The Two Halves of the Climactic Moment

The Climactic Moment is the story in microcosm.

The Climactic Moment is where the protagonist’s final relationship to the plot goal is determined by definitive success or failure, as is the character’s relationship to the thematic Lie and Truth. Although the events of the Climactic Moment might not be the “biggest” of the story, they will always be the most important, in that they decide the story. The Climactic Moment not only brings the story’s conflict to a close, but also determines whether or not the preceding structural elements satisfactorily come together to create a cohesive and resonant whole.

In our series about the two-sided structural beats, the Climactic Moment marks the final one. As we’ve seen in the posts over the course of the past month, this two-sidedness is always about providing a stark division between what comes before and what comes after. For the Climactic Moment, what comes before is the entire story; what comes after is “what will be” in this new paradigm the protagonist has now created.

Specifically unto itself, the Climactic Moment requires the pacing of the story and the climactic sequence to offer two very specific halves of its own, which we will call Sacrifice and Victory/Failure.

But first, a final look at the all of the two-sided beats we’ve discussed in this series:

What Is the Climactic Moment?

Ideal structural timing sees the Third Act begin (via the turning point of the Third Plot Point) at the 75% mark. Halfway through this act, at the 88% mark, we then encounter the turning point into the Climax proper. The Climax is a sequence of scenes comprising roughly the final 10-12% of the story, in which the protagonist directly confronts the antagonistic force to finally determine whether or not the plot goal will be fruitfully achieved.

The reason the Climax is given fully half (if not more) of the Third Act is due to this sequence’s obvious importance within the story. This is what everything has been leading up to or foreshadowing throughout the entire story so far.

However, even the Climax itself must rise to a high point and come to a climax of its own. That climax-within-a-Climax is the Climactic Moment. The Climactic Moment is the definitive end of the plot conflict (if not yet necessarily the story itself, which may continue for a few scenes more to tie off loose ends in a Resolution).

The Climactic Moment is the moment in which either the protagonist or the antagonist claims a victory (or perhaps the plot goal is definitively removed from both of their reaches). This is the moment when the bad guy dies or the romantic leads get engaged or the protagonist gets her promotion—or gets her promotion and turns it down because it no longer aligns with her new values.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere in noting the important links between certain structural beats, the Inciting Event in the beginning can be seen to ask a question: will the protagonist triumph in the external conflict? The Climactic Moment, then, is the definitive answer to that question: yes or no.

In many ways, the appropriateness of your Climactic Moment will determine whether or not the entire story works. If the Climactic Moment is a faithful emergent of the Inciting Event’s question—and every subsequent structural beat’s exploration of that question—then the story will hold together to create a big picture.

If, however, the Climactic Moment is not intrinsically related to and emergent from all the previous structural beats, it will prove that the story as a whole does not work—that, in fact, the Climactic Moment is providing an answer to a question that is different from the one posed in the story’s beginning.

One of the easiest ways for this to happen is when the author confuses subplots. For example, if the Inciting Event presents a romantic story with the question of “will they or won’t they fall in love?” then the Climactic Moment must answer that question. If instead the Climactic Moment focuses on a suspense subplot, in which it provides the answer “the bad guy is defeated,” then the story may at best feel fragmented. And, of course, this holds true in reverse as well. If the story begins as a suspense story but puts its main structural focus on the romance in the end (e.g., the bad guy is defeated by the Third Plot Point or some such, leaving the relationship issues to be spotlighted in the Climax), then the Climactic Moment will flounder.

Recognizing the Arc Created by the Two Halves of the Climactic Moment

Like any good structural beat, or scene, the Climactic Moment presents a transition. The protagonist may have fully aligned with the thematic Truth just prior to entering the final fray, the outcome of the fray itself should never be taken for granted. Even in genre stories in which readers expect and desire a certain outcome (e.g., the good guys win, the lovers end happily ever after, etc.), the story should not treat this outcome as a given.

This is best accomplished by observing the arc of the Climactic Moment, as revealed by its two halves: Sacrifice and Victory/Failure.

In this modern age of movie spectacle, we often think of the Climax as needing to be the “biggest” scene. Although this is often a good course, it is not inherently necessary, especially as witnessed in quieter relational stories. Even if a romance closes with the comparatively “big” action of one of the leads racing through an airport (or whatever the equivalent in the 21st Century), the Climactic Moment may in fact be a relatively quiet moment of confession and vulnerability—consummated by a symbolic kiss.

It is not always important for your Climax to be the loudest, biggest, flashiest thing in the story. The Climactic Moment’s only true deciding factors are that a) it decides the conflict and b) it provides readers a psychic catharsis after the character’s previous physical and emotional travails.

This is why the Climactic Moment cannot be just a “one and done” beat. There must be an emotional arc. That arc is provided by the protagonist’s willingness to “Sacrifice” and the resultant “Victory” or “Failure” (depending on the character’s relationship to the thematic premise).


As we’ve already seen, the Third Plot Point’s Low Moment created the final crucible for the protagonist’s inner conflict. Whether or not the character chose to fully release the Lie and align with the Truth was, in many ways, an even more important climax than the Climax itself—if only because that choice was the major factor in determining the actual outcome of the external conflict.

If the protagonist did indeed choose to release the Lie and align with the Truth, this decision will have been hard-fought. It was not an easy choice for the very reason that it demanded a sacrifice. The character gave up both the Lie itself and any remaining “protection” provided by its paradigm. The eventual and inevitable progression is that the protagonist’s decision after the Third Plot Point additionally represented total commitment to some great sacrifice that will come due in the final beat of the external conflict.

  • In stories with life and death stakes, this sacrifice could be the character’s very life. Simply by choosing to enter into the final fray, the character recognizes he is risking his life.
  • In stories with professional stakes, such as legal thrillers, the protagonist may  risk losing credibility or even being disbarred in order to align with her own integrity and finish out the trial.
  • In stories with relational stakes, at least one of the leads will confront fears about commitment and union and be willing to make personal sacrifices in order to unite with the other person in a meaningful relationship.

In short, the Climax is where the story’s stakes finally demand payoff. Even if the protagonist has already suffered greater losses than what he is facing now, this sacrifice is the one that has been looming all story long. (And, indeed, part of the reason the character is now able to make this sacrifice may be because of the losses he has already lived through.)

Of course, it may eventuate that the character does not, in fact, have to surrender and suffer to the degree she has prepared herself to do. What is most important in this beat is that she is aware of the stakes and is willing to face them without stinting. Only this will allow the external conflict to finally be resolved.


The protagonist enters the Climax resolved. He is willing to sacrifice to the last measure (as defined by the story’s context). And he may indeed have to. He may give his life, his career, his health, his relationships, or any other number of difficult surrenders.

He may do this to achieve an ultimate spiritual and moral victory—and indeed perhaps a great physical victory as well, if it turns out the things he’s giving up weren’t really serving him (as in, for example, the case of giving up a toxic or broken relationship).

But it may also be that simply in proving his pureheartedness via his willingness to sacrifice, he will find the ability to achieve his victory without giving up much at all. This usually only happens in stories with comparatively low stakes. If the stakes are life and death, as in action stories, most audiences will not be satisfied with anything less than a true sacrifice of some kind.

However, victory is never assured—particularly if the character chose wrongly between Lie and Truth at the Third Plot Point. She may enter the Climactic Moment willing to sacrifice something (perhaps the right thing, or perhaps the wrong thing). She may lose both what she was willing to risk and the ultimate plot goal. Or she may lose only one, but then discover that the one is no good without the other.

Regardless, this is where we find the true Climactic Moment, the true end to the story. Not only do we see the external conflict resolved and the plot question answered, we also see the results of the characters’ choices. We see whether the characters are made happy or sad, whether they are better off for all their trials or worse. What happens in the Climactic Moment is the story’s final statement about human reality, whether it is explicit or more likely simply implicit in the characters’ comparative state at the end of the story.


This concludes our little series about the two halves of each of the major structural beats. I hope this has helped you see the inherent emotional arc within each beat and therefore what each beat is intended to achieve within the overall structure of the story!

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you identify both the Sacrifice and the Victory/Failure in your story? 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.


  1. Thanks again, Katie. I have struggled with what the true question (inciting event) and answer (climax) are in regard to my WIP. You again made me think about it and now I think I have it figured out.

  2. Wonderful series – as ever. Enlightening, entertaining and very helpful. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for this series. I will save it to go back to often.

  4. I loved this series! It brought a lot of things about these plot points into sharper focus.

  5. Thank you for this post. It’s the Climactic Moment I have been wrestling with this last week or so (and so have greatly anticipated this week’s post). In working through Robert McKee’s idea that each plot and subplot needs its own inciting incident and resolution, I’ve have been looking at the placement of each in my overall structure.

    This statement grabbed me. “…will the protagonist triumph in the external conflict? The Climactic Moment, then, is the definitive answer to that question: yes or no.”

    However, my inter-personal conflict has become the more interesting plot line, with greater personal stakes than the external conflict. Yes, her land is in jeopardy. But even worse is the fall of her family. Must the external conflict necessarily be the primary conflict? That is one of my considerations as I look at the placement of the two potential climactic scenes. But the interpersonal scenes keeps crying out to be THE Climactic Moment.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you’re unsure what is your main or most important plot throughline, I always recommend looking first to the Climactic Moment. Whatever conflict is decided there should be the main conflict that is featured predominantly at all the major plot points throughout. Or if you find a different conflict/plotline is emphasized throughout, then the Climactic Moment should be adjusted to reflect this.

      There is definitely no rule on what type of plotline should be the main one. In some stories it will be an action-oriented external conflict, with the internal or relationship conflict acting as a supporting subplot. In this instance, the Climactic Moment should focus on ending the external conflict. But if the story is, say, predominantly relational (or internal), then the Climactic Moment should reflect that and any external conflicts that cannot be tied up simultaneously should be given subordinate resolutions.

  6. Yes. At the end my enslaved con artist, gave up on her selfish visions of making it rich, accepted quite a bit of physical distress and risked total oblivion. She was victorious in the fight to free her master, freeing herself as well and gaining true friends and companionship. Alas, in the process, the companions did not stop the ongoing civil wars, and the primary antagonist of this novel, brought a tyrannical god into the world, so I suppose I’m stuck with writing a sequel.

    I worry that my climatic moment was too quick, but I’m hesitant to tease it out when the book already weighs in at 177K words.

    Thanks for another great series. I can hardly wait to see what comes next.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s always a tricky conundrum and one I question regularly in my own fiction. I suppose I err more on the side of dragging it out because, as a reader, I dislike it when things are tied off too quickly or neatly. Beta readers are always helpful in determining whether I get the balance right.

  7. I really struggle with the climactic scene in my manuscript-currently-on-ice. Though the climax feels better in more recent drafts (at least it’s a lot more coherent), I’m still not sure it’s hitting the right notes (though beta reader reactions to the climax were mostly positive… I guess that’s something? Or maybe they’re just polite?) It’s something I’ll take a close look at when I defrost the manuscript.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Based just on what you’re saying here, my first instinct would be to examine whether the Climactic Moment is a natural progression of the previous major plot beats. If either the Climactic Moment itself or any of the previous beats are “off-key” in that they shift their focus away from the main throughline, that could be what’s throwing off the Climactic Moment.

      In that regard, you might also find this post helpful:

  8. Kevin Brown says

    Looking at a wildly popular novel, “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s (Philosopher’s) Stone”, I cannot identify what is the question from the Inciting Incident that is answered in the Climactic Moment. Any thoughts?

    • My first impulse is to say the question is, “Can Harry Potter stand up to abusive adults without being rescued by another adult?”

      (In case anyone doesn’t know the story of Harry Potter, this comment contains spoilers.)

      In the beginning, Harry Potter is stuck with abusive guardians who literally put him in a closet, and he only gets out of that with Hagrid’s help. At the climactic moment, he defeats Quirrel, who had been his teacher and thus an adult guardian figure for him at the school, and Harry does it himself, Hagrid isn’t a deus ex machina at the climax.

      • Kevin Brown says

        That certainly seems to be a question posed earlier, and answered at the climax. But in my mind, the inciting incident of the story always felt like the moment when Hagrid says, “Harry, you’re a wizard.” It’s that revelation that definitely moves Harry from ordinary world to extraordinary world, and is the call to adventure. But the question about standing up to abusive adults (or abusive children) is posed earlier than that incident.

        So, I don’t know…


        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I’ve always identified Harry’s letter from Hogwarts (and his struggle with his uncle to get to read it) as the Inciting Event. But a good argument can be made for Hagrid’s appearance as well.

    • This is a great question. I think what Rowling wants the question to be is “will love be enough to protect Harry?”

      But no, I don’t think she makes the connection with the inciting incident.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like Sara’s take immensely. It’s definitely more a thematic question in that first book, rather than strictly a plot question, since Harry’s relationship to Hogwarts and Voldemort is an unraveling secret over the course of the entire series.

  9. September C. Fawkes says

    I’m plotting out a revision right now, and this series helped refine my understanding of structure. Thanks for sharing.


    Spero che tu maestro possa tradure l’italiano..
    Il più bell’insegnamento del tuo corso ò questo articolo sulle due metà di ogni parte è quest’ultimo, qui sopra, dove il sacrificio appare come il valore più grande.

  11. Grace Dvorachek says

    What a great way to end this series! I’ve enjoyed these posts, as each one was either a needful reminder or a new piece of information—or a little of both. Thank you for continuing to offer helpful insight!

  12. David Benoit says

    Did I miss something? The pairings of the major plot points are very enlightening. But are the 1st and 2nd Pinch points a pairing in and of themselves, or are they 1/2 or the Midpoint and the 3rd Plot Point?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sorry for any confusion. I did have a brief note in the first post about the Pinch Points:

      “The two Pinch Points are interesting in that I don’t see them as offering the same intrinsic halves or “doorway” of the other major structural beats. Rather, they can be seen to function more as each other’s halves–with the First Pinch Point in the first half of the story foreshadowing the payoff of the Second Pinch Point in the second half of the story.”

      • David A Benoit says

        Thank You. That was my thoughts exactly. In the spirit of ‘pinching;, something has to be between them in order to be pinched. That would seem to be the Midpoint that is being pinched. So somehow this pinching is bringing about the change we see in midpoint turning points?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Very true! I never thought of the word “pinch” in that way, but you’re dead on. And, yes, the First Pinch Point leads into the Midpoint, and the Second Pinch Point is, in many ways, the “fallout” from the Midpoint.

          • This was a great “unofficial series” of pod/blog posts. I look forward to them being in a book.

            I would moot that “2 halves of pinch point1” and “… pinchpoint2” would actually be of differential importance to structure.

            Or are effective pinch-points too varied to generalise what gives their arcs effective halves?

  13. Thanks, this series was so helpful.

    In my current WIP, THE LIE morphed into something more subtle since the hero wasn’t willing to completely let go of it at the midpoint.

    Which then led to them making a potentially disastrous choice in the third plot point…and will force them to face a final acceptance/ reckoning during the first half of the climax.

    What they learn could motivate them to make the sacrifice to right their mistake, at great personal cost to themselves ( physical safety and loss of a viable future). But they won’t know they are capable of this until the last moment.

  14. Lynda Courtright says

    Thank you Katie, these posts have been great.

    I’m still trying to pin down exactly what my inciting event Question and climax are in my current piece of work. It’s a complex love story with several subplots amid a rich twine of themes (think Much Ado About Nothing while pursuing the modern assumption that you can have it all or be whatever you set your heart on, if you just work at it.)

    Fascinated with the discussion on what The Question in the inciting event is for the first Harry Potter book. Both opinions make good points but I favor child Harry growing up to fight off adult oppressors on his own as it seems more unique and so primal. That primal feel is what I would like my book to be about. I’m clearer about that now after reading this post and the posted comments. Thanks.


  15. Thanks, Katie. Your post was key to me finishing my Climactic Moment…today! I’m going to take a celebratory break then get back to my desk to finish the wrap-up tomorrow.

  16. Scrutinizer says

    Thanks for this series!

    When you described the climax as a microcosm for the whole story, it made me realize something. As you know, Katie, the inciting incident, plot points, pinch points, and turning point into the climax divide a story roughly into eighths. But 7/8 of the way through the final 1/8 brings us to 98.4% of the way through the story, right where the climactic moment goes.

    Would it make sense to suggest that the climax (last 1/8) could be a microcosm of the whole story not only in terms of theme and conflict, but also in terms of structure? In other words, you could structure the climax with mirrors of all the plot points in reverse: at 1/4 (90.6%), the protagonist discovers a way to reverse the defeat of the third plot point; at 1/2 (93.8%), the protagonist makes a move to proactively engage in the final conflict, using the truth discovered at the midpoint; at 3/4 (96.9%), the final conflict accelerates in a point of no return that mirrors the first plot point; at 7/8 (98.4%), the question posed at the inciting incident finally gets answered in the climactic moment; and at 8/8 (100%) we get a closing image of the new world that is a reflection of the opening image in the story’s hook.

    Or something like that.

    I will admit, I am nowhere near as experienced as you with deciphering story structure, so I would be curious as to what your opinion on this is.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t think it’s necessary (or even always helpful) to get this granular when actually writing. But, yes. 🙂 And it’s fascinating, isn’t it? Story structure as we know it is really like a spiral pattern: true at the largest levels of story, but also mirrored on the smaller levels. I’m going to be talking about this a bit in a post later this year.

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