Stay True to Your Protagonist in Your Story’s Climax

In the posts on my blog, we’ve spent the last couple months talking about story structure, and one of those posts was devoted entirely to the Climax. However, in writing that post, there was one potential pitfall of the Climax I didn’t touch upon.

One of my favorite sword-and-sandals epics from the 1950s is Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments. The movie is full of color and spectacle and, even more importantly, character development. It spends the first three-quarters of the story presenting a plausible and compelling version of the personal character arc of Moses. But when it reaches the Third Act, something happens, and it’s something not so good.

The Third Act of The Ten Commandments has long been my least favorite part of the movie. From the time Moses sees the burning bush and returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and free the Israelites, the movie just doesn’t have the same pizzazz. And as I watched it through recently, I realized why.

After the wonderful attention to character in the first two acts, the Third Act does an abrupt about-face and practically abandons its character in exchange for what might be termed the “bigger story” of the Exodus itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The Exodus is a big story that deserves a big telling. But in my opinion the movie would have been stronger had it maintained its close focus on character.

No matter how big your story, setting, or spectacle, character is the heart of your story. The climax should be big, but no matter how big the events surrounding the protagonist, they should never overshadow the bigness of his own personal crises and transformation. Be wary of becoming too enamored of and distracted by the grand possibilities of the Climax. Just make sure you’ve taken care of your main character, and everything else will fall into place.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Is your character central to your story’s Climax? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Interesting observation. Now that I think back, I can see why the ending of TTC was not as appealing as what came before it to me as well.
    I can safely say my character remained central during the climax in my most recent manuscript. After reading this, I’m not sure I’d label it a conscious execution or a happy accident. But I’ll be paying more attention to the character in my next manuscript with this in mind!
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Is it possible to go too far the other direction? Sometimes I wonder if in trying to play up the characters, my plot climax becomes a shattering diminuendo. But yes, the characters are directly in the thick of the climax ^_^

  3. I certainly hope my MC is central to the climax. He goes from a regular guy running for his life, to shooting a weapon at a human being for the first time in his life, to killing in self-defense, to accidently killing his true love, to committing premeditated murder partly as revenge, partly because he thinks doing so will stop even more killings by a ruthless man.

    All in the space of 36 hours.

    He has “won”, but his life is now a mess.

  4. @Dawn: I would bet it was as much a conscious decision as anything. Most of us instinctively understand the necessity of focusing on character. It’s usually the stories with epic battles or the like that tend to get away from us. However, a more subtle pitfall is the problem we face with a large cast. If we have too many characters to take care of during the climax, we can end up watering down the effect just the same.

    @Daniel: It’s always about balance! But you’re almost always going to be safer playing to character. No matter what your genre, the trick is to make sure the climax fulfills any expectations you’ve given the reader. If you’ve indicated a big battle is coming, a big battle had better come. But not all stories need “huge” climaxes, in the sense of spectacle. Some are all about a single quiet moment of realization.

    @ChiTrader: Wow, now there’s an interesting situation – definitely not one you’d see every day. Let me know when you hit the NYT bestseller list. I’ll certainly be interested in reading it! 😀

  5. Yes. I’d better make certain of this. Thanks!

  6. Happy checking! 🙂

  7. Wow, I’ve never thought of that. Good point. To some degree, a writer has already set some groundwork, BUT not totally abandon the character development during the final action/climax scenes. I will have to run my own stories through this sieve!!

  8. The groundwork on character (and any other part of the plot) must necessarily be in place by the time we reach the third act. The focus here should be on the final catalyst and transformation in the character’s arc. Whatever spectacle exists must do so to create that catalytic environment.

  9. Have you seen the Prince of Egypt? I like that version better than the Ten Commandments, even though it is a cartoon. Steve Martin and Martin Short play in it.
    Good post! I’ll remind myself of this as I write it.

  10. Something in me likes The Ten Commandments better, despite its problems, but Prince of Egypt is really the solider of the two if we’re talking strictly storytelling. It sticks with the character all the way through, and one of my favorite scenes in one in the climax in which Moses breaks down and weeps over the destruction that’s fallen upon the kingdom and the people he grew up with.

  11. Love the lesson here. Will definitely keep in mind as I work on my wip.

  12. This post provides yet another important detail that’s well worth highlighting. A story of my own is leaving me conflicted about whether or not I have fallen into the same trap – in the climax, the central character is killed, leaving things to carry on for a short while without him. I think it works because his death is the logical conclusion of the spiral of self-destruction he has been caught up in, and the surviving core cast were essentially in every scene with him, so we are not suddenly following extras around. It does concern me, however, that readers may feel that without the central character there’s little point turning the page, even with the fate of the others still not entirely determined. Is it a bad idea to let the central character die before the certain other things are resolved?

  13. @Traci: Have fun! The climax is always one of the most enjoyable parts to think up and put together.

    @John: What you’ve described here immediately made me think of Brandon Sanderon’s Mistborn, in which the primary character unexpectedly dies toward the end. Sanderson makes it work primarily because he had already set up other prominent characters to step into the MC’s shoes. He used multiple POVs throughout the book, so the reader could be shifted to a second POV without it being unfamiliar territory, after the MC died.

  14. I will have this in mind, because on my WIP on the third act the Queen (my main character) gets dethroned.

    Thanks you!

    Hugs!

    M. M. Ballasch

  15. As long as your focus is still *on* the Queen, versus whoever dethroned her, that actually has the potential to deliver big things on both the character and the plot level.

  16. I´ll try and do that 😀 Thank you! Because actually, there is so much at stake for her!

    Hugs,

  17. Anonymous says

    This is why sometimes the denoument needs to be longer than a paragraph.(sarcasm) Or why internal dialogue drops off during high impact plot in order to keep the fast pace. Pace- it all comes down to pacing. Love your blog.

  18. Definitely. Pacing is something some inexperienced writers struggle with, simply because it’s a difficult thing to teach. It’s really one of those things we each have to internalize (by reading as many great books as we can get our hands on) and feel our way through.

  19. Tristan Poje says

    And right there you have the reason why the Marvel movies are so good. The gigantic stories are backdrops for the heroes’ personal challenges. As opposed to the DC movies, where the heroes are swallowed up by CGI effects. (Wonder Woman notwithstanding…)

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