The full title of Tristram Shandy is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. And it's not the first to give someone's life the royal treatment: Sterne is drawing from a long string of serious English novels that claim to tell the story of someone's life. Check out Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana; Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews and The History of Tom Jones for examples. Lots of these books start with a little story about their protagonists' parents, just the way a biography or autobiography might today. But as always, Tristram is a horse of a different color. He's bringing the story all the way back to his conception, and he can't even tell that properly. We've got philosophical views, a marriage contract, and a whole cast of wacky people that wouldn't fit into Mr. Roger's neighborhood. There's no straight trajectory, and Tristram likes it that way.
Tristram's churning out pages like a factory. He's only born halfway through the book, and he's afraid that he's going to have to keep writing until he dies, and even then his story will never be complete (you know, because he's going to die before he can write the end). You get the sense that Marty McFly's going to show up with his time machine at any second.
Tristram's got a motor mouth that's running a mile a minute. He starts talking about one thing and ends up talking about something else; he interrupts himself to tell a story that he insists absolutely necessary in order to understand the current story; he constantly tries to summarize the plots of movies or tell other people's jokes—at least, the eighteenth-century equivalent of jokes—and, basically, he never shuts up about anything except the story at hand. The real conflict here seems to be between Tristram's desire to tell the story of his life and the fact that he can't do it.
Tristram Shandy is one anti-climax after another. From Mr. Shandy's interrupted ejaculation to the constant penile threats to the basic lack of an ending, the story never reaches a fever pitch. Even when something does seem about to happen—for example, you could maybe say that Tristram's accidental circumcision is something of a climax—the chapter breaks constantly to interrupt the moment.
Not that there's much plot in Tristram Shandy, as we've already said. But what plot there is—the love affair that Tristram keeps insisting he's going to tell us—gets put on hold for an entire book so he can write a twisty-turny travel narrative. Tristram's no Sunset Magazine, that's for sure. He keeps the whole vacay under wraps and makes a point to avoid the major sights. Tristram's cool with frustrating the reader's expectations again—and again—and again.
Bam! Toby gets hit by Cupid in another possible climax for the book. If Toby's trip down the love canal is the climax of the book, his elaborate, military courtship would be the denouement. If you were looking at the book as a whole, you could also say that the whole love story is the denouement, because Tristram has been promising to tell it from almost the beginning of the novel. The affair is first mentioned in Book 1, chapter 32, so finally reaching it does bring the novel a sense of wrapping up.
What do you expect of a novel with no real plot and no main character? The end of the novel wraps back on itself, spending an entire two books narrating something that happened even before Tristram was born. We haven't moved forward in time at all; we've actually moved backward. And we also find out that the whole novel is just a big fat joke—see "What's Up With the Ending?" Anti-climactic…and surprisingly awesome.