What Role Does Theme Play in Your Story's Climax

What Is the Role of Theme in a Story’s Climax?

Today, I’m going to be a bad blog writer. I’m not going to make you think at all to find the answer to the title question: “What is the role of theme in a story’s climax?” I’m just going to tell you straight up: The role of theme in your story’s climax is all-important. The theme is what makes the whole thing work with any kind of realism or meaning.

No pressure, right?

Actually, there is a lot of pressure, because if you miss the opportunity to knock your theme out of the park in your story’s climax, then not only are you settling for less than the best for your story, but you may also end up crippling it.

But not to worry. As important a role as theme plays in a story’s climax, it’s also a totally fun and rewarding one. Even better, if you can figure out how theme will factor in to your story’s climax, then you’ll also have a shortcut to figuring out everything else you need to know about your theme.

The Most Important Job of Theme in Your Story’s Climax

Just what does theme do in the climax?

We sometimes think of theme as window dressing. It just sits there, looks pretty, and dresses up our novels with a little bit of moral magnitude. It makes our simple but entertaining tale of two star-crossed lovers into something that’s more important than just another happily-ever-after.

But if theme’s going to do that, it has to be more than just icing on the cake. It has to be the flour and eggs.

Stories themselves are just an expression–a dramatization–of their themes. And if your theme is a question, then the climax is the answer. When the story-long conflict comes to a head in the climax, the result of that final confrontation must provide more than just the external evidence of who won–the protagonist or the antagonistic force. The result of that conflict must also prove your story’s theme.

Consider Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank RedemptionAndy Dufresne’s climactic escape isn’t just about his physical escape from the prison. It’s the final proof of the thematic Truth that hope lets us live through horrible circumstances and emerge triumphant on the other side. If he fails in his escape, he will not only remain in prison for the rest of his life, but his thematic premise will be proven false and its opposing assertion (“Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”) will be proven true.

Shawshank Redemption Fear Can Hold You Prisoners But Hope Can Set You Free

 

How Your Story’s Climax Will Help You Find Your Theme

Story by Robert McKeeIf you’re ever uncertain of your story’s theme (or, by extension, your character’s arc), you need look no farther than your story’s climax. In his book Story, Robert McKee reminds us:

For no matter your inspiration, ultimately the story embeds its Controlling Idea [theme] within the final climax….

What happens in your climax? What battle is your protagonist fighting? He’s almost certainly going to be in pursuit of some physical goal. He needs to kill the bad guy, win back the girl, steal the Maltese Falcon. But beneath the surface of the physical treasure hunt, there will always be a deeper reason. Your character’s motivation for gaining this thing must be central to your story’s theme.

If he fights this final battle for a reason unconnected to your theme, then your story will fall apart. It may still be a slam-bang finale. It may even still be a reasonably entertaining story. But it won’t be an intellectually and emotionally stimulating tour de force. Worse, it will be fundamentally sloppy and incoherent on at least a subconscious level.

Create a Story That’s Built to Reinforce Your Climax’s Theme

Creating a thematically sound climax involves much more than than the climax itself. In order to create a climax that resonantly answers your story’s thematic question, you first have to build an entire story that asks the right question. This involves not just setting up the question in your story’s opening act, via the Lie Your Character Believes. It also means creating a consistent, story-long battle between the Lie and the Truth. McKee again:

The positive and negative assertions of the same idea contest back and forth through the [story], building in intensity, until at the Crisis they collide head-on in a last impasse. Out of this rises the Story Climax, in which one or the other idea succeeds.

Here’s an easy rule of thumb: Ask yourself, “Is your story going to end with a positive assertion of your theme?” If it does, then, for all intents and purposes, your ending will be a happy one, no matter the physical circumstances in which your protagonist ends the story. If your story ends with this affirmation of your theme, then it needs to begin with a negative assertion of the theme. In other words, the story’s beginning must posit that the theme is false. For example, Shawshank Redemption opens with its main character in the most hopeless of all situations: imprisoned for life for a crime he didn’t commit with no chance for appeal.

Shawshank Redemption Tim Robbins Andy Dufresne first day in prison

This negative assertion will then be countered by a positive assertion, then by a negative one, then by a positive one–and so on throughout the story until the final confrontation in the story’s climax when the thematic premise is finally proven once and for all.

(Of course this works in reverse for a story that will end by disproving the story’s Truth: it will begin with a positive assertion of the theme.)

Consider your story’s climax. How will it end? Happily or unhappily? How will your character have arced? Will he have overcome his Lie and discovered the Truth? Will he have helped others to find a Truth he already knows? Or will he have fallen away from the Truth and into the Lie?

Within the answers to these questions, you’ll find your story’s theme. Funnel your story’s main conflict into a final confrontation that will drive and by driven by the principle at the heart of your theme. Do that, and you will have strengthened every other aspect of your story.

Tell me your opinion: What does your story’s climax reveal about your story’s theme?

What Is the Role of Theme in Your Story's 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. Really glad you are posting a bunch on themes lately.

  2. (Sorry for the double post)

    Question: I am writing a 3-part overarching story. I’m wondering if it is acceptable if the overarching story has one theme, and each individual book (though they are not standalone) also have their own sub-themes that compliment the main one.

    I feel like with the way I am structuring it, it should work. I want each book to have its own individual value in addition to the overarching entity. Let me know what you think 🙂

  3. Looks like my original message went to spam, since it disappeared and wasn’t mentioned as being held for the moderator. Here’s what I had:

    That is a GREAT point, and I hadn’t even thought about it before! (Thank goodness I just frantically thought back and realized the theme was important in my story’s climax, even without my doing it on purpose. Whew!)

  4. thomas h cullen says:

    The Representative has no less than “three” climaxes……..three climaxes, which in their order of occurrence act as a mirror to the theme of story that’s been set up.

    (For anyone interested: there’s a review now of The Representative, on ‘Self-Publishing Review’. The synopsis of it isn’t ideal – though the rest of the text is worth a read.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as the climax is tying into the theme, then you know everything is working together the way it should.

  5. Thanks for that, it was very informing and helped me to know how I should rewrite my climax!

  6. Sheryl Dunn says:

    I think the ending is also extremely important. One editor wanted me to change my ending because she only likes happy endings (mine is a bittersweet ending.)

    I wouldn’t change the ending because that would have changed my theme completely, and my theme is the whole reason I wrote the damned novel!

    Yet another great post, K.M. Your posts delve deeper than most writers’ blogs. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love bittersweet endings, and I totally support your decision to remain true to your vision for the story. Still, strictly from a marketing perspective, I get where the editor’s coming from. Happy endings *are* safer.

  7. “Andy Dufresne’s climactic escape isn’t just about his physical escape from the prison. It’s the final proof of the thematic Truth that hope lets us live through horrible circumstances and emerge triumphant on the other side.”

    Ahhhh, but… please forgive me for being contrarian here :).

    Andy’s escape happens off-screen in the movie and we learn about it after the fact through Red’s retelling. When I think of theme, I think of it in relation to the main character and their emotional journey – that would be Red here, no?

    Obviously we have the two sides of the argument being explored from different perspectives, but which one is the one the audience encompasses? It’s Red. We get the narration through Red, we get the setting as a reflection of the main character, we get numerous POV shots from him and probably most importantly, we get almost all of the emotion via him (fear, doubt, etc.).

    Andy’s very cold and reserved for a purpose: we’re not really suppose to identify with him and truth be told, most of us don’t. Most of us suffer through life’s doubts and find ourselves prisoners in some form or another, much like Red. So while it’s important to see Andy’s escape as essential to the theme, I don’t necessarily think it’s the climax – otherwise the story would end there and be over.

    Except it’s really about Red. Red is the one who embodies the story’s theme via its climax: get busy living or get busy dying. The emotional climax of the film is when Red digs up the box under the rock. He’s at his lowest point and admits the only reason why he’s still alive is because of the promise he made to Andy – and that promise pays off in a decision he has to make, but it’s an easier one after reading the note. Had Red read the letter then decided to follow Brook’s path, the story – and its theme – would have lost all meaning.

    I wrote a blog post about this several months ago that’s linked to my name (just click it) for those who may be interested – it goes into much more detail about Red as the main character and Andy as the story’s protagonist who influences him to change (much like To Kill a Mockingbird’s main character is Scout, whom we see the story through, but Atticus’s function is protagonist).

    • thomas h cullen says:

      One of the best posts I’ve ever read on this site – and not just because it’s been about one of the best works of fiction ever made.

      Hope is essential; to never lose it, one must always keep in mind reality’s most pertinent truth: it always continues.

      This is why ‘Shawshank’s’ one of the all-time greatest……it applies the theme of maintaining onto hope in the most forceful of ways.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good points. It’s actually been years since I’ve seen this movie, and I had forgotten how many scenes it continued after Andy’s escape. Still, the basic point still holds true, since Andy’s escape is the climax of Andy’s story. But what you’ve said here also points out what a great example this story is of an impact character (Andy) transforming the lives of the characters around him.

  8. Just when I wondered if BookDaily was good for anything, I was happy to read your post today. The list was excellent, and I commented.

    I’m working on the beginning of a new novel and this was a great time to read about theme, since it has to be introduced pretty quickly, and with some elegance – and neither are easy. Thanks for two great posts in one day!

  9. Thanks for this! I really struggle with writing endings, including climaxes, and that’s where I’m at in my WIP. I know what my theme is, but trying to tie it in with the climax has proven difficult so far. I’ll keep working at it, though, and make sure the theme is revealed by the outcome of the climax.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes the difficulty isn’t so much in the climax itself as in the setup provided by the rest of the book. Make sure the thematic question/struggle has been properly framed from the beginning on and the climax will often write itself.

  10. Exactly!!! I love theme! Working over it for hours and then on the flip-side being amazed when something suddenly pops out of the plot that completely *fits*. 🙂 I generally always know what my final scene will be (not that I don’t toss around different ideas while writing simply to keep an open mind), but most often I know exactly where the story’s heading and I’m visualizing constantly how the theme will be playing out in that scene. It then makes it so much easier to craft the theme naturally throughout the entire story—it’s all building and layering and growing in intensity up to that point.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s amazing how the subconscious usually works behinds the scenes to perfectly foreshadow and fulfill these things.

  11. Kinza Sheikh says:

    Another good and much needed post. Strange, these days I am battling with my WIP’s climax, and that’s exactly what I keep finding in this blog today.
    Well, thanks to this post, I have finally figured out my plan of action from this point on. I will start focusing on my theme in my second draft, and by focusing on that, I will build up enough tension needed at the climax. (Thankfully, I have at least my theme figured out)

  12. Hello, I realise that this isn’t the “freshest” post but it happens to be the one that has finally gotten me out of stalking (or having my free time eaten up by) your blog. You’ve been giving great advice and I really appreciate it even if my stories will never get published. My inner perfectionist has stopped nagging me about “the rules” which has made writing much more fun. But one part of this post has confused me so I’m hoping the discussion is still open:

    If you have a character staying essentially the same and changing the world around him- or herself how do you contrast the lie the others believe and the truth the character knows?
    My solutions all seem to have problems:
    – show the character doubting the truth (but that would weaken both the character and the theme)
    – have everyone always disagree with the character until she or her convinces them (which sounds a bit on-the-nose and Mary-Sue to me)
    – have one character represent the “others” and show them considering the truth (that would only work if said character gets enough “screen-time” and in single POV stories could mean only one character’s change arc is logical while the others are suddenly different)
    – have a back and forth switch with the sidekick (but The Hunger games have a good theme without a physically present side-kick)
    – … and many more absurd solutions I came up with. I’ll spare you having to read all of them since they do not seem to work

    If your’re answering (or even reading this) then thank you for your time.

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