In character arcs, as in plot, the Climax is the dot on the end of the exclamation point. The Climax is the reason for the story. This is where the author reveals what the journey the character just endured was really all about—and, in a positive change arc, why that journey has turned out to be worth all the heartaches and trauma.
Most important to our discussion, the Climax is where your character proves that he really is a changed person. Your readers have witnessed his evolution. They’ve seen him get shaken up when he was kicked out of his Normal World. They watched his desperate reactions as he tried to regain his footing in the First Half of the Second Act. They saw his revelation at the Midpoint, and his subsequent transition away from his Lie and toward the Truth. They saw him act on the Truth at the Third Plot Point—and pay the price for doing so.
Now, approximately halfway through the Third Act, the conflict has revved to the point where a confrontation must happen between the protagonist and the antagonist. If the protagonist is to have any chance of winning that conflict, he must prove he is able to stick with the Truth for the long haul. If he can’t gather all the lessons he’s learned throughout the story and hang onto them now, when the pressure is greatest, then all will be lost forever.
- The Climax is a scene or series of scenes that forces the protagonist to face the main conflict in a decisive confrontation.
- The Climax brings the primary conflict to a resolution in a way that fulfills the book’s every promise, while still surprising readers in pleasant ways, because not every bit of what happens is what they could have predicted.
- The Climax begins near the 90% mark in your story and ends right before the final scene or two.
- The Climax will sometimes be divided into two climaxes (the first of which is known as a “faux climax”), depending on how complex the conflict is and how many antagonists the protagonist must confront.
We closed out our discussion of the Third Act by mentioning the renewed attack upon your character’s new paradigm (i.e., his embrace of the Truth). Although that renewed attack can take place entirely before the Climax (as it does in Jane Eyre when St. John tries to prevent Jane from returning to Thornfield), more often than not, this psychological attack will continue right into the Climax itself. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler explains:
The psychological meaning of such counterattacks is that neuroses, flaws, habits, desires, or addictions we have challenged may retreat for a time, but can rebound in a last-ditch defense or desperate attack before being vanquished forever.
Timing the Final Rejection of the Lie Your Character Believes
Rejecting the Lie in the Climax
Depending on the nature of your story, and particularly how closely the exterior conflict with the antagonist is related to the character’s internal conflict, the character may not throw off this assault until the Climactic Moment itself. The antagonist may batter the protagonist with the Lie, hammering at the newly healed skin that’s formed over this old wound. This is the protagonist’s weak point, and the antagonist knows it.
Placing the renewed attack and the final rejection of the Lie and embrace of the Truth in your Climax allows you to harmonize your exterior and interior conflicts. It also ups the stakes and the tension. Readers sit on the edges of their seats, chewing their nails, because they know full well that if the character can’t complete his arc right now, the antagonist will destroy him.
However, harmonizing the two conflicts also has its downfalls. Because the Climax is such a busy section of your story, you won’t always have the time and space to logically complete your character’s arc at the same time as he’s battling the antagonist. A saber duel to the death isn’t usually conducive to involved existential decisions.
Rejecting the Lie Before the Climax
Depending on your story’s pacing, you may decide your best choice is to have your character face and defeat his Lie for this final time before he charges into the Climax. At this moment, your character will reject the last remnants of doubt about the Lie and step forward to claim the Truth. He is, at last, completely centered—and, as a result, completely empowered to face the antagonist. He is transformed.
The Climax begins as the character acts upon his new Truth, finally and fully. By this point, the character should be finished with all lengthy internal pondering. The uncertainty that remains now is more about the ramifications of his new Truth (will it let him defeat the antagonist? or will it get him killed in the process?) than his own inner choices.
Whatever you decide, keep in mind Jordan McCollum’s advice in Character Arcs:
One of the biggest things to watch out for with this type of ending is making sure that the character learns her lesson very close to this climax. If these events occur too far apart, the causal link between learning the lesson and the ultimate success at the climax is weakened. If it’s possible to make the final choice in learning the lesson coincide with the climax instead, that helps to prevent the timing problem.
The Climactic Moment
The Climactic Moment is the climax within the Climax. It’s the single moment that resolves the story’s overall conflict. In identifying your Climactic Moment, look for (or create) the one scene readers have been waiting for from the beginning of the story. The bad guy dies. The hero proposes. The girl gets the job she’s been after.
The conflict ends because the protagonist has finally conclusively destroyed the antagonistic force. The obstacle between him and his plot goal disappears. This does not, however, mean that the character necessarily gets the Thing He Wants. Positive change arc stories are primarily about the character finding the Thing He Needs.
As such, by the time he reaches his plot goal, the goal itself may have completely transformed, so that he no longer desires the Thing He Wants. (In Clarence Brown’s National Velvet, Mi Taylor has gained self-respect and no longer wants to steal from the Browns or trade off his father’s name.)
Or he may still desire the Thing He Wants, but he rejects it, knowing he can’t possess both it and the Thing He Needs. (In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Peter Parker rejects the opportunity for a relationship with Mary Jane, because he knows it’s the only way to protect her.)
Or his reasons for wanting it may have changed, giving him mixed feelings about his victory. (In Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid, Russ Duritz finally gets rid of his younger self, only to find that he misses him.)
Or he may gain the Thing He Wants, but only because he is now focusing on the Thing He Needs. (In Jane Austen’s Emma, Emma gets to marry Mr. Knightley, but only because she’s overcome her selfishness and conceit.)
How Does the Climax Manifest in Character Arcs?
Your character’s arc in the Climax could manifest as:
- A renewed attack in which Thor’s brother taunts him, briefly, back into his aggressive mindset. Thor then finally proves his devotion to his new Truth by destroying the Bifrost and (seemingly) any chance he has of returning to his new love, in order to protect the other realms. The Climactic Moment arrives when Loki (seems to) kill himself, thereby removing himself as the obstacle between Thor and his goal of peace. (Thor)
- Jane fully rejects St. John’s renewed attack upon her Truth when she hears Rochester calling her and drops everything to return to him at Thornfield. She proves her new mindset in her determination not to marry him—only to be happily surprised when circumstances, including her own transformed self, allow her to be with him after all. The Climactic Moment arrives when she tells Rochester she has returned to him. (Jane Eyre)
- Dr. Grant battles the raptors at the risk of his own life in order to save the children (not exactly a renewed attack, but it fulfills basically the same function in this action-heavy, character-lite story). The Climactic Moment arrives when the T-Rex crashes into the lobby and destroys the raptors. (Jurassic Park)
- Walter holds fast under the physical attack by his mother’s abusive boyfriend and refuses to believe his beloved uncles are thieves. He actively claims as Truth their stories of youthful adventure and proves he is willing to be tortured for it. The Climactic Moment arrives later when he confronts his mother and insists she allow him to stay with his uncles. (Secondhand Lions)
- The other toys scoff at the idea that Woody has changed his tune about Buzz, even after he jumps into the moving van and tries to use RC to save Buzz. The Climactic Moment arrives when he and Buzz land safely in Andy’s car. (Toy Story)
- Archie, Troy, and the Chief’s superior officers threaten to court-martial them and return the Shiite refugees to Saddam’s soldiers. The Climactic Moment arrives when, in order to allow everyone to survive, they decide to barter their gold in a deal to get the Shiites across the border to safety. (Three Kings)
- The renewed attack comes mostly from within Matt himself. He can’t bear the thought of leaving his mates to fight by themselves when he knows they’re likely to die. He returns, with his sister and nephew, in an attempt to help them, only to realize the best thing he can do for them is protect his family. The Climactic Moment arrives when his brother-in-law sacrifices his life in order to help them escape. (Green Street Hooligans)
- The renewed attack comes from Leo, who straps Bob to cases of dynamite, calling it “Death Therapy.” After a moment of fear, Bob finally embraces the therapy and is “cured.” The Climactic Moment arrives when Bob ends his own ability to torment Leo by accidentally blowing up the lake house and sending Leo into a catatonic state. (What About Bob?)
Further Examples of the Climax in Character Arcs
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Scrooge’s transformation is basically complete before he exits Christmas Future and enters the Climax. He swears to the Ghost of Christmas Future that he will be a changed man if only he is given the chance to live again. Once back in his bedchamber, in the present day, he immediately sets about proving his change, by doing good for everyone he snubbed in the First Act. The Climactic Moment arrives when he decisively demonstrates his devotion to his new Truth of charity and goodwill by donating gifts and food to the Cratchits and giving Mr. Cratchit an extravagant raise.
Cars directed by John Lasseter: Lightning embraces his friends and their importance in his life when he joyfully accepts their help as his new pit crew. He races with renewed purpose, making up lost ground. But even though his attitude toward the townsfolk from Radiator Springs is demonstrably different from how he treated them in the beginning, he still hasn’t actually done anything to prove his devotion to the new Truth. He gets his chance when Chick Hicks acts selfishly (just as Lightning would have at the beginning of the movie) and wrecks the respected old racecar The King. Lightning, just about to win the race, sees what’s happened and realizes helping The King is more important than winning the race. In a lovely Climactic Moment, he slams on the brakes, just before the finish line, allowing Chick to win. He then circles back to help The King finish his race.
Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Arc in the Climax
1. How does your character prove he is a changed person in the Climax?
2. Does the renewed attack upon his new Truth happen before the Climax or during the Climax? What are the pacing challenges of either choice?
3. How does the character’s final embrace of the Truth enable his victory in the exterior conflict?
4. Does he fully embrace the Thing He Needs in the Climax?
5. How does he use the Thing He Needs to defeat the antagonist?
6. Does he gain the Thing He Wants?
7. How has his view of the Thing He Wants changed? Does he still want it?
The beginning of your story asked a question: Will the character overcome his Lie to gain the Thing He Needs? In a positive change arc, the Climax answers that question with a resounding yes. More than that, it provides visual and dramatic proof of how the character has been changed by the Truth.
Congratulations! Your character has just completed his arc. He leaves your story a better person than he entered it, and readers can be sure that, whatever trials he may face in the future, he is now better equipped to face them. All that remains now is the (very important) emotional mopping up of the Resolution.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll be talking about your character’s arc in the Resolution.
Previous Posts in This Series:
Part 1: Can You Structure Character?
Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes
Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost
Part 5: The Characteristic Moment
Part 6: The Normal World
Part 7: The First Act
Part 8: The First Plot Point
Part 9: The First Half of the Second Act
Part 10: The Midpoint
Part 11: The Second Half of the Second Act
Part 12: The Third Plot Point
Part 13: The Third Act
Tell me your opinion: How does the Thing Your Character Needs (the Truth) allow him to triumph in the Climax?
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).