A compelling climax is a thrill for readers, but you are the artist. Here is something to think about as you sit down to begin a novel…What do you want the ending to be?
“Really, at the beginning of my writing journey?”
Really. Because writing a compelling climax for a story doesn’t involve writing one good scene. Everything else in the story leads up to this moment, this final showdown, where the conflict of the plot is resolved, or your protagonist’s goal is achieved; and if you have this goal in mind as you write, it will help you stay on track and focused.
Will Katniss win the Hunger Games? Yes, so how will she do that?
Will Harry defeat Voldemort in the The Philosopher’s Stone? Yes, but not completely, so how will he do that, and what does it mean for the future if Voldemort survives?
“Remind me again – What is the climax of the story?”
In an earlier post, I wrote that Merriam-Webster defines climax as “the culmination of the story, with the most action, the most tension, the most to win or lose of any scene in the novel.”
Reedsy says, in this blog, “A good climax will build upon everything earlier — the storylines, motives, character arcs — and package it all together. It’s both the moment of truth for the protagonist (the peak of the character arc) and the event to which the plot’s built up (the peak of the [story] arc). When the outer and inner journeys come together and click, you know you’ve got the beginnings of a winning climax.”
The climax occurs near the end of your story, 85-95% of the way through, with just enough room afterwards to show your protagonist in their new post-conflict world. Here is a link to show climax in the context of the story arc, and here is a reminder about linking the climax to your inciting incident.
The climax is usually just one scene, and probably the longest scene in your novel.
It comes just after your protagonist’s “aha moment” (when they realize that their inner flaws have been the problem all along, and they make the decision to overcome them) and before the denoument, or resolution (showing the hero after their transformation and climactic battle.)
“What do I have to consider to write a compelling climax?”
In that same earlier post, I wrote some ideas about how to write a good climax scene:
- Have a central conflict important enough to keep readers invested
- Have a protagonist interesting enough that the readers cheer them on and are genuinely concerned for their outcome
- Ensure a good build-up, with lots of rising tension and a few twists and turns
- Make the stakes high for the win-or-lose confrontation
- Make sure the outcome isn’t assured – don’t make it too easy or too hard
- Make sure the conflict is actually resolved to satisfy the story (don’t leave the readers hanging)
- Make sure the climax is appropriate for the genre
(Here is the link again if you want to see those points in more depth, and with examples.)
“What else do I need to think about for a compelling climax?”
Over at thewritepractice.com, Joe Bunting wrote a great article looking at this question; what is the core value of your story? For example, if it’s love vs. hate, then the climax will be about the proof of love; one of the characters will fly across the country, or interrupt the wedding, or sacrifice themselves to prove their love for the other (Think of Pride and Prejudice.) If it’s life vs. death, the protagonist will face a battle where death is a real option (Think Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.)
Your climax should focus on your story’s core value, and the conflict that has arisen over the course of the novel because of it.
Fictionary looks at 38 different elements in three different categories to cover each scene, and the climax scene would be no different. We’ve looked at plot in the points above, but you should pay attention to your character and setting elements as well.
Under the character category, make sure that your climax scene has your protagonist in it and, if appropriate, is from their point of view.
Your protagonist has been on an external journey that has revealed a hidden flaw, they have had to face that internal flaw and overcome it, and now they will fight in the final conflict with this new-found knowledge. Note: they will fight. Make sure your protagonist is the one engaged in the battle! They have to show they have learned their lesson and been transformed.
If the stakes of this conflict aren’t high enough, if it doesn’t matter too much if they lose, if their goal for this scene is not huge, then your climax will be, well, anti-climactic. The outcome of the conflict on your main character has to matter.
There are some things to consider for the setting elements as well; where does this conflict take place? Don’t make it easy, but don’t make it impossible either: If your final conflict happens somewhere in a sunny park, would your story be better served by having that conflict after dark, in a deserted park? In a windstorm, so no one can hear them? And then the lights all go out?
“So that climax has to be a doozy, right?”
Right! In this post at Writersdigest.com, Jeff Gerke writes “What is your external climax going to look like? Make it crazy. Turn up the heat until you don’t think the story can bear it anymore—then triple it! All novel long, you’ve been heaping abuse on your hero to try to get her to change. Now it’s your chance to grab two handfuls of grief and drop it on her head.”
Jenna Moreci, in this YouTube video, talks about the climax being the most intense part of the novel, where the bad guys are really bad, or the obstacle the protagonist needs to overcome really sucks, all leading to an epic showdown. She advises writers to pull out the big guns, make it intense, melt the readers’ brains, and leave them wanting more.
It should be noted that your climax scene doesn’t need to involve car chases and near-death experiences. Nathan Bransford notes, “Even if you’re not writing a genre novel, it’s still important for your characters to face their biggest challenges/fears/desires of all. There doesn’t need to be a gunfight, but there does need to be a sense that your character is being tested like they’ve never been tested before.” It might be the moment your character is waiting for their beloved to show up, and they are waiting, and waiting… will they come, or won’t they??
He goes on to make another good point: “The biggest mistake to avoid as you write your climax is to rush through it. The end of your novel will feel tantalizingly close as you near the finish line, and it’s tempting to speed your way through. You will be so ready to just get your novel done and over with and become one of those exalted people who have finished a novel.
Instead? Take your time. Savor the pinnacle of your novel and put your characters through hell. And heaven. And hell again. And then an even better heaven, one they never saw coming.”
Don’t rush the process – give your readers the struggle they’ve been waiting for! The compelling climax is a must.
So, we come back to where we started, which is starting with the ending. You can see why having an idea of your climax scene is a good place to root the beginning and middle of your novel, weaving all the external and internal flaws of your protagonist together so that they can prove themselves in the end, showing us that they have learned their lessons (so that we can learn them too.)
Post Written by Kara Henderson
Kara Henderson is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach and a content creator for Fictionary. She attended Simon Fraser University for editing courses and is a member of Editors Canada. She edits blogs, creative non-fiction books, non-fiction books, and fiction novels.
She is excited about living life as a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach and helping writers make novels the best they can be.
She currently lives on Vancouver Island, Canada. You can find her on LinkedIn.