Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment

Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment

How to Ace Your Book's Climactic MomentYour story will contain many important moments. Actually, we could say with accuracy that every moment in your story is important, since any misstep could conceivably jar the whole line of dominoes out of sync. But the moment in your story is the Climactic Moment. This moment is the reason your story is even being told in the first place. It’s what you’ve been building toward since the Hook in the first chapter. Needless to say, it’s pretty darn important you get it right. Otherwise, all you’ve done is waste your readers’ time with the previous 300+ pages.

Remember how upset everyone and his neighbor was with the climax of Lost? I’ve never even watched the show, and I still couldn’t help but feel the ripples in the Internet as disappointed (nay, outraged) fans howled their frustration when the show’s Climactic Moment bombed.

Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment

A good Climactic Moment must fulfill several requirements, including pertinence, cohesion, and resonance. But it’s important to realize it is never an island. It’s a continuation–a capping–of all that has come before. As such, the Climactic Moment itself is hugely dependent on the story that builds up to it–and particularly its Third Act.

Third Act Timeline

Building Up to the Climactic Moment

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165The Third Act opens around the 75% mark in your story with the Third Plot Point. As I discuss in my book Structuring Your Novel, the Third Plot Point is a dark moment for your character. After the victory his efforts against the antagonistic force have seemed to accomplish at the end of the Second Act, he experiences a reversal. The full force of the conflict, its stakes, and its thematic importance coldcocks him.

It will appear as if things couldn’t possibly get worse–and from an emotional standpoint at any rate, this is definitely true. In many ways, this will be your character’s emotional climax, as he rounds the corner of the Lie he’s been fighting throughout the book and finally comes face to face with the Truth. It’s a hard Truth (otherwise, it wouldn’t have taken him the entire story to recognize), and his need to embrace it will make this plot point all the more difficult–even though it’s for his own good.

Examples

  • In The Ghost and the Darkness, the Third Plot Point occurs when the hunters–Patterson and Remington–have their plan to capture the man-eating lions thwarted, when the lions attack the new hospital for the railway workers and massacre everyone. The surviving workers then flee, leaving Patterson and Remington to face the lions alone.

Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment

After the Third Plot Point: Recovery

After the Third Plot Point–from the 75%-88% marks in the book–will be a period of recovery for your characters. As Remington says in The Ghost and the Darkness,

We have an expression in prize fighting: “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.” Well my friend, you’ve just been hit. The getting up is up to you.

Your character has just been hit. This is the moment that will make or break him. Will he rise again to conquer? Or will he fall deeper and end up in a tragic negative arc? He will spend this eighth of the story reeling, questioning all his choices, questioning his commitment to his story goal, questioning his own self-worth and ability.

If he will rise in a positive arc, he will finally reaffirm his beliefs, wholly embrace the new Truth he has learned, and rise empowered (if still hurting) to do battle. If you intend for him to fall into a negative arc, then the trauma he undergoes at the Third Plot Point will only force him deeper into the darkness as he reaffirms his Lie and rises bent on destruction.

Examples

  • In Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo saves Esmeralda from death and carries her into the cathedral, demanding, “Sanctuary!”
  • In Ghost and the Darkness, Patterson devises a new plan to trap the lions but manages to kill only one of them.

Third Act Turning Point: The Beginning of the Climax

Halfway through the Third Act comes the final turning point of the story. At the 88% mark, this final climactic turning point will launch the story’s Climax. This turning point forces the protagonist and the antagonist to finally face each other in what will be (either literally or metaphorically) a duel to the death. Whatever occurs here will ensure they cannot both walk away from the conflict. One or the other of them will triumph and gain what he wants. The chips are all on the table now.

In most stories, this moment will launch a significant flurry of activity. The conflict will be nonstop from here right up until the Climactic Moment. Even in stories that have utilized conflict throughout will show a significant up in the ante at this point. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down is essentially one long action scene, but we still see an obvious jump in the chaos when the convoy finally arrives to rescue the men trapped in Mogadishu.

Black Hawk Down Climax Running Out John Hartnett

Likewise, stories that don’t feature obvious physical conflict will also offer consistent action of some sort in this period. In Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, the Climax begins when a terrible storm hits the zoo just before its opening day–prompting a flurry of activity as the staff tries to get everything ready.

Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment

Examples

  • In Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Climax begins when the gypsies launch an all-out assault on the cathedral in an attempt to free La Esmeralda.
  • In Ghost and the Darkness, the Climax begins when Patterson awakes to realize the surviving lion has killed Remington in the night.

Prior to the Climactic Moment: Confrontation

The remainder of the Third Act–from the 88% mark to the (roughly) 98% mark–will be all Climax. This section is all about the confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist.

Sometimes (especially in movies with their shorter timelines) we see stories that essentially begin the big battles of their Climaxes with the Third Plot Point. When that happens, the turning point that leads into the Climax proper will always be one that scales the battle down from big armies to mano a mano between the protagonist and the antagonist.

Big battles are great, but most stories will need to circle back around to find their most intimate stakes during the Climax. If you’re dealing with multiple layers of antagonistic forces, you’ll want to deal with and eliminate the least important (and least personal) antagonists first, so you can lead up to the grand finale with the one conflict that is truly the heart of your story. Captain America: The Winter Soldier did a great job with it, as it paired protagonist Steve Rogers off with his former friend Bucky in the final moments of the Climax.

Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment

Examples

  • In Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo defends his cathedral by fighting off the gypsies, but he cannot save La Esmeralda from his master Frollo.
  • In Ghost and the Darkness, Patterson lures the final lion into camp to have it out for good and all.

The Climactic Moment: The Real End of Your Story

And now we’re here! We’ve reached the Climactic Moment. What happens here tells readers what your story is really about. Even though your story will still have some loose ends to tie off in the Resolution, the Climactic Moment is the true end of your story. Whatever happens after this moment is non-essential because after this moment there is no longer any conflict: there is no longer any obstacle between your character and his goals.

Examples

  • In Hunchback of Notre Dame, La Esmeralda is hanged.
  • In Ghost and the Darkness, Patterson kills the second lion.

Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment

How to Identify the Climactic Moment

So how can you spot the Climactic Moment? In most stories, the Climactic Moment is easy to identify. As the moment when the conflict ends, it offers a clear delineation between the flurry of goal-seeking and the peace that comes afterward. When Patterson kills the second lion in Ghost and the Darkness, it is immediately apparent the story is over. The ferocious, blood-lusting lion falls at Patterson’s feet, deathly still. Patterson takes a moment to process the adrenaline, then collapses himself.

In other stories–such as Hunchback of Notre Dame–the activity continues for another scene or two. After La Esmeralda dies, Quasimodo still has to deal with Frollo by hurling him to his death off the cathedral. So how can we know Esmeralda’s death–and not Frollo’s–is the true Climactic Moment of this story?

Always ask yourself: When is the protagonist’s (or the antagonist’s) goal realized? The moment that goal is met, it becomes a physical impossibility for there to be any more obstacles in between the character and his goal.

No obstacles=no conflict. No conflict=no story.

Esmeralda’s death ends the conflict. Frollo gets what he wants in killing her (since he can’t get what he really wants in seducing her), and Quasimodo’s ability to even try to pursue his own goal of keeping her alive is obliterated.

What if You Have More Than One Climactic Moment?

Some stories will seem to have multiple Climactic Moments. This can sometimes happen in an attempt to fool the readers: Whoops! The bad guy’s not dead after all! Or–as in Toy Story and It’s a Wonderful Life–it can be the result of two layers of conflict being resolved separately.

But there can only ever be one true Climactic Moment. Woody and Buzz’s defeat of Sid isn’t the conflict that’s at the heart of the story; their return to Andy is their true goal.

Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment

Same with George Bailey. His desire to “live again” isn’t the goal he’s been chasing throughout the story; the true Climactic Moment is his spiritual union with the town when they save him from his debt in return for all the good he had done them over the years.

After the Climactic Moment: The Resolution

After the Climactic Moment, your story is over. But to type “The End” right after the Climactic Moment is usually going to present too abrupt an ending. You’ll usually have a few loose ends to tie up. Take advantage of this opportunity to enhance the thematic resonance of the Climactic Moment and ease readers out of the excitement and into the final emotion with which you want to leave them.

If you can write an amazing Climactic Moment, it probably means you’ve also been able to write an amazing story to support it. Ace this dot on the end of your story’s exclamation point, and you’ll leave readers with an amazing story that hits all the right notes of cohesion and resonance.

Tell me your opinion: How is your story’s climactic moment the cessation of your story’s conflict?

 

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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. thomas h cullen says:

    You could call them “the big three”: climactic sentence no. 1, pertaining to Croyan and to Krenok, about an established order’s Representatives’ hilarious and ingenious use of its own system against itself.. Climactic sentence no. 2, pertaining to Stegna, and the final intent that Croyan has for it.. And climactic sentence no. 3, pertaining to Mariel, and to Croyan, and their future reunion (mirroring their past).

    I’m a completed human being! For a long time I’ve made it my solemn vow, to die picturing Croyan and Mariel..

    I haven’t succeeded, in getting The Representative’s feet off the ground (but then, perhaps there was never a ground in the first place to be set off of): nevertheless, however many more days, or weeks, or months or years that I have left, I can know that all the time I have left to be spent can be experienced “knowing” that The Representative’s the ultimate greatness.

    Our species’ story with status is what ranks right at the top.. And it’s more than a life’s achievement to know that it’s this story I’ve been able to bring to a satisfying end.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true that the Climactic Moment can often be layered. The bigger the story (in the sense of its scope), the bigger it’s ultimate moment will often need to be.

  2. Katie–
    In my new, soon-to-be-released suspense novel, the climax is what you call multi-layered. Or: It ain’t over ’till it’s over. The antagonist has been dropped for the count, except he will still be able to cause great damage to others. Learning how this shakes out is what I hope will keep readers in a state of suspense, after the more direct and obvious climax has been reached.

  3. Another excellent post. Thank you! I’m outlining another novel, and have been anxiously awaiting your third act timeline. This novel’s climactic moment occurs when the protagonist realizes he’s been poisoned by the antagonist (his wife). I’m getting very excited to sit down and get writing!

  4. Love this. I’m also a big fan of visuals so the opening image was a great companion piece.

  5. One thing I keep in mind when it comes to climax, I learned from Brian McDonald (Invisible Ink) and Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer). To keep things simple, yet emotionally gnawing, they suggest that climax is the point wherein the MC’s tragic flaw is ultimately tested.

    In Jaws, for example, all throughout the film we see Chief Brody being afraid of the water. Naturally, the climax puts him in the water with the shark, and it becomes a question of if he will be able to conquer his fear. It becomes the deciding point which determines whether the protagonist deserves a reward at the end of the story for being able to overcome his tragic flaw.

    This, for me at least, seems like a very helpful point when writing climax, because the term never seemed clear to me beforehand, until I heard them explain it in this way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If your character is undergoing a positive change arc (http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/write-character-arcs/), then he will pretty much have come to terms with his tragic flaw (or, as I call it, his Lie) by the Climactic Moment. As you say, the Climactic Moment *will* be the final test of how well he’s overcome that Lie. But it’s important to realize that pretty much all his growth will need to have happened prior to this.

  6. James Curts says:

    Katie,
    Each of your postings is a treasure in providing writing advice.
    I follow the 3 act formula and the beats pretty much of yourself and Larry Brooks.
    However, this “Third Plot Point” is a new twist to me.
    What would one change to incorporated it into the Brooks style of structure?
    Thanks
    Jim

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think Larry refers to the “Third Plot Point” as the “Second Plot Point.” I consider the Midpoint at the turn of the Second Act to be a plot point just as major as the turnings at the end of the First and Second Acts, so I classify it as the “Second Plot Point.”

  7. spacechampion says:

    I stumbled over the wikipedia definition of Drama Theory, which is not at all about fiction, but a form of game theory. It had some really interesting things to say about the 6 types of dilemmas that occur in a Moment of Truth.

    Quoted below:

    The dilemmas that character A may face with respect to another character B at a moment of truth are as follows.

    A’s cooperation dilemma: B doesn’t believe A would carry out its actual or putative promise to implement B’s position.
    A’s trust dilemma: A doesn’t believe B would carry out its actual or putative promise to implement A’s position.
    A’s persuasion (also known as Deterrence) dilemma: B certainly prefers the threatened future to A’s position.
    A’s rejection (also known as Inducement) dilemma: A may prefer B’s position to the threatened future.
    A’s threat dilemma: B doesn’t believe A would carry out its threat not to implement B’s position.
    A’s positioning dilemma: A prefers B’s position to its own, but rejects it (usually because it considers it unrealistic).

  8. This is my first book and I’ve done things a little differently – not sure if it will work, but it was my editor’s suggestion. There is a climax where the protagonist wins out over the antagonist, but all the way through the storyline, there has been a second antagonist. Think Patterson walking away from the dead lion and as he disappears around the corner (or onto a plane in my story) another lion comes out of the jungle and starts following him. The fat lady isn’t going to be doing any singing until the second book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When you’re writing a series, things can often get more complicated in the Climax, since the overarching antagonistic force will need to continue–or at least be hinted at–from book to book. So your book’s Climactic Moment may be the defeat of a comparatively minor antagonist, while the series’ conflict continues with the survival of a larger antagonist.

      • Susi Franco says:

        Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhh…….I think I see now. It’s been suggested to me that I have an opportunity to craft Lilly’s trials/tribulations/triumphs into a series if I leave the door open.
        (— and if the stress of worrying about this book doesn’t kill me first) 🙂

        If I have this right, she can overcome a series of minor obstacles but would still have a looming major obstacle/conflict, yes ?

        I’ve read several series where the authors sort of seamlessly lead the reader from obstacle to obstacle with their MC’s, and always done so deftly as to not be self-conscious or overdone. I can see where that’d be super tricky to pull off. It’s kinda like knowing exactly how much chili powder to add to the chili: too little and you have only pedestrian beans and meat; too much and you’ve embittered the palate. At least that’s how I THINK it is.

        I am so grateful for your posts, Miz Katie….this process is laborious to put it mildly. Your books & posts are a salve for my writer’s woes. 🙂 I’m going to print and keep the graphic you posted to use as a blueprint, along with all your others on my desk. When I finish this book I will be obliged to include you in the “thank you’s” in the foreword.

        Wondering if this much angst about writing is normal ? 🙂

        “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
        – William Faulkner

        In my usual state of awe of you—
        Susi Franco

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yeah, I’d say angst is plenty normal. You’re in good company with all the rest of us! 😀 BTW, I love how you sow in the cooking metaphors into even your blog comments!

  9. Thank you for your posts. I’m new to this writing business and I learn more depth with every post I read. You provide a great service.

  10. Carlos Faurby says:

    I was wondering, if I do this totally like you say it, wouldn’t it seem cliche to a point? I mean, if every good story does this, then I imagine that it must feel like a cliche to do it in my novel. But you know, some things can never be cliche, and some things can easily become one. Therefore I would like to know how accurately I should follow this model

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Proper story structure is inherent to all good stories. Take a look at the Story Structure Database for examples of how practically any story you can think of adheres to the same structural model. Story structure doesn’t have to be formulaic at all. Think of it as the box that holds the gift. What’s inside each box will wildly vary.

  11. A climax is where excitement is really felt by readers. Having a good climax would really excite all the readers.

  12. My MC defeats the antagonist without knowing it, then learns that the originally-planned method for defeating the antagonist is unrealistic, then gives up on the idea of defeating the antagonist and comes to terms with the idea of just going home (and finds inner peace), then — on the way home — discovers that the antagonst has been defeated, then takes pity on the antagonist and saves his life. Not sure where the climax is but it seems to work.

    P.S. Then the antagonist saves the MC’s life.

Trackbacks

  1. […] you have concerns about other elements of writing, K. M. Weiland discusses how to ace the climactic moment in your novel, Jody Hedlund explains how plot is like a 3 strand braid, editor Rachel Starr Thomson explores […]

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