Anticlimax is a dirty word, one which we’ve been trained to avoid at all costs. Nobody wants to tell a story only to have a friend shrug and say, “Well, that was anticlimactic.” But a deliberate anticlimax can be instructive, funny, poignant, or all of the above. How does an anticlimax work, and what lessons can we take from some of the most iconic anticlimaxes in pop culture?
What is an Anticlimax
Let’s define anticlimax
Before we start discussing the best ways to use an anticlimax, it’s probably a good idea to know exactly what the technique is. Because it’s so often maligned, the term has a negative connotation attached to it that has grown out of an impartial anticlimax definition.
So, let’s correct the record.
What is an anticlimax?
An anticlimax is a rhetorical device that functions as an abrupt let-down or tonal shift at the end of a narrative build up. The term can best be described through examples. Think of a romance novel, where two characters have a will-they-won’t-they relationship building throughout the story. At the end of the novel, when the two characters are on top of a ferris wheel gazing over their hometown, they don’t kiss and, instead, go home and never confess their love for each other. That’s an anticlimax.
Take a look at this one minute example which helps define anticlimax:
As an audience, we’re expecting something big and dramatic to happen when the protagonist presses the button. The feeling of disappointment or dissatisfaction we experience is indicative of an anticlimax.
Both the romance novel and this video are examples of when an anticlimax can be frustrating and something to avoid. After reading that novel, you’d think to yourself, Why did I spend all that time reading this piece of garbage?
Let’s look at when an anticlimax can work for a story, rather than against it.
Why use an anticlimax?
“I don’t want to use an anticlimax,” you say. “I don’t want people to call my art a piece of garbage.”
A comedic anticlimax is probably the most common form of the technique. Take, for example, the joke every single English-speaking human being knows:
“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“To get to the other side.”
The set up is our narrative build up — we’re preparing ourselves for a top-notch, witty retort. Instead, we get a simple, logical answer. Our expectations have been subverted: let down.
Dramatic anticlimaxes are a bit more nuanced and difficult to pull off. Typically, a dramatic anticlimax is used to emphasize a moral or overarching theme. War movies, or, more specifically, anti-war movies, use the anticlimax technique all the time.
A character will go through hell and back, losing comrades along the way, for a mission which, in the end, is revealed to be futile. The message in such a seemingly meaningless ending? War is meaningless, of course.
While we could concoct hypothetical anticlimax examples all day, it’s probably useful to look at some real-world examples of the device.
What is an Anticlimax?
Anticlimax examples in movies
Some of the most beloved movies of all time deploy anticlimaxes, skirting the disappointment associated with the technique in favor of something far more profound or funny. Let’s take a look at some anticlimax examples.
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)
It shouldn’t be surprising that one of the 20th century’s funniest movies ends with a joke on the audience. And yet, The Holy Grail’s ending still manages to catch viewers off guard.
In Monty Python’s masterpiece, King Arthur’s army is about to charge upon a castle when, all of a sudden, Arthur is arrested by modern police officers.
What is an anticlimax? It’s the feeling you get watching the end of Holy Grail: “Wait… it’s over?”
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
An anticlimax doesn’t need to be at the end of a narrative. There can be an anticlimactic end to a scene, or even to a piece of dialogue. Raiders of the Lost Ark provides us with the former.
Steven Spielberg creates an expert build up, showing us a formidable swordsman who looks like he could beat the daylights out of Indy. But instead of the epic battle we’re expecting, we get a classic Harrison Ford “I don’t got time for this” look and Indy shoots the foe. A classic comedic anticlimax.
ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)
How could Zero Dark Thirty, a film about hunting Osama bin Laden that ends with the death of Osama bin Laden, be anticlimactic? The key is to look at the character arc of the protagonist, Maya, who has dedicated her life to finding bin Laden.
Finally, at the end of the film, she achieves her goal. And yet, she’s not happy. There’s no fanfare or celebration, just her on an empty plane. Director Kathryn Bigelow emphasizes her loneliness with a quietness only interrupted by a matter-of-fact pilot.
Zero Dark Thirty’s anticlimactic ending is in line with the anti-war films that came before it. When all is said and done, what did the War on Terror achieve?
WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)
Okay, so this is an example of an anticlimactic ending which doesn’t work. War of the Worlds, one of Spielberg’s lesser offerings ends on a baffling note.
It’s a film which follows humans at war with aliens, so we’d expect the ending to be, you know, a war with aliens. But instead, the aliens simply die because they can’t handle earth’s bacteria. Huh?
Let War of the Worlds be a warning: anticlimaxes can be good, even great. But they can also leave your audience feeling cheated.
Explore more literary devices
This was just an overview of the various literary devices, broken down into either literary elements or literary techniques. Each of these devices is worthy of exploring further and we have detailed posts on each. Using the navigation below, you can explore many of these literary devices in greater detail. The only question is which one will you start with?