Whether it be a rousing adventure or an intimate tale of true love, the climax of a story is often among the most memorable parts for any reader.
When done well, the climax will bring the plot together, weaving the central conflict into an exciting turning point for the characters. When done poorly, the climax will fall flat, and readers will be left wondering why they spent hours reading everything that came before.
Nailing the climax of a story is incredibly important for any work of fiction. Which is exactly what I'm going to help you do in this article.
- What a climax is and what makes a good one.
- Tips for writing a climax readers will love (in any genre).
- Examples of memorable climaxes.
Table of contents
- What is a Climax?
- Climax Examples
- Characteristics of a Good Climax
- What a Climax Isn't
- Does Every Story Need a Climax?
- How to Write the Climax of a Story: Conclusion
What is a Climax?
The climax typically happens near the end of a story arc. It's the point where the main character faces their biggest challenge and where the stakes are highest, generating the greatest tension in the story.
This usually means that the protagonist and antagonist are in direct conflict. If the protagonist fails, the antagonist wins and all is lost. But even if you don't have an embodied antagonist, the climax will still be the all-or-nothing plot point in the story.
We'll discuss the different kinds of climaxes more below. But first, it's important to understand the climax's place within the story structure.
Understanding the Climax
If you're familiar with any kind of plot structure, then you've heard of a story climax. Every major story structure around today has some mention of a climax, even if they call it something else.
In Freytag's Pyramid, the climax comes after the rising action and before the falling action. (Although Gustav Freytag's original pyramid was designed only with tragic stories in mind.) The Fichtean Curve and The Five Act Structure also use the term climax in their structures. In The Hero's Journey, it's called Resurrection. In Save the Cat, it's called the Finale.
But for our purposes today, we'll stick to a fairly simple story structure. Because to understand the climax, we must understand the context for it. So, here's the simple structure we'll be using:
- Introduction – Introduces the main character and their “ordinary world,” provides exposition.
- Inciting Incident – This plot element pulls the character out of their ordinary world and into the conflict of the story. The inciting incident is responsible for kicking the plot off with external conflict.
- Rising Action – The bulk of the story in which the main character faces challenges, makes choices, develops, meets other characters, and works toward their ultimate goal.
- Climax – The point of utmost tension in the story where the character must face their biggest challenge.
- Falling Action/Resolution – Loose ends are tied up, conflict is settled.
Whatever you want to call it, a story's climax has certain characteristics that readers expect. These characteristics will vary depending on the kind of story, but it's important to familiarize yourself with them. But before we get to those, let’s look at three examples of memorable climaxes.
You can probably already pick out the climax of a given story. But here are a few examples to refresh your memory.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling – Harry finally defeats Voldemort during an exciting battle at Hogwarts. This isn't only the climax of that book, but it also serves as the climax for the entire Harry Potter series (even though each individual book has its own climax).
- Return of the Jedi – Luke battles Vader while fending off the Emperor's attempts to get him to the dark side. When Luke chops Vader's hand off, he's about to strike his father down (which would bring him over to the dark side). But he stops at the last moment. His better nature prevails. Then Vader throws the Emperor down the conveniently placed death tunnel, thereby completing his own character arc, thanks to Luke's help.
- Titanic – At the end of the James Cameron megahit Titanic, the climax comes as the ship sinks and Jack and Rose are stranded in the freezing water. Jack gets Rose onto a piece of debris and gives his life so that she can stay (mostly) out of the freezing water. Not only is this climax exciting (even though we know from the beginning the ship will sink), but it's also heart-wrenching, which is why it packs such a punch.
Characteristics of a Good Climax
While not every good story will have all of these characteristics, you can bet that they will have at the very least one or two. But the more you can naturally fit into the climax, the more satisfying the reader is likely to find it.
It Answers a Major Question
The climax is the culmination of (almost) everything that has come before. All the smaller conflicts have led up to this. The central question posed by the story's main conflict should be answered in the climax.
This question can be as simple as, “Will the hero defeat the villain?” More often, it's, “How will the hero defeat the villain?”
Most of us pick up an action or thriller novel knowing that the protagonist will prevail. In fact, people will often get angry if the good guy doesn't win. This is because we want to see good triumph over evil, but we also want to see how the protagonist will win in the face of overwhelming odds.
Other common questions answered in a story climax include:
- Will the two main characters get together?
- Will the protagonist learn a valuable lesson?
- Will the protagonist change for the better or the worse?
- Will the mystery be solved?
- Will the criminal be brought to justice?
- Will the missing person be found?
- Will the protagonist overcome the obstacle that's holding them back?
- Will the protagonist find meaning in their life?
Again, you can put the word “How” in front of each of these questions and still have a valid question to answer in your climax.
It is Satisfying
Yes, I know. What is satisfying to one reader may not be to another. But if you look at climaxes in popular books in your genre, then you can get a feel for what readers expect.
In an action thriller, there will often be a confrontation in which the protagonist and antagonist face off. There will be a moment when it looks like all is lost for the hero before they rally and defeat the antagonist.
In a psychological thriller, there will often be a plot twist that makes the reader go, “Wow! Of course! How did I not see it!?”
In a romance, there will be the moment when the two characters finally kiss for the first time (or do other things) after revealing their true feelings for each other.
In a fantasy novel, there might be a massive battle between armies, where magic is on full display and the odds are stacked against the heroes.
You get the idea.
Your climax should be unique, but you don't want it to be so unique it isn't satisfying. Skipping over the action or the emotion of the climax is never a good idea.
It Completes a Character Arc
This ties in with the question-answering factor above. The climax should involve a protagonist making a hard choice that demonstrates their character arc.
Most stories have both external and internal conflicts. And a character arc is all about the inner conflict. In fact, this is one of the best ways to make your climax emotionally satisfying.
If your character has been struggling with a lack of courage throughout the book, and this trait has gotten her into trouble before, then the climax is the place to show that she's developed the courage to do what's right.
This can add to the climactic moment by allowing you to have both external action (fight, argument, chase, battle, etc.) and internal action (the character overcoming their weakness).
When done well, this mixture of the two kinds of conflict will make for an impactful climax.
It Should Change the Status Quo
Not every story will have a well-defined character arc, and that's okay—as long as your readers aren't expecting one.
The types of stories in which the protagonist changes little internally are almost always stories in which there are very clear external changes due to the protagonist's actions.
Most often, these are mysteries, thrillers, and action-adventure stories. Take the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes doesn't change much (if at all) throughout the stories. What changes is external—the mystery is solved, and the world is changed because of it. And the climax of these stories involves Holmes nabbing the villain and explaining how he figured out the mystery.
But the important thing to note here is that the changes come as a direct result of the protagonist's actions. If you don't have internal or external change driven by the character's decisions and actions, then you don't really have a story, much less a climax.
What a Climax Isn't
Now that we've looked at what a good climax is, let's look at what it isn't.
It Isn’t Action for Action's Sake
The major conflict of a story—be it a movie, novel, or short story—creates a through-line. It holds the story together, and the climax's job is to provide a resolution to the story's conflict with suspense and excitement.
This means that the action during the climax needs to be directly related to the major conflict. It's tempting to just have action for action's sake during the climax, but this is not a good idea. It will feel flat, and the readers will be left wondering when the real climax will be coming.
It Isn’t At Odds With the Rest of Your Story
While there's something to be said for subverting reader expectations, this must be done carefully.
If you're writing a space opera, readers expect a climax of epic proportions. So if your protagonist and antagonist come together at the end and decide to set down their weapons and have a nice chat about their differences, you'll probably have some angry readers on your hands.
And if your book is an introspective character study, a huge action scene during the climax is probably not the best idea. There's no rule that you have to have a physical confrontation during the climax. It just needs to be suspenseful and consistent while leading to the resolution of the main conflict.
It Isn’t Inconsistent With the World You’ve Created
The climax needs to be consistent with the rules of your world. If you've made no hint of magic throughout the novel but your main character suddenly discovers that he is a super-powerful wizard just when he's about to be crushed by the villain, this will probably have readers groaning in their seats.
Try to avoid a deus ex machina during your climax. But if you must have one, then make sure to hint at it earlier in the story so it doesn't come completely out of the blue.
Does Every Story Need a Climax?
Not every story needs a climax. But if you're looking to write a story that will appeal to a large commercial audience, then you will need to include a climax.
There have been commercially successful books and movies without a traditional climax, but these are few and far between. So it really comes down to your goals as a writer.
If you're writing in the literary fiction genre, which is home to more “experimental” stories, then you may not want to include a climax. But if you're writing in a commercial genre like romance, thriller, mystery, or fantasy, readers expect the narrative to have a climax near the end.
How to Write the Climax of a Story: Conclusion
As fiction writers, we must understand the narrative structures that make good stories. While there's certainly room to explore story structure and subvert expectations in any given story, this must be done with utmost care. Readers expect certain things from a story. And one of the most important is the climax—the point where the main character or characters overcome their biggest obstacle.
Although it helps, you don't need to study narrative structure to write a good climax. But studying your favorite stories and noting how they all build inevitably toward the climax is essential to internalizing this writing skill!
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