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The climax of a fictional story is both satisfying and terrible, a moment of triumph and a moment of defeat, a moment of sadness and a moment of joy. It’s the end of the story, but the end of the story is also a new beginning, and a new beginning means a new story. The climax is the emotional crux of a story, the point where your main character must decide who they are, what they believe and what they’re willing to sacrifice for what they believe. The climax is the point where the character’s choices are irrevocably changed, and the choices they make in the climax are what separate the characters who become part of the canon from those who fade away into obscurity.
Explore all perspectives
How you write the climax of your fictional story depends on what kind of ending you want for your main character and how your story will have changed them. Oftentimes, a character will hit a reading, the highest point of tension, and will barrel over a fall and hit an outcome. They will have hit the climax of their story. Other times, characters build slowly toward climaxes.
Whatever story you choose, remember your reader and pay attention to their expectations. Whether a character has hit one climax or many, the way you tie up the story must make sense, and it must, above all, satisfy your reader. Make sure your character has made choices that line up with who they are. If they’ve changed with the plot, make sure they’ve learned how to change, adjust and still be who they fundamentally are. The whole point of the climax scene is to pull your readers to an emotional end and bring the story to a close, but remember that your book isn’t the end. As part of the canon, it’s a whole new world of beginnings.
The climax is one of the trickiest things to write in fiction — so tricky, in fact, that you might not end up writing one whole big climax scene in your book. Many masterpieces of literary fiction hit the climax at various points, heightening tension and resolving aspects of the conflict. If you’ve developed your plot slowly and carefully, you can pull off many small climax scenes not just in your novel’s finale, but all the way through to the end. Don’t feel constrained to the one-scene model, just understand that, whatever you choose, your climax has to deliver.
Above all, remember that it’s suspense and drama that will create emotion in your reader. If your character has to compete with other plot lines or is dealing with frustrating conflict or is powerless to intervene in a situation — and then wins — your reader will feel good, but the ‘win,’ on a visceral level, won’t last. Throw all your scenes into chaos and then bring them all together so that your reader leaves your book with a sense of how to write a whole new set of beginnings.
Set your scene
You can’t cook up a simmering pot of tension if your reader doesn’t know where the story is taking place or what to expect. You’ll need peripheral characters, objects, and scenery to make your climactic scene come to life. Start by choosing a setting, whether that stage is a spaceship, a hotel room, a farmhouse, or even a prison cell. When you’re creating your fictional climax, think bigger than the setting, and choose an environment that will suit both the drama and mood that make up this story moment. Give your reader a sense of agency by showing them that you’re playing to your setting’s strengths, as much as the needs of your plot.
Now your setting is a crucial part of your scene, but it has more value than just providing a place for your story to unfold. A replica of reality can look fantastical in the right context. Romance may bloom at the top level of the Empire State Building, in a field under a full moon, or even in the shelves of a library. A murder scene could be boring and run-of-the-mill, or a gruesome nightmare in a Victorian pocket dimension. There are no limits to what can happen at the climax of a story. Settling on a setting and a location will help get you started on a direction you can take, but don’t make the mistake of limiting yourself to something you can imagine . . . imagine bigger!
Introduce one problem at a time
When dealing with two problems, an author may choose to delay the solution to one, but a third problem will raise the stakes even higher. This is what happens in many stories. One protraction is addressed at a time and then another. In order to write a successful climax, writers need to organize rising action so that it impacts on the climax in the right order. It’s not uncommon for writers to muddle the climax, erroneously considering the rising action to be the climax. The rising action is always there to take the story to some climactic point. Keep in mind that conflicts should be mutually exclusive and interdependent. Beware of starting new conflicts. A story can only have so much conflict, so if you find yourself adding more, take the time to edit. The climactic feeling isn’t enough on its own in order to make a story successful. Climax should reveal people’s true selves. Also recognize that climax is an abstract concept. Because climax impacts the reader’s emotions and needs, the rise of action doesn’t have to be smooth. Unpredictability can make things captivating.
The primary dilemma can be brought about by a main character, but other characters can affect the outcome, too. Make sure that each conflict leads to another in an important way. Some conflicts propel the conflict forward. Some can present obstacles that prevent the journey from taking place, however, each journey should have limits. The interaction between the characters and the plot will carry the tension so add undercurrent to all conflicts. Conflict should play a role and reveal the true nature of your characters. It’s essential to understand that the more complex the conflicts and their resolutions, the more engaged with the story you become.
Find the significance of every character
For the climax of a fictional story to feel significant, every character has to be significant to the plot — or at least they need to seem significant. The best endings to fictional stories are the ones that can be read as metaphors. Things happen not just because characters make decisions, but because they’re not exceptional people, but people just like us. The best literary stories have endings that each of us know we could have written, had we worked hard enough. One of the best examples of this is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which ends with Billy Pilgrim locked in the Tralfamadorian zoo, caressing an alien robot. We know that any of us could find ourselves completely alone and alienated at any moment, if death or other extraordinary forces blithely descend on us. And yet, the knowledge of this universality is something at which each of us can only marvel — the audacity of more ordinary fantasies.
Would you like characters to seem significant? Make sure that they’re involved in a conversation. Make a list of the most important dramatic questions that are answered in the climax of your story, and provide at least some answer to each one, and the degree of that answer will help you find the significance of every character. Some questions, like what happens in Great Expectations after the revelation of Magwitch’s first, must be answered in depth — and some questions, like the Westworld opening where you next see the gunslinger after having taken the Heart for granted, don’t even need to be addressed to the reader explicitly. You just have to have given every major character, person, place, thing, or concept a conversation so that it’s been considered, at least.
Give your characters a worthy adversary
In order for your climax to be meaningful, it needs to have some stakes. To that end, the villain of your book should be a credible opponent who your protagonist has a fighting chance of defeating — ideally, this villain should even be in a superior position at the beginning of the conflict. If your protagonist is going to defeat this adversary, try working in a surprising twist or shocking flourish.
You also need to know how to fill your climactic conflict with tension, one of the most critical elements of any story. Start with an act of violence to kick off your pivotal confrontation, then string together a few more to express the gravity of the situation and how at-risk your characters are. Along the way, try out chapter cliffhangers to raise the stakes even higher, and to ensure that readers have to finish the book. Pointing out the consequences of failure for both your protagonist and antagonist will also keep tension high.
Keep the stakes high
Like any story, the climax of a fictional story hinges on the conflict between your hero and antagonist and features certain elements that make those encounters exciting, vastly different, personal, and meaningful. The stakes of the fight in your climax — the fate of the universe or at least the fate of Earth — should be high. Don’t cram too many climaxes into a story, or else the last one will look insubstantial when surrounded by two big ones. Write the climax first before the other parts because the climax happens at the highest point in the story. Build suspense before and during the climax by adding twists or evolved developments.
Steer your story toward conflict, raising interest and leading toward a climax. A climax occurs during the high point of the story, so you should steer your characters toward that point. Dramatic tension should rise toward the climax — building in the case of a novel, or in smaller increments in real-time with cinema. Think of the climax as leading to an action in a clear, obvious way that will propel your characters into the ending. Point-of-view or narration should provide information up until the resolution or conclusion.
Grow out the anticipation
Foreshadow the climax throughout the story. With every event you show the reader something about how it relates to the climax. At the same time, leave some things obscure, so the reader is anxious to find out where the plot is going. Create a persistent sense of uncertainty. Vary the urgency until the very end. Threaten to break the minor tension of the story with some other kind of threat until the last possible moment. Ramp up the tension several times and then release it before reaching the actual scene without raising it again. Answer all the questions raised before the climax and introduce a few new ones.
The more intricate the situation, the more options you have for ending the story in a climax. Show that a victory comes with a ridiculous price, then pay that price without making the victory hollow. Instead of turning triumph into defeat, play the victory for character. It should be the crowning moment of the climax. Crave everyone’s thoughts and expectations for those who were touched by the story.
Establish the doubt
Build up the tension — In the beginning of the story, the readers are doubtful about the success of the protagonists. They are not sure if the protagonists will achieve their goal or not. But knowing that the protagonist is on a mission often means that the readers want him to succeed. It creates curiosity in the readers’ minds that what could be the obstacles that the protagonist will face, that he might fail? So, if the readers are aware of the possible failure of the protagonist, then they will keep on reading to know how he converts that failure into success.
Push the plot to its highest tension – the readers should be feeling nervous about the main question, a.k.a. what the story is all about. They must be tensed to read about how the conflict of the story will end. The conflict should escalate gradually till it reaches its peaking point or climax. As the story builds up to a climax, the action continues to build until readers can’t take it anymore.
Write impactful endings
The climax of your story should wrap up any unanswered questions, but more than that it needs to deliver the emotional impact and artistic mastery that made the reader stick around this long. The climax of your story is a great place to respond to criticism of your work — especially as an outlier against the previous acts. Consider how you might stage the climax of your story differently if a detractor had been the one to walk away so you don’t get tripped up by what non-fans might be looking for.
The best fictional climaxes achieve an ascending life — moments of great personal triumph that use the protagonist’s strength to enhance their imminent failures, like Batman getting drugged in The Dark Knight, or Romeo killing Paris in Romeo and Juliet. Make sure to read over your earlier acts before writing a climax, so you can return to pivotal scenes and find ways to subtly enhance the repercussions of the protagonist’s struggles.
Leave your characters somewhere better than where they started
Don’t just give your character a happy ending — give them a justified happy ending. In fact, you should consider the beginning and the end of your narrative as a whole, and even tie them together into a bow. Sure, any of the good parts? Throw those in the climax. The trick is to bring your readers a step closer to the end of their journey, and if you’ve done the leg-work planning your narrative? You’ll have the tools to know exactly where your readers have come from and exactly where you want them to end. Choose the moment that best positions them to go on with their lives and journey.
And what they deserve to feel after all the chaos of their lives falling apart? By delving into who your character is and what they want, which of your character’s arcs is completed by the end of the narrative. Put yourself in your character’s shoes, and their goals, by the end of the climax, should they achieve all the things they set out to achieve? How will this make them feel, physically and emotionally? Make their desired outcome visceral — will they have their revenge, experience physical pleasure, find salvation or love? Is your character broken and vengeful, or rigid and cold, or mellow and content? Are they slogging it out alone, or is there someone intimate in their corner? How do they feel? Remember that the end of a narrative can be a place of resolution, but it doesn’t have to be a place of a stagnant state. Like other characters engaging the plot, your climax should focus on the ideals and physicality of your character’s life, as well as ties together into a bow. Writing the end of the plot is as much about physical description as it is character identity and action.
The climax is, in effect, what this story you’re writing is all about. It’s where the action culminates, where the choices the character makes illuminate their innermost selves, where the message of the story is distilled down to its essence. It’s the beginning and the end of every story you could tell, for it’s the moment that truly shows us who we are… and thus, who we aspire to be. The climax holds in itself all the elements that are going to make your story what it ultimately is — whether it’s strong and touching or weak and overwrought, whether it’s moving or merely a diversion. It’s on you to decide what you want to happen, and do it well.
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