The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 10: The Climax

And, now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for! The climax is the pièce de résistance of our gourmet meal of a novel. When we wheel out the climax and lift the serving dish’s gleaming silver lid, this is the bit that gets all the “oohs” and “aahs.” The climax of a story should have readers on the edges of their seats. They should be breathless, tense, and curious to the point of bursting. If we’ve done our jobs right, they should have a general idea of what’s coming (thanks to our artful foreshadowing), but they should also be suffering under the exquisite torture of more than a shade or two of doubt. What’s gonna happen? Is the hero going to survive? Will he save the world/his family/the battle/his life in time?

The climax is where we pull out our big guns. This is a scene that needs to wow readers, so dig deep for your most extraordinary and imaginative ideas. Instead of a fistfight, why not a fistfight on top of a moving train? Instead of a declaration of love, why not a declaration in the middle of a presidential inauguration? This does not, of course, mean we should push our stories into the realm of the unrealistic or melodramatic, but how far and where we push is completely dependent on the story and its genre. The point is to bring the story and its primary conflict to its expected moment of irreversible resolution in a way that fulfills our book’s every promise to our readers.

What is the climax?

In a sense, the entire third act is the climax. From the plot point at the end of the second act onward, the action will be rising. The character has been backed into the wall and has no choice but to fight back. However, the climax proper is the climax within the climactic third act. It’s the moment when the two speeding trains finally collide into a single unforgettable scene.

In The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, the climax is reached when the protagonist Cazaril and the antagonist Martou dy Jironal finally clash in the duel that kills dy Jironal and breaks the curse upon the royal family. In Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, the climactic moment comes when insurance investigator Vicki Anderson, waiting with the police, watches Crown’s Rolls Royce arrive to pick up the stolen bank money, only to discover that Crown has left the country and sent a decoy in his place. In A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the climax revolves around Sara’s returning Mr. Carrisford’s monkey and subsequently revealing herself to be the long sought-after daughter of Carrisford’s dead business partner.

In some stories, the climax will involve a drawn-out physical battle. In others, the climax can be nothing more than a simple admission that changes everything for the protagonist. Almost always, it is a moment of revelation for the main character. Depending on the needs of the story, the protagonist will come to a life-changing epiphany directly before, during, or directly after the climax. He will then act definitively upon that revelation, capping the change in his character arc and ending the primary conflict, either physically or spiritually.

Where does the climax belong?

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryThe climax occurs very near to the end of the third act. More often than not, it will be the penultimate scene, just before the denouement (as it is in all of the examples above). Since the climax says everything there is to be said, with the exception of a little emotional mopping up, there’s no need for the story to continue long after its completion.

Occasionally, stories will include a faux climax, in which the protagonist thinks he’s ended the conflict, only to realize he hasn’t addressed the true antagonistic force standing in between him and his goal. For example, in John Lasseter’s Toy Story, Woody and Buzz defeat the evil neighbor kid Sid in a faux climax, only to realize they may still miss the moving van that will take them to Andy’s new home. Faux climaxes do nothing to change the requirements of the actual climax.

Lessons from film and literature

How do our chosen books and movies knock their climaxes out of the park? There’s a reason all four of these stories are popular and memorable, and a large part of that reason comes down to their stellar fulfillment of all the necessities of a good climax. Let’s take a look!

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): As in most romantic stories, the climax of this classic novel is the moment in which the two leads finally come together, admit their love for each other, and resolve upon a long-term relationship. After Darcy’s gallantry in patching up Lydia’s elopement with Wickham and his efforts to reunite Bingley and Jane, he and Lizzy are at last alone on a walk, during which they’re able to put straight their former misconceptions, repent of their misconduct to one another (a personal turning point for each of them), and properly affiance themselves.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): In the moment after George’s “gift” of seeing the world without himself in it, he runs back to the bridge and fervently prays, “I want to live again!” This moment is both his personal revelation and a bit of a faux climax. It properly caps the unborn sequence (which follows a mini plot and structure of its own) and leads to the true climax in which the town rallies to help George make up the lost $8,000 before he can be arrested.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): After Ender and his team graduated from Battle School, they entered a new series of what they all believed to be further tactical games, intended to train them for the day when they would finally face the Formics. Pushed to the limit of his physical and emotional endurance, Ender triggers the climax when he reaches the personal decision to break what he perceives as the rules. He looses his frustrated aggression on the “game” and completely destroys the enemy. Then comes the revelation that he wasn’t playing a game at all, but rather commanding the faraway troops who were fighting the Formics in real time.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): The final climactic battle between the Surprise and the Acheron takes up a lengthy section of the third act, but even lengthy climax sequences must rise to a single red-hot point. In this instance, the climax of the climax is the moment in which Jack enters the surgery to find the captain, his long-pursued enemy, dead. He takes the captain’s sword from the surgeon and begins organizing the mopping up.

Takeaway value

Each climax is unique since each one must bear out the needs and reflect the tone of its story. As we can see from just our few examples, the possibilities for the climactic moment are vast and go far beyond the simple “good guy kills bad guy” trope. However, they all have a few important factors in common:

1. The climax occurs very near the end of the book, usually only a scene or two away from the last page.

2. The climax is usually a part of a larger sequence of scenes that builds up to the important climactic moment.

3. The climax ends the primary conflict with the antagonistic force in a decisive way (whether the protagonist wins or loses).

4. The climax is the fulcrum around which turns the character arc. This moment is either the direct result of the protagonist’s personal revelation or is the trigger that creates the character’s epiphany. Many of the most powerful climaxes are those that create a one-two punch by coupling the revelation with the action that ends the conflict: First, the character has his revelation, then he immediately acts upon it.

5. Your story may have to two climaxes, in which a faux climax leads up to the climax proper, depending on how many layers of conflict you’ve created. Give yourself permission to cut loose with your climax. Have fun with it and think outside the box. But make sure you’ve checked off all the important elements of structure, so you can give readers an experience that will forever cement your story in their memories.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about the Resolution.

Tell me your opinion: Does your climax fulfill all your promises to your readers?

Related Posts: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 2: The Hook

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: The First Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 4: The First Plot Point

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 5: The Inciting Event and the Key Event

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 6: The First Half of the Second Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 7: The Midpoint

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 8: The Second Half of the Second Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 9: The Third Act

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This has been a really great series. Thanks so much.

  2. Thanks for reading!

  3. I agree with Natalie, it has been a very informative and useful series, thanks KM.

    I have one question about the climax – in the post you remark that most climaxes come just a scene or two before the last page. In the kind of novels I tend to read, this is another rule that is frequently broken, as there is usually a much longer delay between the story climax and the last page of the book, one notable example being The Lord of the Rings, which has a lengthy section based in the Shire after the ring is destroyed. Obviously Tolkein was never one for brevity in the first place, but I’m curious what kind of penalty you feel there might be for letting the ending drag on too long after the real climax.

  4. Classics – including Tolkien – were written in another era and followed different rules. Back then, lengthy epilogues detailing the future lives of the characters were common. Nowadays, not so much. Even still, this isn’t a rule so much as a guideline, and every author needs to examine the needs of his own story. I’ll be addressing in the responsibilities of the resolution in more depth next week, but for now suffice it that the resolution should be just as long as it *needs* to be, but shorter is almost always better.

  5. This is just what I need to work on right at this moment. Baffling away at the ending of a novel… I even put it aside and finished smaller novellas first. Now I can go back to it and pull out the big guns myself. Thanks so much!

  6. The only part of the book that gets rewritten more than the beginning is the ending. Even when we know where we’re going and even when we’ve set up the previous acts with our finale in mind, there are always some extra challenges in getting all the pieces to fit. Fortunately, it’s also one of the most fun parts of the novel to write!

  7. Hi K.M. I’m late to this party but I’ll be back to read all. I have trouble writing the climax, fulfilling all my promises to the readers in this defining scene. Thanks for your tips.

    Denise

  8. Excellent. Thanks for the insight! I’m adding this to my book map. 🙂

  9. @Denise: Climaxes can seem overwhelming at first (or second) glance just because we have so much stuff to fit into such a short amount of time. But a little finagling, planning, an rewriting can assure we get it all just right.

    @Lauren: Hooray for book maps! 🙂

  10. I wrote my climax before reading this article… and I *think* it was good. 😀 I gave it the critical-18yo-brother test. He liked it. 😀

    Thanks for this post! I’m curious about the next one as I think my ‘resolution’ might be just a tad too long… but hey, it has a proposal in it! 😀

    By the way, do you ever (in your spare time) read your blog followers’ completed novels? 🙂

  11. Great advice!! I’m struggling with the climax for my latest wip. I need to come up with a better one. The one I had previously was too convenient and could’ve been solved from day one, so need to change that. I like this series, it has taught me a LOT.

  12. @Julia: Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time to edit others’ work. I recently discontinued my “first chapter” critique service, since even that was draining too much time from my site and my own writing. However, I can point you to some good editors, if you’d like.

    @Traci: Oh, the joys of the climax! They’re both exhilarating and very, very frustrating.

  13. Sure, I understand. 😀 I wasn’t actually asking if you’d edit my novel, just read it and give me either a thumbs up or a thumbs down. 😀 No problem!

    Yes, actually, I would love a list of some good editors to consider. 🙂 Would you rather email them to me? I’m the Julia that just emailed you about purchasing ‘Outlining Your Novel’, you could send it to that address. 🙂

    Thank you! 🙂

  14. Just sent the email. Hopefully, it went to the right Julia. 😉 Let me know if you don’t receive it.

  15. Got it! Thank you very much! (Sorry for the confusion, I just didn’t want to share my address here where ‘God and everybody’ could see it.) 😀

  16. No problem!

  17. Thanks so much for this great post!

    After reading it, I have completely changed my mind about the sequence of my story! I will definitely move forward the moment where my characters get back togheter.

    Awaiting the next one!

    xoxo

    M.

  18. Assembling all the characters for the climax is one of the most exciting parts of the story. It’s also one that can demand a lot of forethought, depending on how large your cast is, since it can be tricky to create a scene that allows all the key players to take part.

  19. I think some stories need more stuff happening after the climax. The reason is that, whatever the protag thinks of the importance of his need or goal, sometimes the only proof of whether it was really important or not is how things change afterward. So part of the story is to show changes happening as a result of the protag’s triumph. Especially if he was struggling against the unbelief or contempt of other characters, we need to see that what he was fighting for (and we fought alongside him for) was actually worth it and not just a visceral self-indulgent “I got what I wanted” win.

    So, yes, sometimes the stuff at the end is just emotional mopping up, but sometimes it’s a genuine and needed justification of all that has come before and therefore an integral part of the story. Perhaps it depends on whether the justice of the protag’s cause could be properly demonstrated in the earlier acts, or whether he must face doubt and uncertainty.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      You’re spot on. The resolution is, in essence, the protagonist’s reaction to the climax. It’s where we prove how he’s changed over the course of the story. And, you’re right, sometimes that does take more than a few chapters. But, generally speaking, we’re always better off erring on the side of fewer scenes rather than more.

  20. Lillian Woodall says:

    Before the, uh, Resolution of my scouring this series, I can’t walk away without expressing my thanks and enthusiasm for these wonderful posts. I’ve spent an entire afternoon scrolling through, post by post – and not only do I have several pages of general notes but a wealth of those IDEAS one (well, I, anyway) spends half one’s editing time waiting for. I now know exactly the weak point of my novel’s structure (amusingly, the part that never convinced me), but also how to fix it (that I couldn’t pinpoint).
    If that made no sense whatsoever I apologise – nevertheless I am very appreciative of your experience and veritable mine of insight, and indeed that you share it simply, comprehensibly and with the perfect level of detail.

    As regards Pride and Prejudice, I always see the scene where Lady Catherine de Bourgh confronts Lizzy over her alleged engagement to Darcy as intrinsic to the climax. A ‘one-two punch’, as you say, where the revelation that there’s reason to believe Darcy still loves her is equally as crucial as the famous stroll.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series! The interesting thing about the Climactic Moment is that it’s often almost a “downer” after the revelations and battles that precede it. The Moment itself is usually in no doubt by the time readers get to it, so the tension has decreased considerably. P&P is a great example of this. All the tension explodes in Elizabeth’s scene with Lady Catherine. By the time, we get to Darcy’s proposal, we’re all dead sure what her answer is going to be.

      • Lillian Woodall says:

        It’s fascinating to hear/see you say that – but crafting that ‘downer’ so as to satisfy the reader (or, I suppose, inspire a downbeat mood without unduly frustrating the reader), that’s the trick. The balance and judgement involved in writing never ceases to intrigue me.
        Thanks again 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          In most stories (albeit not P&P), the “downer” moment comes right on the heels of the tension-exploder, so there usually isn’t any lag to allow readers to grow restless.

  21. Ben Johnson says:

    What an excellent and informative article. You’ve really helped me break out of a third act problem I’ve been facing. I’ve struggled to understand the connection placement of the self-revelation and the climatic action. But this article has given me the key to be able to finish my feature screenplay so thank you, I will definitely be back for more.

  22. So, I’m another grateful novice who’s learned so much from your series, so thank you. It’s well organized & answers virtually every question. The book is even simpler & I love the hypertext table of contents, as this caters to my haphazard thinking.
    One problem I’m having though is the climactic scene outline. There is no disaster & should there be a sequel? Anyway, I appreciate your work here & wish you well. Cheers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good observation, and you’re totally right: the climactic scene ends with a positive outcome (unless it’s a tragedy, of course). There is no need of a disaster to keep the plot moving forward, since the conflict now comes to a close with the protagonist finally gaining his goal.

      The Resolution is, in essence, the Climax’s sequel. It focuses on the protagonist’s reaction to the Climactic victory and poses a new dilemma based on the question: “What will he do now?” Usually, the story will end with his having come to a decision about his new life goal, which will continue on after the story has ended.

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