The Secret of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story’s Climax

When you plan your story’s climax, the first thing to come to mind might not be the setting. Too often, the climactic setting is an afterthought. The action, after all, is what’s most important–not where it takes place. But setting can make or break any scene in your story, and this is nowhere more true than in your story’s climax.

What makes a great climactic setting? There are actually several factors. As the summation of your entire tale, your story’s climax needs to be a metaphorical microcosm of the story as a whole. Not only should it serve the external and immediate needs of the the scene’s plot, it should also resonate symbolically and thematically. Let’s consider five of important techniques for making the most of the setting in your story’s climax.

1. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Logical for the Plot?

The first criterion in choosing the proper climactic setting will always be: does it work? Is it logical? Does it make it sense? Consider the nature of your story’s climactic confrontation. What sort of physical locale will it require? If you’re setting up an epic medieval battle, you’re going to need a broad swathe of landscape to accomodate it. If you’re writing a chase thriller, then an airport or a moving train might be appropriate. If your story is an emotional or intellectual drama, then a quieter, more confined area, such as a coffeehouse, might be appropriate.

Example:

In Charles Portis’s True Grit, the climax begins when protagonist Mattie Ross is kidnapped by Ned Pepper’s outlaw band and taken to their mountain hideaway. The setting makes perfect sense within the context of the story, creates new obstacles for the protagonist and her allies to overcome, and resonates nicely, since she has been searching for the outlaws’ hiding place throughout the story.

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

2. Has the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Been Previously Featured or Foreshadowed?

No matter how logical or spectacular the setting in your story’s climax, it will end up feeling like a loose end or a hasty afterthought if you haven’t properly prepared readers for it earlier in the book. When possible, it’s a nice touch to be able to return to a previous setting for the climax. Doing so easily brings the story full circle and often offers opportunities for creating symbolic or ironic resonance.

If you find you can’t recycle a previous setting (as might be the case if you’re writing a chase story that has the protagonist traveling from place to place), then you’ll at least want to find a way to foreshadow the climactic setting. It might be a place characters have been talking about and trying to reach throughout the story (as in True Grit). Or it might be a setting referenced symbolically earlier on (a character reminiscing about a candy shop early on might end up in a candy shop in the climax, or a character with an acknowledged phobia of clowns might find himself in a circus tent in the climax).

Example:

Charles Dickens’s Bleak House reaches its climax when protagonist Esther Summerson finds her estranged mother dead at the gates of a pauper’s graveyard. The graveyard was a setting visited several times previously as the place where Esther’s nameless father was buried.

John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany visits an entirely new setting–an airport–in its finale, but it resonates beautifully because it has been repeatedly foreshadowed through a character’s portentous dreams of his own death.

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

3. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Thematically Resonant?

Once you’ve taken care of the practicalities of logic and resonance, you can focus on the aspects of setting that have the ability to raise your story’s climax into something truly special. Start with theme. What settings might you choose that will offer a thematic commentary on this final step in your protagonist’s journey? If you’ve been exploring themes of freedom, a prison might be an appropriate closing setting. If your character has been struggling with his relationship with his parents, then his childhood bedroom might be an interesting choice.

The thematic significance of your climactic setting isn’t necessarily something you’ll ever need to comment on outright, but an imaginative and appropriate choice can add layers of subtext to this most important of all your scenes.

Example:

Stephen King’s The Green Mile ends in the execution chamber that has featured prominently throughout the story (easily fulfilling the first two requirements of a good climactic setting). The climax dramatizes the execution for murder of a man who is not only innocent but who has the ability to heal and give life. Life and death are huge themes throughout the book, and the Death Row setting underlines that throughout the story, leading right up to the climax.

Green Mile Tom Hanks

4. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Emotionally Traumatizing for the Protagonist?

Your story’s climax should never be a walk in the park for your protagonist. If he’s ever going to prove he’s marched through hell and come out the other side a stronger and better person, he has to first withstand the most unbearable of circumstances in the climax. Often, these circumstances will be the result of bodily discomfort, as is common when the final conflict is a physical one. But the character’s emotional discomfort is even more important. Choose a climactic setting that makes things as difficult as possible for your protagonist. When he walks through the door into the climax, the place itself should hammer all his weak points, making him all the more vulnerable to the antagonist’s final assault.

Example:

William Wyler’s Roman Holiday ends when Gregory Peck’s American reporter finally confronts Audrey Hepburn’s princess. He has to confess to her he knew she was a princess all along and that he, in fact, had been trying to write a story about her but changed his mind after falling in love with her. The scene takes place in the foreign embassy, where the princess must formally address a crowd of reporters, of whom her new impossible love turns out to be one. Their confrontation is full of subtext, since they can’t even admit to knowing one another in front of the crowd and the princess’s political advisors. Any other setting might have allowed them a more natural and open revelation–but it wouldn’t have been as emotionally wrenching or, in the end, as emotionally satisfying.

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

5. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Physically Confining?

Finally, one of the most important aspects of a good climactic setting is one that is hardly ever considered: the space. The less physical space your characters have to work with, the more mentally and emotionally cramped they’re going to feel. Tight spaces will always make physical battles more interesting (how much more challenging for your protagonist to beat up the antagonist in the cockpit of a B-17 than in an open hangar?). But tight spaces also increase the pressure even in climaxes that feature only talking. The confinement not only creates interesting physical situations, it’s also a great way to symbolize the pressure the characters are under.

Example:

Dashiel Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon features a physically low-key climax. But the tight confines of the setting–protagonist Sam Spade’s small house, where he is being held captive by the array of antagonists–ramp up the tension. The fact that so many people are crammed into this small space raises the ante even more.

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

If you can find a way to creatively and harmoniously combine all five of these setting requirements into your story’s climax, you’ll end up with a slam-bang finish that works well on every possible level!

Tell me your opinion: What setting have you chosen for your story’s climax? How well does it fulfill these requirements?

The Secret of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

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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. robert easterbrook says

    You know, you’ve really got me thinking with this one because I just finished writing the ending and the first draft of Ocean Thyme.

    I’ve been listening carefully to what you say – never think that I’m not hanging on to your every word 😉 – and remember the last thing you said, I think it was the last thing you said, about beginnings and endings being strongly linked. You know I try to make use of everything you and your guest posters suggest, in spite of my reservations about some things.

    However, Ocean Thyme will have a sequel. That’s because it’s based on a true story. The main character is still alive. So I’ve struggled with the ending. I hope I’ve done it justice. But what do you do in this kind of situation? You know the story is really unfinished, even though you’ve come to the end of this part of it.

    I struggled with this in another story I wrote, but still haven’t figured out a way to satisfactorily deal with it and end it with a slam-bang finish. What do you suggest in these situations? What might you do?

    • “If the opening/beginning is a question, then the climax/ending is the answer.”

      The climax should be emotionally satisfying and should demonstrate the change in the MC. And justice should be done–the villain should lose out–or not.

  2. Love this post because you gave me some new tools, K.M. Thanks so much. Before this post, I simply tried to make my settings a bit unusual. As for thinking about setting thematically, I don’t think I thought about that at all, although perhaps some of those choices were subconscious.

    My novel has two plots: hunter becomes the hunted, and then a secondary plot, husband finds out his wife is a murderer. (Alas! Not eligible for the Daphne Du Maurier prize.)

    In the hunter/hunted plot the women (who kill pedophiles) capture the bad guy. That setting meets all your tests, particularly since I set it up in a prior scene where the women plan the capture.

    In the second plot, the protagonist and her husband reach a huge turning point — that one takes place in their home in their “talking place.”

    Those two scenes are the climaxes of those plots, but the novel doesn’t end there because I have a couple of scenes that represent the denouements. Strangely (because I didn’t think about it using your analytical tools), I think they meet your tests as well.

    But now you’ve given me a way to analyze not only the climaxes but every single scene in the novel, and I think this will deepen my writing and make my stories even stronger.

    One of the things I think about in my settings is creating what I call ‘invisible metaphors,’ i.e., something in the setting that the characters can use or be affected by that mirrors or echoes what’s going on in the scene.

    So, in one scene where the character is being blackmailed into doing something he doesn’t want to do but finally has to agree to do it, the scene takes place in a van (enclosed space, i.e., he’s ‘trapped’). At the start, there’s a fine mist on the windshield and the lights of Alcatraz are visible, but by the end, the character can’t even see out of the windshield. This is a metaphor for the character’s increasing distance from his core values. Although I doubt most readers would be consciously aware of what I did, I think the scene resonates, in part, because of that invisible metaphor.

    In another scene, a character’s face is half in shadow and half in the light, a metaphor about perception and reality, and how we can’t see behind the masks that people wear.

    On an unrelated note, I’d love you to do a post about showing vs. telling. Oh, I know that many writers have done such posts, but in my opinion, they over-simplify the issue, e.g., narrative can, in fact, show rather than tell. A friend of mine is writing a whole book about showing vs. telling, but I’d love to see your take on this issue because you definitely dig deeper than most.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very smart with the idea to have settings mirror the characters’ emotions. That’s one of my favorite kinds of symbolism: subtle but effective.

  3. robert easterbrook says

    Oh, I forgot to mention the setting for the climax. It’s a computer screen. The main character is making a video diary, and is speaking to a computer screen or the camera on the computer. She will post the finished diary on the internet. So this is a particularly confined space, I think. Any action that occurs is going to be really intense and magnified because it’s your Point #5, I think. When the character speaks, she really speaks to the reader because she’s asking for help. I put the reader in the place of the person watching her video dairy.

    What did you say: “But tight spaces also increase the pressure even in climaxes that feature only talking. The confinement not only creates interesting physical situations, it’s also a great way to symbolize the pressure the characters are under.” My character is pretty stressed as she makes the video diary. But it’s linked to the beginning of the story. Only the plea for help in the beginning is a silent one, it’s not made with a computer and the internet.

    I hope this makes sense (without divulging the story too much). 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ultimately, guidelines for the climactic scene will remain the same whether the book is a standalone or not, since each story has to be complete unto itself. I think what you’ve chosen to do here works well.

  4. I adore “Roman Holiday” and just recently watched it again on Netflix. Same with the classic “Sabrina.” *sigh*

    Thanks for the great tips!

  5. Thanks for this! My climax definitely takes place in a random location. Now that I’ve read this, I know the purpose place to relocate it.

  6. How on earth I did all that in my first novel is a mystery, but I’m glad other authors agree. It is a confined space, it is foreshadowed, traumatizing, thematic and I think it is logical. In fact the last moment is almost the opposite of the opening of the mileu. The story takes place in mainly one milieu, and the second setting is twenty years into the future (for a sequel)

  7. Awesome again 😀 In my next novel there is a murder (even if it won´t be mainly or just a thriller), so I chose the crime scene! I think it fits into what you described here, since the dead is my protagonist´s uncle!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Crime scenes have the extra creepy factor, so they’re great for keeping characters out of their comfort zones.

  8. E. A. Anthony says

    I love the way you pick topics that help us writers overcome obstacles we didn’t even realize were there. This is a perfect example. It’s obvious, it makes sense and now I can focus better on where I’m going with my story and why I’m going there. Thanks for your generosity , K.M.; you’re a writers’ gold mine!

  9. Nice, I am now realizing where my final confrontation has to occur, and I am feeling super sorry for my poor protagonist. I had originally written it in a soulless (on purpose) office suite, but I think it is going to have to go down in the S&M dungeon where he discovers his emotionally unstable younger sister is employed. Ugh.

  10. I am thinking, climax will be in the mental hospital, maybe in a dream after talking to the other “nuts.” In a dream, of course, anything can happen.

    1. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Logical for the Plot? He has had a “descent into madness” from hearing the stories of apparent abuse and having no power to do anything about it

    2. Has the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Been Previously Featured or Foreshadowed? As a psychologist, he talks about mental hospitals in casual conversation, eg on the plane in the First Act.

    3. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Thematically Resonant? A psychologist in the loony bin – resonates for me!

    4. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Emotionally Traumatizing for the Protagonist? I doubt a psychologist with a master’s degree would ever have been exposed to a mental hospital first-hand; he’s just heard and read about them in school, so his first exposure to the reality of it could be traumatizing

    5. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Physically Confining? He could be in a straitjacket

  11. Since I usually write action heavy books, the climax and its meaning to the story can wildly vary. Sometimes, it’s in the castle where one of the main protagonists was born. Sometimes it’s at a dockyard/kind of a last stand for both sides. Sometimes its in a field, or on the side of a mountain. Sometimes its wide-open, and sometimes its confining. Even if the setting might not have a direct impact on a character, it should at least aid the climax’s mood though. Some great points in this post.

  12. I’m on this page to find out how to create/outline/write the climax for my novel. I know I need the where and how, and now I’m getting some ideas. I’ll be considering the questions above, for sure.

  13. What I learned that was most important is that a story’s climax does not have to be violent. Now I’ll have to watch Maltese Falcon and Roman Holiday to “get it” even more. Thank for those as examples.

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