All parts of the story boil down to the single, ultimate scene: the climax. This is an intense way to put it, but the climax of a story cements the audience’s opinion of the entire work. For this reason, high impact in this scene is crucial. While tweaking the climax scene a million times is great for late-period editing, the entire work should be written with the climax as the target.
Write to an End
The intensity of a story’s climax is determined in the body of the work. The reader, first, has to connect with the character or the climax will mean much less than it should. No amount of description or strong language can replace a real reader-character connection. The reader has to care about the character enough that what matters to the character matters to the reader. This connection has to be nurtured through the obstacles the character overcomes, their relationships, and through emotional shared experience.
Second, the reader needs to know where the story is heading. Write the book with the end in mind. Now, this isn’t to say a climax has to be in mind before a first draft is penned. This is to say, in all the crafting that happens with a book from concept to 100th edit, the climax has to be where the story is headed. The climax is the definitive confrontation between the character and the biggest antagonistic force. This can be their own conscience, the villainous dragon king, or the unspoken damage done in a relationship. No matter what genre or plot form, the climax has to answer the question that has been growing through the story. Will they turn good? Who will win? What happens when the family finds out?
The final thing to remember is that the climax is not about the plot. This bears repeating: the climax is not about the plot any more than the story is about the plot. The climax, like the story, is about the characters. While the climax functions as the tense peak of action in the story, it should always be the crux of the character’s arc of growth. At the climax of the story, the character should experience some kind of epiphany, some kind of realization or shift, which changes them. As an example, Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog has a climax that is exceptionally well done. In his effort to get into the prestigious “evil league of evil”, Dr. Horrible ends up committing an act that deeply horrifies himself, making him his own nemesis. It’s worth a watch.
Structure the Scene
From a technical standpoint, the climax is a scene that can be structured for optimum impact. Just like the rest of the work, it’s just words on a page, so don’t be scared of it. Puke it out and tune it up later. A blank page can’t be tweaked to perfection, only imperfect writing can, so get on there and be imperfect first.
Once the crap is on the page, the first thing to do is put the writer in the kennel. The climax is all about putting the reader first. While it might be satisfying to be deeply symbolic, marvelously gory, or sentimentally sweet with the culminating scene, it counts for nothing if the reader doesn’t follow, is disgusted, or isn’t sold on all the perfectly tied loose ends. Read it a million times, then get trusted readers to give feedback and workshop the living daylights out of the scene. It isn’t necessary for the test readers to read the whole work; instead focus on how they felt during the scene, how well it kept their attention, and if they felt satisfied at the end of it.
While this doesn’t cover all of what can be done to perfect a climax scene, there is an excellent article by Jim Butcher on climactic structure. For anyone wanting a more formulaeic route, this is a great article. He outlines six parts of a climax scene that can give writers a leg-up on editing their first version. (As an extra bonus, it’s a funny read!)
- Suspense comes with the reader’s uncertainty about which side is going to win.
- Climax: definitive confrontation which determines the winner
- Est. Character and What’s at stake
- Only important that it matters to the character and that the reader cares about the character enough to care about what matters to them
- “the first few pages of a novel sell that novel, the ending of the novel sells the next novel”
- Key elements: vivid, satisfying
- Revelation for the main character; fulcrum of the character arc
- Faux climax
- A. climax creates tension
- B. leads to a point of confrontation and realization
- C. main characters ‘meet’ the unknown
- D. culmination of conflicts
- 1. Don’t make it too easy
- 2. Be true to the genre
- 3. Avoid clichés
- 4. Make way for the falling action
- Bring plot elements together
- Don’t linger too long in the climax
- Weigh out the trade off between your own satisfaction and the reader’s emotional reaction
- You only get one
- Build up or blindside the reader
- Build enough in the book; the reader needs to know the significance of what will happen