The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 10: The Climax
And, now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for! The climax is the pièce de résistance of our gourmet meal of a novel. When we wheel out the climax and lift the serving dish’s gleaming silver lid, this is the bit that gets all the “oohs” and “aahs.” The climax of a story should have readers on the edges of their seats. They should be breathless, tense, and curious to the point of bursting. If we’ve done our jobs right, they should have a general idea of what’s coming (thanks to our artful foreshadowing), but they should also be suffering under the exquisite torture of more than a shade or two of doubt. What’s gonna happen? Is the hero going to survive? Will he save the world/his family/the battle/his life in time?
The climax is where we pull out our big guns. This is a scene that needs to wow readers, so dig deep for your most extraordinary and imaginative ideas. Instead of a fistfight, why not a fistfight on top of a moving train? Instead of a declaration of love, why not a declaration in the middle of a presidential inauguration? This does not, of course, mean we should push our stories into the realm of the unrealistic or melodramatic, but how far and where we push is completely dependent on the story and its genre. The point is to bring the story and its primary conflict to its expected moment of irreversible resolution in a way that fulfills our book’s every promise to our readers.
What is the climax?
In a sense, the entire third act is the climax. From the plot point at the end of the second act onward, the action will be rising. The character has been backed into the wall and has no choice but to fight back. However, the climax proper is the climax within the climactic third act. It’s the moment when the two speeding trains finally collide into a single unforgettable scene.
In The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, the climax is reached when the protagonist Cazaril and the antagonist Martou dy Jironal finally clash in the duel that kills dy Jironal and breaks the curse upon the royal family. In Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, the climactic moment comes when insurance investigator Vicki Anderson, waiting with the police, watches Crown’s Rolls Royce arrive to pick up the stolen bank money, only to discover that Crown has left the country and sent a decoy in his place. In A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the climax revolves around Sara’s returning Mr. Carrisford’s monkey and subsequently revealing herself to be the long sought-after daughter of Carrisford’s dead business partner.
In some stories, the climax will involve a drawn-out physical battle. In others, the climax can be nothing more than a simple admission that changes everything for the protagonist. Almost always, it is a moment of revelation for the main character. Depending on the needs of the story, the protagonist will come to a life-changing epiphany directly before, during, or directly after the climax. He will then act definitively upon that revelation, capping the change in his character arc and ending the primary conflict, either physically or spiritually.
Where does the climax belong?
The climax occurs very near to the end of the third act. More often than not, it will be the penultimate scene, just before the denouement (as it is in all of the examples above). Since the climax says everything there is to be said, with the exception of a little emotional mopping up, there’s no need for the story to continue long after its completion.
Occasionally, stories will include a faux climax, in which the protagonist thinks he’s ended the conflict, only to realize he hasn’t addressed the true antagonistic force standing in between him and his goal. For example, in John Lasseter’s Toy Story, Woody and Buzz defeat the evil neighbor kid Sid in a faux climax, only to realize they may still miss the moving van that will take them to Andy’s new home. Faux climaxes do nothing to change the requirements of the actual climax.
Lessons from film and literature
How do our chosen books and movies knock their climaxes out of the park? There’s a reason all four of these stories are popular and memorable, and a large part of that reason comes down to their stellar fulfillment of all the necessities of a good climax. Let’s take a look!
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): As in most romantic stories, the climax of this classic novel is the moment in which the two leads finally come together, admit their love for each other, and resolve upon a long-term relationship. After Darcy’s gallantry in patching up Lydia’s elopement with Wickham and his efforts to reunite Bingley and Jane, he and Lizzy are at last alone on a walk, during which they’re able to put straight their former misconceptions, repent of their misconduct to one another (a personal turning point for each of them), and properly affiance themselves.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): In the moment after George’s “gift” of seeing the world without himself in it, he runs back to the bridge and fervently prays, “I want to live again!” This moment is both his personal revelation and a bit of a faux climax. It properly caps the unborn sequence (which follows a mini plot and structure of its own) and leads to the true climax in which the town rallies to help George make up the lost $8,000 before he can be arrested.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): After Ender and his team graduated from Battle School, they entered a new series of what they all believed to be further tactical games, intended to train them for the day when they would finally face the Formics. Pushed to the limit of his physical and emotional endurance, Ender triggers the climax when he reaches the personal decision to break what he perceives as the rules. He looses his frustrated aggression on the “game” and completely destroys the enemy. Then comes the revelation that he wasn’t playing a game at all, but rather commanding the faraway troops who were fighting the Formics in real time.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): The final climactic battle between the Surprise and the Acheron takes up a lengthy section of the third act, but even lengthy climax sequences must rise to a single red-hot point. In this instance, the climax of the climax is the moment in which Jack enters the surgery to find the captain, his long-pursued enemy, dead. He takes the captain’s sword from the surgeon and begins organizing the mopping up.
Each climax is unique since each one must bear out the needs and reflect the tone of its story. As we can see from just our few examples, the possibilities for the climactic moment are vast and go far beyond the simple “good guy kills bad guy” trope. However, they all have a few important factors in common:
1. The climax occurs very near the end of the book, usually only a scene or two away from the last page.
2. The climax is usually a part of a larger sequence of scenes that builds up to the important climactic moment.
3. The climax ends the primary conflict with the antagonistic force in a decisive way (whether the protagonist wins or loses).
4. The climax is the fulcrum around which turns the character arc. This moment is either the direct result of the protagonist’s personal revelation or is the trigger that creates the character’s epiphany. Many of the most powerful climaxes are those that create a one-two punch by coupling the revelation with the action that ends the conflict: First, the character has his revelation, then he immediately acts upon it.
5. Your story may have two climaxes, in which a faux climax leads up to the climax proper, depending on how many layers of conflict you’ve created. Give yourself permission to cut loose with your climax. Have fun with it and think outside the box. But make sure you’ve checked off all the important elements of structure, so you can give readers an experience that will forever cement your story in their memories.