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Meaning and Examples of Anticlimax
Surprising your readers can make your narrative more appealing. And anticlimax can help you insert an element of surprise in your writing, making your story more fascinating or creating humor in your prose or essay. In this article, we analyze the meaning and effects of an anticlimax with examples from notable works of fiction.
What is anticlimax?
An anticlimax is an unexpected conclusion. Here, the payoff doesn't meet the expectation the set-up has stoked. In a narrative, it may be a precursor to a tense event to put readers at ease and create an element of surprise. For example, a character hears a strange sound coming from the closet, then they open it, and a rat runs out. A few seconds later, a grim ghost appears from behind. Sometimes, the narrative doesn't progress immediately with a tense event or action. Anticlimax can simply occur to ease tension and help the plot advance. A plot can also have an anticlimactic end where the hero dies or fails to accomplish their objective.
Anticlimax can also occur in prose that doesn't involve storytelling. It can be a rhetorical device that shifts the tone from important to trivial. Here, a statement that starts with a very intense subject ends with something flimsy or irrelevant. Consider this statement:
"The elites in society are attending this event. I'm talking bankers, senior advocates, senators, chief justices, governors, and then there's Johnson — a waiter."
Here, we see the passage begin with elite professions and end unexpectedly with an occupation that clearly doesn't belong on the list. Ending with the unexpected is the hallmark of an anticlimax, whether it occurs in an expression or in a narrative.
Examples of anticlimax in literature
Here are some examples of anticlimax in notable works of fiction:
1. William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing (1600).
"BORACHIO: Sweet prince, let me go no farther to mine answer: do you hear me, and let this count kill me. I have deceived even your very eyes: what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light: who in the night overheard me confessing to this man how Don John your brother incensed me to slander the Lady Hero, how you were brought into the orchard and saw me court Margaret in Hero’s garments, how you disgraced her, when you should marry her: my villany they have upon record; which I had rather seal with my death than repeat over to my shame. The lady is dead upon mine and my master’s false accusation; and, briefly, I desire nothing but the reward of a villain."
In this comedy, the villain suddenly bemoans his villainy and desist from his contribution to the conflict. This anticlimactic ending achieves the desired effect, considering the play's title, “Much Ado About Nothing,” foreshadowing that the characters are upset and worried about trivial matters.
2. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008).
"I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glisten in the sun. I give Peeta’s hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a goodbye, and we begin counting. “One.” Maybe I’m wrong. “Two.” Maybe they don’t care if we both die. “Three!” It’s too late to change my mind. I lift my hand to my mouth, taking one last look at the world. The berries have just passed my lips when the trumpets begin to blare."
Here, the narrative ends on a cliffhanger, which is also anticlimactic. Katniss and Peeta are about to end their lives and defeat the success of the hunger games before the governing party intervenes. The story closes in an unexpected way that leaves the fate of the heroes in uncertainty and lures readers to move on to the second book.
3. Sue Townsend, The Prostrate Years (2010).
"I can't die yet. I've got responsibilities and a family and I have to look after my parents, they're completely irresponsible and couldn't survive without my help. And there are so many places I haven't visited: the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, the new John Lewis department store they're building in Leicester."
This passage is an example of anticlimax in a statement. Here, the character gives noble reasons for not wanting to die yet, and ends with a trivial reason — "the new John Lewis department store they're building in Leicester." This is also an instance where anticlimax creates a humorous effect.
Sue Townsend, The Prostrate Years, Penguin, 2010
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, Scholastic Co, 2008
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen