The Only Sure Way to Write an Emotionally Resonant Climax

What makes for an emotionally resonant climax? In other words, what makes for a good climax?

Is it danger? Explosions? A face-off between the protagonist and the antagonist? Near-death experiences?

Eh, all good guesses. But these things are like the seasoning on top a good climax, rather than the meat itself. And seasonings, by themselves, won’t fill your tummy come suppertime.

The meat of an emotionally resonant climax is always going to be the emotion itself. And how do we create this emotion? Putting the character in danger isn’t enough. Even forcing him into a certain-death situation, once he’s entered the climax, isn’t enough.

It isn’t personal enough.

Sure, danger is personal. Death is extremely personal. But for your story’s purposes, it’s the stakes that have got to be personal. A good guy out to fight bad guys and save the world just because, hey, he’s a good guy isn’t personal enough. He has no personal stake in the story. Just personal convictions. And that’s good. But it’s still not enough.

The recent Captain America film presents a great example of how to do it right. Cap is the quintessential good guy. He’d go to bat for what he sees as the right cause and sacrifice his life for it based on nothing more than his own convictions. The First Avenger’s climax was built around that premise. And it worked all right. But how much better is Winter Soldier’s climax, *SPOILER* in which Cap has to battle not just a bad guy out to destroy the world, but his resurrected best friend who doesn’t remember him? *END SPOILER*

Personal enough for you?

Take a look at your story’s climax. Whether your character is fighting bad guys, his parents, or just his own inner demons, rate how personal the stakes are for him. The simplest way to determine this is to ask yourself: How much and why will he suffer if he loses the fight? And for the bonus round question, ask yourself: How much and why will he suffer even if he wins? A complex character will generate interesting and unexpected answers to both questions—and, as a result, a marvelous and emotionally resonant climax.

Tell me your opinion: How have you created an emotionally resonant climax by making sure the final confrontation matters to the character on a deeply personal level?

The Only Sure Way to Write an Emotionally Resonant Climax

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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. Great post, as usual 🙂

    I did love the movie and you are totally right here. And this works with ALL kind of stories, like in Frozen *spoiler* Anna sacrificing her life for the sister she was determined to save from the first plot point, and Elsa realizing she has done the very thing she had settled her life to avoid, harming her little sister again? *end of spoiler*

    Very good advice and I will definitely be having it in mind. Actually, my story revolves around vengeance between siblings. And the salvation forgiveness can bring.

    Hugs,

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Frozen is a great example. Whenever there’s history between the protagonist and the antagonist, the conflict automatically deepens and the stakes automatically rise.

  2. This is a terrific and seriously useful post. And of course, as with so much in writing, the emotional resonance doesn’t come purely in the moment either. For the stakes to be what they are in The Winter Soldier, the connection between Steve Rogers and Bucky needs to be established and prominent from the start of the film. That’s the seed that blossoms into the drama and characterization that make the climax so compelling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Absolutely. The best climaxes are always the natural result of *everything* that’s happened previously in the story – sort of like those nine-tenths of the iceberg Hemingway’s always going on about.

  3. Very good point. Thank you for the reminder. Emotion is important throughout the story, but we often get so tied up in the action of the climax that we shortchange the emotional side. I have to beware of that. My protagonist pursues a man who has 1) threatened harm to her partner; 2) caused her mother to be shot and perhaps killed; and 3) kidnapped her daughter. This provides three levels of emotional response along with suspenseful action. I hope I do the emotions justice.

  4. I think theses two questions are so important: ‘How much and why will he suffer if he loses the fight? How much and why will he suffer even if he wins?’ My protagonist has both inner and outer issues to overcome. A great post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The best choices in fiction are ones that come with penalties on both sides. When a character has to make a choice between good and bad – eh, that’s easy. But when both sides of the choice have consequences, the whole thing gets infinitely more interesting.

  5. I’m in the closing scenes of my current romance WIP. The theme for both of them throughout has been looking for someone who sees them as worthy of being protected. They each want another person to care about them so much they’ll do anything to keep them safe.

    He’s already chosen her, but she’s still a little on the fence. Where I’m at right now is her finally accepting what he’s offering and realizing it’s what she’s been missing. If she shuts him out right now her life remains empty.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The great thing about relationship stories is that the emotional aspect of the climax is always front and center. You rarely have to dig for it like you might in more action-oriented stories.

  6. Marissa John says:

    Great reminder on the ingredients for a stunning climax. In my finished WIP, my hero after having faked his death in a disaster, is faced with an impossible decision on his wedding night (to the heroine) that pretty much is the difference between an interrupted life & certain death. His only clear choice is the self sacrificing action that would save the city but possibly cost him his life again, only this time, for real. The stakes are huge in my gaslamp romantic fantasy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice. This exactly the sort of “no-win” decision I’m talking about. One decision is almost certainly the better decision, but both carry gut-wrenching consequences.

  7. I am too cynical to have things work out. At the end, I have a turning point, or “climax” or denouement. But then I make sure the reader knows that sure isn’t what would happen in “real life”, and we all know it’s not ending here.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always nice when stories feel like they continue on *after* the book. Obviously, we need to tie off the major loose ends. But we don’t want things to be too pat. We want that sense of continuing motion.

  8. Yes, I think it is, even when I can´t see any of them as antagonist, both wanted to protect/help each other, they just didn´t agree on the best way to do so (since Elsa *was* convinced of being a monster who would eventually harm Anna, even when she never meant any harm).

    Same can be said about Gladiator, as another example. The history between Maximus and Commodus made things much more deeper.

    It´s a great thing that you said about both sides of the choice having consequences, I will keep it in mind. And yes, you are so right saying the best climaxes are natural. History always make things better 😉

    • Gladiator is another great example. There’s no love lost between Maximus and Commodus, but the fact that their motives in the conflict go much deeper than simply opposing goals makes the story so much richer.

  9. Funny you mention Winter Soldier. While watching that movie, I thought about how awesome that conflict was. It added such depth to the ending.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It was a marvelously (!) well done film. I managed to see it three times before it left my local theater. The storycraft is spot on all the way through. I was extremely impressed with it.

  10. I like to think that you can’t get much more climactic than a school shooting and that’s what happens in my story. It has been noticed by a high school class I read portions of the book to that the story carries on for another hundred or so pages after the climax. That’s because I delve into the knock on effects of the shooting and how it affects some of the people involved. What I try to get the reader to ask themselves is Does the main character really win?

    • That’s definitely a scenario with the *potential* for serious emotional resonance. But there’s no situation for which the emotional impact is inherent. It’s all in the execution.

      Although, you know, if the characters are dealing with the aftereffects of the shooting, then there’s a chance that the shooting isn’t really the climax, from an emotional standpoint.

      • 80smetalman says:

        You both make a good point and I’m probably giving too much away but for the main character, the shooting is his climax, at least in one sense. Others are left to deal with the emotional fall out and this is done in many different ways. There are some other good examples too here. I like M’s comparison to Gladiator especially.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was just about to say the same thing Harrison did. Sounds like the shooting is probably more accurately your Midpoint, with the Climax really being about the character’s final decision in how to move forward afterwards.

  11. Great post! A lot of climax/showdown scenes just don’t quite do it for me, mainly because the personal/emotional element is not there. My favorite type of climax is the Pyrrhic victory.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Bittersweet’s the way I like ’em too. Nothing wrong with a flatout happy ending from time to time, but those bittersweet ones bring so much more to the table.

  12. Great post! I think (hope!) I’ve nailed it in my first novella which should be out this summer. The novella that follows it, I probably need to enhance a little. Climaxes are always my favorite to write, usually the time I cry the most when writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You know what Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

  13. I’d say the trick is often to keep the character rooted in the story. Not by doing “character centered” or “plot centered” tales, but by remembering that they’re almost the same thing. (Chuck Wendig calls them driver and getaway car.)

    The more the character’s connected to what’s been going on, either inherently (poor Bucky!) or because the story’s been working to tie him closer to it as it builds, the more the climax resonates with the character. And with that false character/plot barrier removed, that makes it resonate with the reader too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I cannot even tell you how much I agree with this. I hate the designations of “plot-driven” and “character-driven.” We can’t have one without the other.

  14. I’m having excellent brain explosions. Thank you!

  15. Glad to see you give credit to Captain America 2, definitely one of the better Marvel films. It also ties pretty well with the character arcs series since you’re entering the climax advice. I’ve noticed before that you’ve referenced the Marvel movies, any favorites or least favorites? If so why? I like both Captain Americas, the original Iron Man (although I only saw it once forever ago), Iron Man 3 although more for Stark’s arc and the action than the plot and The Avengers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m a huge Marvel fan. The only the film I definitively *didn’t* like was The Incredible Hulk (and that was largely, although not entirely, due to my dislike of Edward Norton). Winter Soldier is absolutely the best film of the lot. The previous ones – with the exception of the first Iron Man and Avengers – all had serious issues, but they still worked for me, simply because I enjoyed the characters and the spirit of what they were trying to do. I’m so glad they’ve managed to pull everything together so well in Phase 2. The whole thing is a delightful ride.

  16. I’m not even close to the point of climax yet but I do have it set in my mind. My good guy (actually good girl) is going to lose a lot of emotional ties, ones is extremely close, as well as her job if she doesn’t win.

    I want the reader to cheer when she wins.

  17. thomas cullen says:

    A climax’s power will be made greatly by the technical execution of storytelling:

    To be more specific, having worked hard to round out the character, and the universe they inhabit.

    Not just the protagonist; going to reasonable lengths to flesh out the antagonist as well will help. (This may though not be necessary, depending on the nature of story your telling – such as mine).

    • This definitely true of any story. Any character who has a reason to be in the story deserves to be just as fleshed out as the protagonist.

      • thomas cullen says:

        Thanks for the reply: they’re of particular value to me, as they allow someone to not just advance the conversation to a different stage, but also a person’s mind further exposure.

        Krenok, the antagonist in ‘TR’, isn’t fleshed out like Croyan (not anywhere remotely as much) yet his existence in the text is mandatory…….it’s unique, on so many levels The Representative – it is truly apart from all else.

        What you say is right: theoretically, all characters ought to be fleshed out.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The theory is definitely subject to the amount of time a character has on “screen.” In the author’s mind, every character should be fleshed out, but sometimes all that flesh ends up being mostly subtext, if the character is only present in scenes for a small amount of time.

          • thomas cullen says:

            In response to an article, much earlier this year on ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, on its glossing over the victims of the scam artists, I pointed out, that what I had in fact done with The Representative was the same, just opposite:

            Glossing over the antagonist – but still using them when necessary.

            In the end, it became just about desire….I didn’t want to indulge Krenok, but just acknowledge him whenever technically necessary for the sake of the Croyan’s situation.

            The universal I think is the core essence; what’s the core essence of the piece? What’s it’s emotional truth?

  18. Garrett says:

    And it makes sense why both Tony and Steve have a lot at stake in their last fight (especially Tony) in Civil War! Of course, they’re both doing very different things to these characters, but it’s interesting to see a fight with interesting subtext happening in-between.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! This is yet another reason I appreciate these two Russo movies so much: the conflicts are so *personal.* Steve and Bucky; Steve and Tony. The conflict isn’t about some impersonal mega-bad guy. It’s about character development.

  19. Hello! I am a newbie to this whole wordplaying thing; thank you so much for this blog and your books on writing. They are the crutches that I lean on while limping through my first “dadgummit-I-am-going-to-finish-this” story, and thanks to them I am loving the process (or, on some occasions, hating it a little less than I otherwise would :p).
    So, the problem:
    like the person in an earlier comment, I am sorely tempted to continue my story well after what I know (so far) is THE most personal moment of conflict… the climax, the point of the whole story, the main event that’s most of the reason for why the story exists. Although I don’t think my “extension” is nearly as long “100 pages”, it is still substantial enough to make me want to set this moment closer to the 75% mark of the story instead of 90%.
    Why do I have this problem?
    Because it is a ‘practice run’ (and I know it will never be published anyway) this story is technically (gasp, I hate to say it….) fanfiction, based on the Silmarillion. As a result, when the main conflict of *my* character is over, the “outside” story is right smack in the middle of all the doom, gloom and misery that occurs before *its* climax.
    I don’t want to just drop the story there. No one will know what happens to my poor characters! It just galls me to stop a novel-length tale ‘in medias res’, so I am tempted to keep the fight going, even though from that point on, the MC would be following something closer to a Flat Arc because the most personal conflict would be over. He might still be refining his change, and there is still plenty of potential for other, smaller fireworks…but-but-but…the MAIN CONFLICT is OVER!!!

    Help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a special case. It’s neither a standalone story (with a standalone structure) or part of a series. This is not a structure I would ever recommend for an author creating their own standalone or series, but under circumstances, I see no reason why you can’t write it how you want it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] When it comes to shaping our story, F.C. Malby shows us how to shape a narrative arc to carry the reader along. Clever Girl Helps lays out the rules for using epilogues to tie up our stories, while K.M. Weiland shares the only sure way to write an emotionally resonant climax. […]

  2. […] For a great post on making the climax more meaningful, check out K.M. Weiland’s article on writing an emotionally resonant climax.  […]

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