There are many ways to look at how stories are formed, but the one I have been using (and therefore the one I’m most familiar with) is the three-act story structure. It can be visualized using the story arc, which has five main beats; the inciting incident, plot point 1, the middle, plot point 2, and the finale, the climax.
So what exactly is the climax of a story?
Merriam-Webster defines climax as:
a: the highest point; culmination
the climax of a distinguished career
b: the point of highest dramatic tension or a major turning point in the action (as of a play)
At the novel’s climax, the main character finds herself face to face with the thief.
The folks at WritetoDone define it as “when all the preceding drama, tension, trials, and conflict culminate in one explosive moment.”
Masterclass writes “the climax of a story is a dramatic turning point in a narrative—a pivotal moment at the peak of the story arc that pits the protagonist against an opposing force in order to resolve the main conflict once and for all.”
Remember the inciting incident? That something that changed the protagonist’s journey and sent them out of their comfort zone? The journey ends with the climax, whether the outcome is good or bad. Everything written so far leads up to this moment, whether it’s an epic battle to determine the fate of the galaxy or finally the romantic leads declare their love for each other.
It is, as Merriam-Webster says, the culmination of the story, with the most action, the most tension, the most to win or lose of any scene in the novel.
Where should the climax come in the story?
The climax should come between 85% and 95% of the way through the story. You don’t want to end the conflict too early – why would readers want to stay engaged? The tension has been resolved, and everyone lives happily ever after (or they don’t!)
But you don’t want to have the climax come too late in the story either, because you need to give your readers the satisfaction of seeing your characters in their new, calmer world. Their journey has ended, they’ve resolved the conflict, they have changed and become a better/different version of themselves – how does that play out for them?
The climax itself will probably only be a scene or two, but because it should have the most action, the most tension, the most to win or lose, it will be at least one of your longest scenes, and most likely the longest. Everything has been leading up to this moment, so give the readers the detailed description they’ve been waiting for!
How do you write a really good climax scene?
There are a few things to think about when looking for a good climactic finale to a story.
The first key points might seem obvious; the central conflict to the story must be important enough to have the readers invested, and the protagonist has to be interesting enough that the readers cheer them on and are genuinely concerned for their outcome. Make these things matter, or you will lose your audience before they even get to the climax.
The next thing is to ensure a good build-up, using lots of rising tension, a few twists and turns to the plot, and having the readers hooked enough to finish the story in the first place. Make the stakes high enough, and make sure that the outcome isn’t assured.
Then you’ll need to think about is how you want that central conflict resolved.
- Don’t make it too easy (it’s a bit of a let-down, really, if the couple we’re cheering for, who have been fighting non-stop for the entire novel, look at each other and say, “Look, we actually love each other, let’s just get married.”)
- Don’t make it too hard (unless you’re writing superhero stories, your protagonist probably can’t fight her way through an entire army to escape; you don’t want to leave the reader thinking, “Well that would never happen.”)
- Don’t leave it unresolved! Make sure that journey your protagonist has been on – whatever battle they are fighting/mystery they are trying to solve/relationship they have been avoiding – it needs to be wrapped up in a way that satisfies the story.
- Do ensure that the climax is appropriate for the genre. If you’re writing a traditional romance, your characters need to get together in the end; if it’s a mystery, it will need to be solved.
Examples of Climax Scenes
When I last wrote about inciting incidents, I mentioned that examples are a great way to explain things, so I will use those same examples for showing what makes a good climax. Spoilers follow!
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Harry has had an incredible first year at Hogwarts, he’s made friends (and foes), learned magic, and is in the process of discovering who he is, The Boy Who Lived. He, Ron, and Hermione discover that Hogwarts is hiding the Philosopher’s Stone from those who would restore Voldemort, but he knows that it isn’t safe. The tension builds as the children make their way through the protective spells, working as a team and using their strengths to overcome. In the climax scene, Harry must face Quirrell/Voldemort alone, with no guarantee of the outcome. What can an 11-year-old boy do against He Who Shall Not Be Named?? Yet love wins in the end – Harry is protected by the sacrifice of his mother, and Voldemort cannot prevail against her love.
- The Hunger Games. Katniss has used all her stealth and wit, and against the odds she and Peeta stand together as the last two contestants in the games. But now what? The Capitol had changed the rules to say two contestants from the same district could win the games, and then revoke that promise; Peeta is willing to sacrifice himself, but Katniss cannot let that happen – the Capitol cannot be allowed to win. The climax scene has them about to eat the poison berries; neither of them wants to allow the Capitol to have control anymore, even if it means they both die. They have been placed in an impossible position but take control from the Capitol in deciding their fates (which sets in motion the rebellion against the Capitol in the next books.)
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Edmund must pay for his treachery, and even as they prepare to do battle against the White Witch, she comes to claim Edmund as her rightful prey, to shed his blood to pay for his betrayal. She and Aslan hold council, then Aslan tells them that the witch has renounced her claim on Edmund. But her look of ‘fierce joy’ and hearing that Aslan has made a bargain let us know it’s not over yet. As the children prepare for battle, Aslan makes his way to the Stone Table, and Lucy and Susan watch as Aslan offers himself in place of Edmund. All seems lost. But then, Aslan is alive again – resurrected through a Deeper Magic that the White Queen did not know about. He revives the queen’s victims, they all join the battle, and the White Witch is defeated (at least for now).
- Romeo and Juliet. The plan is in play – Juliet will pretend to die, and thus leave her home and family to live happily ever after with Romeo, who is exiled for killing Tybalt. But alas! Romeo returns to find his beloved ‘dead’ and cannot live without her. He takes his own life to lie with Juliet forever. She awakes from her sleep, expecting to run away to be with her love, only to find her dead beside her; she also cannot bear the thought of life without Romeo, so she also takes her life. We have been hoping the lovers will be together forever, but the climax finds them together in death, not in life.
- Twilight. Bella loves Edward, even though she now knows what he is. She would rather be with him, risking death, than without him, and is willing to sacrifice herself if need be. This turns out to be the case – James, the vampire who wanted Bella’s blood, lures her away from the Cullen family. She ends up going to face him alone, unwilling to risk Edward’s life to save her. The battle scene is set in the ballet studio near her home; a battle she knows she cannot win. The Cullens are racing to get there and arrive just in time to fight James and save Bella.
Remember that linking your inciting incident and your climax brings your story full circle, and is a great way to make your story more captivating.
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 has a passion for young adult stories.
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. Contact Kara on LinkedIn.