There are other ways to end a fantasy book than battle.
1) If you choose a magical ritual or battle, make it lavish.
If the battle is magic alone, then you don’t have that worry about the magic sounding as if it should destroy the hero’s side, too (see previous post). The reader will want to know what is going on, though. When you talk about armies moving across the plains, archers shooting down from battlements, and cavalry charges, you’re talking to readers who have other pictures of those things in their minds and can add in details that you don’t supply. But, unless the magical battle is a carbon copy of a D&D wizard duel, which it shouldn’t be, then the reader won’t have nearly as good an image of this kind of confrontation.
This is where detail helps. Certain kinds of detail, of course. Do not stop an action scene to describe what the evil sorceress is wearing. But do detail the way the magic flows, the toll it takes on the mages, what effect it has on their surroundings, and if it kills anyone. If the author has managed to convince me that the villain deserves his or her comeuppance, I really want to see what happens to them. Louise Cooper, in the last book of her Time Master trilogy, does this extremely well. The end of the backstabbing bitch character was all I could have hoped for.
2) If you have a confrontation between two characters, make sure it’s worth it.
I’ve read far too many confrontations- and not all of them in fantasy books- that convinced me they didn’t deserve the pages the author spent on them. Most authors set up all kinds of issues between these two people, and then promise this last scene will resolve them. In fantasy books, someone is often going to end up dead, too. Then why does the author spend all the time making them spit the same old insults back and forth, rehash all the issues the reader knows about, and never say anything new?
There comes a point at which the characters should face up to what’s going on around them, no matter how shy they are or how many reasons the author has for making them do things like just assume that another character doesn’t love them, without ever actuallyasking. The confrontation is the perfect place for that, because you’ve got reader expectations as well as the buildup of the book on your side. If you chicken out and make the characters continue to dance around the issues, choose some other climax. Honest emotional conversation is nothing to be afraid of. I often think it should happen far earlier in the book than it does, and the author is more fascinated with these characters’ attempts to avoid each other than I am. But I can accept it if the author waits until the climax. I just don’t like waiting and then having the author copping-out with a conversation that could be cut and pasted from any other chapter.
The opposite applies, too…
3) Don’t cheat your confrontation of length or depth because you want a happy ending.
This is the other problem with making characters talk about the same-old, same-old. The author wakes up on page 10 of the confrontation, realizes, “Oh, shit, they haven’t killed each other/said ‘I love you’ yet!” and rushes in a tacked-on, unconvincing, cheap ending. If the villain is hard to defeat all through the story, make him hard to defeat here. If the characters are screaming at each other, a confession of “I love you” shouldn’t be enough to change their minds.
Let the confrontation take the time it needs in the first draft. Then go back and cut out the things that really don’t add anything, are repetitive, and so on. Don’t cut out hurtful truths, digressions that reveal what’s on the characters’ minds, or those things you’re tempted to cut out because otherwise it might seem as if the two wouldn’t have a perfect relationship (or that the triumphant hero wouldn’t be perfectly at peace with himself) at the end. The confrontation should certainly bring out buried aspects of the relationship and end something, but it shouldn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow.
4) The climax can be as simple as a decision the protagonist makes.
Perhaps he’s offered the chance to join the evil guy and lays it aside. Perhaps the heroine discovers her healing gift could restore an enemy of hers to life, and she refuses to do anything but let her die. This has its own kind of understated drama. No one absolutely has to die, even if it is a fantasy, though of course consequences like death might come from the decision.
Of course, do make sure that, in this case, the decision is actually significant. It’s amazing how often fantasy authors try to make the story hang on a decision something else in the plot has invalidated. This is probably because of fantasy’s epic scope and simple author forgetfulness, but still. If you want the heroine to refuse to heal the enemy, don’t make it clear several pages earlier or later that the enemy would have died even if she tried to heal her. This is an attempt to let your heroes have the drama but not the consequences, and is also cheap.
5) Try to give the non-battle climax its own suspense.
For all my ranting about how obvious it is most of the time that the good guys will win in fantasy, the big honking battle climax retains some suspense; I want to see what it will cost, who will die and who will live, and in what condition the living will be. (This is part of the reason I get so angry when the author does something like restore all the dead good guys to life with magic). If you have a climax that is not the big honking battle, you have a much better chance of leaving the reader in breathless suspense, not knowing what would happen. What way will the hero’s decision fall? What will the heroine say to the bad guy when she finally has to confront him?
Unfortunately, all too often the author sucks the suspense right out of this too. I understand the temptation in fantasy to leave loopholes, little forgotten tricks or toys that will help the protagonist out of the tight spot at the end. But the loopholes should not match your climax point by frickin’ point. If the heroine has said on page 20 that she would never, ever accept ultimate power if someone were to offer it to her, then the attentive reader knows what’s going to happen the second the villain offers her ultimate power. Where the author has a terminal case of the stupids and repeats this several times, then even the less attentive readers will pick it up. Much better to hint, to show (rather than tell us) why the heroine wouldn’t accept ultimate power, or, even better and my favorite, to pull out irony that makes sense and have the heroine accept the ultimate power. There aren’t enough fantasies where the heroes get corrupted, damn it.
6) It’s all right to have emotions other than intense hatred or love involved in the climax, too.
That anti-hero who makes crass remarks in times of stress throughout the book should make even more of them when he’s dragged in irons before the Dark Lord, since after all this is the time of ultimate stress. If the book has had an ironic or humorous edge so far, it doesn’t make sense to abandon it here. And, as I have seen happen before, if the characters have been shown as having opposing personalities, opposing viewpoints, opposing everything, it really doesn’t make sense to suddenly banish the petty annoyance and irritation the other character has been causing them and declare that they are now in love. Huh?
Your climax should be a product of everything in your book, and not just the most “terrible” or “romantic” moments.