The climax is what our stories are all about. We craft our beginnings and middles just so we can reach this final whammy at the end. The bad guy is defeated. The guy gets the girl. Secrets are revealed. Resolutions are made. The conflict is resolved. The story ends.
In order to milk our climaxes for all they’re worth, we first need to understand how to properly structure them. I discuss the structure of the entire novel in much more depth in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. But today let’s take a look at the climax in particular. How can we piece together your climax to make certain it delivers an unforgettable ending to your story?
Before the Climax
In order to craft the perfect climax, we actually have to begin before the climax. The entirety of the Third Act (approximately the final quarter of your story) must be focused on building up to your climax. The Third Act must include:
1. Point of Crisis
The major plot point that begins the Third Act should be a point of crisis in your character’s arc. Something major will happen that will force him to confront his inner demons. This will be a low point for your character.
From there, he must make a decision. Will he cave to the forces that are trying to keep him from reaching his story goal? Or will he reject the lies he has clung to throughout the story and choose to keep fighting?
3. Strengthened Action
The protagonist will need to spend most of the rest of the book, right up until the climax, acting upon the decision he made at the beginning of the Third Act.
4. Renewed Attack
Right before the climax (which will usually begin around the 90% mark), your character will face a renewed attack upon his decision to keep fighting. His new paradigm of faith and determination will be challenged (either by the main antagonist, a minor antagonist, an ally, or even the protagonist’s own doubts).
Although the conflict and action in your story will likely be heating up throughout the Third Act, the climax proper will begin roundabout the 90% mark in your story. This is where the conflict reaches a red-hot point. This is where it gets even more personal for your protagonist. If he spent the majority of the Third Act fighting a big battle, this is where he finally comes face to face with the main antagonist.
Your climax will need to include all of the following elements.
1. Rejection of Lies
Your character will finally and fully reject the lies he has believed throughout the story. He will throw off the opposition that has renewed its attack upon his new paradigm. He will enter the climax itself centered in his belief of who he is and what he must do.
2. Action Based on New Truth
From this moment on, your protagonist will be transformed. He will charge into his final battle ready to act up his new convictions up to the full measure. He is 100% committed. Most of the uncertainty in the climax will center around the ramifications of his new beliefs (e.g., Will they get him killed? Will they prove strong enough to defeat the bad guy?), rather than any inner uncertainty on his part.
3. Defeat of (or by) Antagonist
The climactic moment arrives when the character finally and conclusively destroys (or is destroyed by) the antagonistic force. This is the moment readers have been waiting for. This is where the conflict finally ends—one way or another. In action-heavy stories, the climactic moment will usually manifest as the death or defeat of the main antagonist. In quieter, more introspective stories, it may manifest as something comparatively low-key, such as the reunion of two people, or even just a final epiphany on the protagonist’s part.
After the Climax
You’ll also want to pay close attention to what happens after the climax ends. It’s not enough just to kill off the bad guy. You also have to take the time to show readers how your protagonist reacts to the climax.
1. The Resolution
This is where you’ll tie off any loose ends. Most importantly, this is where you will show readers the results of everything your character has fought for (and probably won) throughout the story. Think of it like the exhale of relief after holding your breath throughout all the exciting bits in the climax. This is the readers’ reward: the chocolate truffle at the end of the nine-course meal.
If you can pull all these elements into a seamless whole, you will have created a climax your readers will remember long after they’ve closed your book.