Through various literary devices, the reader is led to believe that something exciting or pivotal to the plot is about to happen. Then, at the exact moment when the story should be at its most exciting, it disappoints. The story might devolve into something trivial or into a plot line that doesn’t make any sense. What should’ve been the climax might end up being boring or even non-existent. The word “anticlimax” can be used in two different ways. First, to refer to the story’s overall plot, and second to describe one of what could be numerous anti-climactic moments in a story. This kind of anticlimax could occur anywhere.
Anticlimax pronunciation: ahn-tee clih-max
Definition of Anticlimax
The anticlimax will only occur in a piece of literature if, for some reason, the climax is disappointing or is not, in some way, what the reader expected it to be. They are unsatisfying and do not resolve the conflict in an interesting way. Anticlimaxes can be used purposefully, but writers have to be aware that they may not come across this way, depending on the reader.
“Anticlimax” comes from the Greek meaning “against” and “climax,” meaning “ladder” or “staircase.” These two parts of the word work together to suggest that the story does not reach the heights it could’ve.
Examples of Anticlimaxes
The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope
In ‘The Rape of the Lock,’ readers can find an example of an anticlimax in the middle of a description. Here, it’s used as a figure of speech. It allows the reader to feel some humor among more serious lines and reconsider how they imagine a character. Consider these lines as an example:
Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign tyrants and of nymphs at home;
Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.
Pope defines “great Anna” as being in charge of “three realms” but also sometimes taking “tea.” This brings a great leader down to the level of the mundane. Suddenly, she feels more like a regular human being. It’s a great example of how anticlimaxes might be used on purpose and in order to create entertaining moments in the text.
Read more Alexander Pope poems.
“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare
In “Much Ado About Nothing,” William Shakespeare provides readers with a good example of an anticlimax. The character, Borachio, who is one of Don John’s followers in the play, is also a drunkard. He decides in the following lines to stop doing anything mischievous and make his true intentions known.
Consider these lines spoken by 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.
This is a kind of anticlimax in that the character makes a sudden shift that might surprise some readers.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Below, readers can find another example of an anticlimax. In this scene, the characters are expecting something terrible to happen. “Somebody was assassinated,” or something equally bad, they think.
In a moment, the whole company was on their feet. That somebody was assassinated by somebody vindicating a difference of opinion was the likeliest occurrence. Everybody looked to see somebody fall, but only saw a man and a woman standing staring at each other; the man with all the outward aspect of a Frenchman and a thorough Republican; the woman, evidently English.”
Suddenly, after reaching the end of this passage, it becomes clear that there’s nothing so exciting or terrible occurring. Instead, it’s just a man and woman standing and staring at one another.
Read Charles Dickens’ poetry.
Anticlimax or Bathos?
These two literary devices are sometimes compared to one another. Bathos is defined as a sudden, jolting change in the tone of a work. This could occur in a poem, play, story, or film. This relates to the anticlimax in that everything is on track and appears to be playing out as one would expect, and then something changes. This jolting change, which takes the reader from excitement to disappointment, is the anticlimax. Again, like anti-climax, it can be used accidentally and on purpose. Consider these lines from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller as an example of bathos:
“Prostitution is bad! Everybody knows that, even him.” He turned with confidence to experienced old man. “Am I right?”
“You’re wrong,” answered the old man. “Prostitution gives her an opportunity to meet people. It provides fresh air and wholesome exercise, and it keeps her out of trouble.”
In these lines, a reader is exposed to a discussion about prostitution. The first speaker, Nately, is engaging an old man on the topic. The old man uses a humorous and traditional Heller-like argument that prostitution is not bad because women can keep “out of trouble” and get “wholesome exercise.” This is a transition in a tone that the reader might not have been expecting.
Anticlimax or Climax?
Unlike anticlimax, the climax is the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story. It is the high point of tension in the plot. It’s usually when the main conflict of the narrative is confronted and solved or not solved by the hero. For example, these lines from the climax scene in which Harry Potter is forced to confront Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear—
He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light, and everything was gone.
This is a far more dramatic climax than most in literature. It could be the hero finally confronting their weaknesses, repairing a relationship, hitting a long-term goal, or anything else that’s critical to the plot. Readers should look forward to a novel or short story’s main climax and will likely be disappointed if it never arrives or is less than what they expected.
An anticlimax can be identified through one’s own reaction to a text. If, while reading, you find yourself disappointed by a writer’s decision, it may be that you’ve encountered an anticlimax. Be sure to figure out whether it was purposeful or not.
You could say: “I didn’t understand that story. It ended with an anticlimax.” Or, “I couldn’t believe he put an anticlimax right in the middle of the play.”
The word climax is used to describe the moment in a story, play, or poem in which the protagonist is forced to contend with whatever they’ve been fighting against the entire story.
To avoid writing an anticlimax, it’s important to pay attention to the arch of your story. If you almost touch on the climax several times and continue to avoid it, you may be accidentally writing anti-climaxes. Make sure that you’re clearly building up to the climax and then going through with it.
They can be bad if they’re written accidentally. Readers don’t want to be tricked into thinking that something is going to happen. The resulting disappointment may result in their setting the story down and not coming back to it.
Related Literary Terms
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Digression: occurs when the writer interrupts the main plotline to contribute additional details.