Fiction By Gloria Russell Have you ever noticed that once you get about three-quarters into a book, you have to finish it? That’s because you’ve likely run into the climax. And when the climax of a book is good, it becomes impossible to put down. Learning to write a compelling climax will enormously improve your story—a bad climax can absolutely ruin an entire plot, while a good one will make it memorable and powerful. Let’s talk about what the climax of a story is, when it should happen in your manuscript, and go over some trips and tricks for how to make your story’s climax as effective, memorable, and powerful as it can be. Table of Contents TABLE OF CONTENTS What is the climax of a story?When the does climax happen? How to write a good climax Write a strong second act Include a perilous darkest hour Raise the stakes Don’t forget subplots Mistakes to avoid when writing the climaxMelodrama Unresolved plot points Getting the timing wrong Making the stakes unimportant Making the climax arbitrary Story Climax Examples What is the climax of a story? First things first: what’s the climax? Plainly put, the climax is when all of the preceding drama, tension, trials, and conflict culminate in one explosive moment. The climax should be the most dramatic part of your story, and it should be the moment that leads directly to the resolution of your story. Think about the final showdown in a superhero movie or that grand romantic gesture that finally joins the couple together at the end of a romance. The climax is the thing we’ve been waiting for, the thing the plot’s been suggesting all along. It’s like the boss battle: whether the characters win or lose this battle determines whether they win the game. When does the climax of the story happen? Different story structures will place the climax at slightly different points according to that structure. But you can really break all of these down into two major structures: Freytag’s Pyramid and the three-act structure. For both of these structures, the climax happens towards the end of the book, maybe two-thirds or three-quarters in. Freytag’s Pyramid includes exposition, an inciting incident, and rising action, all of which lead to the climax. After the climax, all that’s left is falling action and a resolution. The rising action in this structure is what culminates in the climax. In the three-act structure, it’s a little more straightforward. Act one includes character introductions and exposition and ends with the inciting incident, which kicks the meat of the plot into gear. The second act is most of the story, following the character on their journey, and the events in the second act come to a head at the end in the climax. The climax takes us into the third act, where the story is resolved. How to Write a Good Climax Now that we have a good understanding of what a climax is and where it should fall in a story, let’s talk about how to write a stellar one. Write a strong second act A good climax brings all the conflict in the story to one disastrous head. For this to work, you need for there to be some conflict in your story in the first place. One of the key mistakes writers make is neglecting their second act. If the second act is spent sort of randomly, with things happening one after the other without clear rhyme or reason, the climax is going to suffer. This is how you get a climax that feels like it sort of came out of nowhere. Have you ever read a book with a strong character and conflict introduction, then a bunch of stuff happened, and now suddenly there’s this huge battle? The huge battle isn’t landing because it wasn’t set up properly. We don’t have a clear idea of how the characters got themselves into it, what’s at stake, or whether it matters if they succeed or lose. Make sure your second act has stuff in it that matters. Everything that happens should happen because of the last thing, and there should be a clear line leading straight to the climax. Include a perilous darkest hour Want to really ratchet up the stakes in your climax? Don’t forget the Darkest Hour. The darkest hour has a few different names, but it’s the point in the story where the hero is at their lowest. The worst case scenario should happen, and it should leave your character worse off than ever, ideally alone, and faced with more adversity than they’ve ever dealt with at any other point in the story. Why do you want this? Contrast. Watching a hero take what they learned in act two, climb out of the darkest hour, and rock the climax is going to be way more satisfying than if the climax just sort of happens when they’re already winning. Think of it like this: if we hear a story about someone who got stranded at sea and found a huge year-long stash of food and a fully equipped house and just hung out for a year, we won’t be super excited for them when a ship arrives to their rescue. But if we watch them struggle to survive, then, once they’ve finally figured it out, a storm washes away their hard-earned food supply and shelter and leaves them hungry, cold, and distressed? We’ll be begging to see that ship, right alongside the character. Raise the stakes Sometimes, a climax flops because there aren’t enough stakes. The reader should be absolutely invested in the climax—after all, the climax was the whole point of the story! What does the character have to gain from succeeding or failing in the climax? Why does that matter? Keep these things in mind as you’re writing not only the climax, but the second act. Also, and this goes without saying, your character should be fighting tooth and nail to get through the climax. Anything less, and the reader gets the impression that it’s just not that important. Don’t forget subplots The subplots planted throughout the second act should be involved in the climax as well. They may not be the central focus, but since everything in your novel should impact the plot, it’s only natural that the subplots would also come to a head in the climax. For example: in any given action movie, you’ll notice the sidekick characters overcoming some struggle just in time for the final battle or showdown. Mistakes to avoid when writing the climax of the story Let’s talk about “avoids” when it comes to writing a climax—sometimes, knowing what not to do is just as helpful as knowing what to do. Melodrama The climax definitely should be the most dramatic point in your novel, no questions asked, and if you’re writing something like a thriller or a horror, it makes sense that this might be a very intense scene. However, there’s a fine line between high drama and melodrama. Melodrama relies heavily on cliche and desensitizes the reader to the actions happening on the page. For example, if you have a main character get dumped by her boyfriend and cry for literally two entire days without stopping, eating, or drinking, it feels a little unrealistic and a little silly. Similarly, if you have characters sustaining sixteen gunshot wounds without really faltering or one warrior tearing through three thousand opponents without a scratch, it’s gonna fall a little flat. Keep the scene rooted in what’s realistic for your character and for your world, and remember that you want the reader to be desperately worried about your character’s well being at all times. Unresolved plot points If the climax comes and goes without resolving the main story, you’ve not really written a climax, and you’ve not really finished the story. Sometimes a writer will write a climax based on an outline after the story’s already changed in drafting, and this means they’re resolving a story arc that no longer exists. Again, make sure you can draw a clear line between each point leading up your climax. Does the climax resolve the core conflict? No? Back to the drawing board. Getting the timing wrong A climax that comes too early or too late can make the story feel unbalanced. If it happens too early, then we might have a resolved plot with five or six chapters left. It’s going to be hard for a reader to stay invested that long when the character has already fought the boss battle and won or lost. If it happens too late, we have the opposite issue. We need time to see the characters in the aftermath of the climax. How have they changed? What’s different now? And while we do need a healthy amount of tense buildup for a good climax, too much can frustrate a reader. Making the stakes unimportant As I mentioned previously, you want the stakes high so that the reader cares. If the stakes aren’t important, or if the characters don’t seem to care, the story will fizzle out. If you’re writing a romance novel, for example, and the main character is not absolutely in love with her romantic interest and has a backup interest she likes just as much, we won’t be super compelled to see her story through. Sounds like she’s doing fine—nothin’ to see here. Making the climax arbitrary This goes back to what I said about writing a good second act, but, one more time, just for good measure: you want to be able to tell exactly what has caused the climax, and the climax needs to be unavoidable. Also, the climax absolutely must change the story. If the climax happens without any big change to the status quo or to your characters, you need to do some serious workshopping. Story Climax Examples Romeo and Juliet At the climax of Romeo and Juliet, the two lovers have finally devised a scheme to run away and be happy together. Juliet fakes her own death, but Romeo doesn’t get the memo, and upon discovering her body, kills himself. When Juliet wakes and sees what he’s done, she does the same. This is a very, very high-drama sequence, full of twists and turns, and it’s the culmination of the entire story, which has asked: will they end up together? In the climax, we get our answer: no. Tangled In Tangled, the climax is when Eugene cuts Rapunzel’s hair to prevent Mother Gothel from stealing her away forever. This action kills Mother Gothel, who is our main antagonist, and permanently frees Rapunzel. The movie has been about whether Rapunzel can ever escape the tower, and after the climax, she can. Lord of the Rings The climax in Lord of the Rings is Frodo taking the ring, at long last, to Mordor. The scenery is at its most unforgiving, with horrible lava pits and scorching rock. Gollum is doing his best to blow the whole thing up, and Frodo himself is nearing physical exhaustion. All the while, a huge battle rages outside—not only does Frodo’s life depend on getting the ring into the fire in this moment, but so do countless others. Shrek 2 In the masterpiece that is the second Shrek film, our climax is a doozy. We have Shrek, separated from Fiona, desperate to win her back from the deceptive Prince Charming, storming the castle and crashing a party. There’s a few things that work really well here: he’s working against the clock, which adds an immediate layer of suspense, and he’s trying to rescue not only Fiona, but also himself, as he’s been transformed into something unfamiliar to him—a clean, human man.