe…”


[Erin] “That you haven’t heard me say anything about recently?” They’ll be like, “Yes. There was a spider dead.” You’re like, “Yes. The time is now.”

[DongWon] That’s what it was.

[Erin] Spider dead and the bees.


[Dan] That’s one of the reasons I find writing group so useful, is because if there’s something you forgotten about, they haven’t. Because you have asked this intriguing question and they really want to know the answer to it. They’ll be like, “Why haven’t we ever gotten back to his dad being a spider?” Like, “Oh! Yes! Don’t worry, I have some really cool plans.”

[DongWon] Again, all of the things we’re talking about our big structural tools. Right? These are stuff that will be as useful to you in editing and in drafting when maybe you are trying to hit this insane deadline every week of getting certain words out. But, hopefully, all of this is at least giving you some framework and some ways to think about, “Okay. How am I approaching this week of work?” Right? Now that we’re in week 4, how am I thinking about the words I’m going to get down on the page?

[Mary Robinette] One of the other things that you can do, particularly as a Nano thing and if you’re discovery writing, remember way back when we were talking about objective and super objective, one of the things that will happen to the character is that their goals will shift as they change. So you can look at it now and say what new goal does my character have based on their new understanding of who they are. Because… Like, it still needs to be tied to that super objective and to those initial opening questions, but, like, what is their new solution? That will often help you get towards the final final climactic battle because the new solution is an easier thing to solve. Or their new… Like, oh, this is what I can do. Their new goal is an easier thing to solve then whatever thing they have been continually failing at.

[DongWon] Right.

[Erin] This sounds like a great point to get some homework.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, this is a trick that I picked up from Dan. Which is, read through what you wrote the session before. Not the day, not everything, but just the session. So if you wrote for 10 minutes, that’s all you get to reread. You can make minor edits if you’re adding words. But you can’t cut anything because it’s Nano and every word counts. Use brackets to make notes to yourself about stuff you want to go back and plant earlier, things that you are going to need for your character to solve what’s coming up, but you don’t have to actually go back and do that right now. You’re just going to use this as a launching pad to move on.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] Do you have a book or a short story that you need help with? We’re now offering an interactive tier on Patreon called Office Hours. Once a month, you can join a group of your peers and the hosts of Writing Excuses to ask questions.