Everything in your novel has built up to your climax. And now you’re there. How, in the world, are you supposed to actually write it? It’s supposed to be the best scene in your book. But… how? I’ve always struggled with climaxes. My problem? My climax seems just like every other scene. How was I supposed to make it special? How was I supposed to make it climactic?
The Moment Before
Let’s start at the beginning. What is ‘the climax’ of your book? According to LiteraryDevices.net the climax is “that particular point in a narrative at which the conflict or tension hits the highest point.” That’s a nice definition (and I’ll be coming to back to it in a moment) but it doesn’t help us, because it presumes that we’ve solved the problem we’re addressing. What is the definition of your climax if it /isn’t/ (yet) when the conflict or tension reaches its highest point?
So, how about a new definition? According to… me, I guess, a climax is “the scene which occurs just before the story goal is achieved.” Wow. We just defined a thing. (Can we do that? I guess so. Cool, huh.) Okay, moving on.
So, just before the story goal is achieved… why then? Because your villain is trying to stop your hero from achieving the story goal, so the goal cannot be achieved while the villain has not yet been defeated. But, once the villain is defeated, the goal is quickly achieved. What does that mean? It means that not only does the climax happen just before the story goal is achieved, it is the scene where the hero finally defeats the antagonist, whatever that scene may look like for your story.
Everything that happens in your story is leading up to the achievement of your story goal. The stakes and conflict of your story should be constantly increasing the closer and closer your hero comes to achieving the story goal. That means (per both logic and LiteraryDevices’ definition) the stakes and conflict of your story are at their absolute highest point in the climax.
To sum things up, your climax is supposed to be your story’s most important, most exciting scene Which brings us back to our original question: how?
First off, a great climax is foreshadowed. It’s different, more important, because we’ve been trying to get to it for a long, long time. Ever since early on in the story, we, as readers, have known what it was going to look like, and we’ve been fighting and suffering alongside your hero to get there. For example, we know that Frodo is going to drop the Ring into Mordor. That’s what the entire story has been leading up to. We know that Tirian is going to free Narnia forever. That’s the point of the book, right? It is, after all, “The Last Battle. We know that Peter has to kill Hook. It’s the only way there will ever be peace in Neverland.
Foreshadowing you ending will lend the scene more importance. When your readers start to read something that’s been foreshadowed for the entire manuscript, they’ll realize that whatever is about to happen is big. It’s the end. The final conflict. That’s the first step in setting your scene apart.
Don’t mistake me for saying that your story’s resolution or climax should be predictable. If your story ends exactly the way that your readers have been picturing it since the beginning, then they’ll be bored. They’ll feel smarter than your book, and they’ll regret wasting their time on something the figured out two-hundred pages ago. You can’t let your reader be smarter than you. You have to surprise them, while still holding true (in some way) to the ending you foreshadowed.)
I know that sounds crazy, but you’ve seen it done before. Does Frodo actually cast the Ring into the mountain? Narnia is freed, but in the way you had pictured? Of course Peter is going to have to kill Captain Hook, but is that how it actually goes down? The answer is no, on all accounts. (Spoilers incoming. You’ve been warned.) Gollum destroys the ring in a fit of his own greed. Narnia is freed when the world ends and everyone goes to a metaphorical heaven. Hook dies (while fighting Peter, even) but only when he trips over the edge of his ship and a crocodile eats him.
Each of these endings had an element of the foreshadowed ending, but they also had unexpected endings. Frodo did have to go to Mount Doom, and someone did have to cast the ring into the fire. Tirian did have to lead a final charge against Narnia’s enemies, and they did have to raid the barn, so to speak. But they didn’t find what they expected. Peter did have to cross blades with Captain Hook. But he needed a little help from the deep.
I could have titled this section “foreshadowed” as well, because everything is about to come full circle. You have to foreshadowed two different things for your readers. First, you have to foreshadow the expected ending (discussed above), but you also have to (more subtly) forshadow the actual ending. Not to the point that they expect it too, but just enough so that in hindsight, it makes sense. Gandalf told us that Gollum “May yet have some part to play.” Everything in The Last Battle screamed “end of the world” (if only in hindsight.) Captain Hook’s hook served as a constant reminder to the reader that the local croc already had a developed taste for the villain. In hindsight, we know we should have seen the actual endings of these stories coming.
So what’s the trick? The more unexpected the ending, the better, but not past the point of believability. You can always expand what is believable with proper foreshadowing, but of course you risk losing your unexpected element the more and more you foreshadow something. It’s a balance, and a delicate one, but it’s one that can be found. And the right balance can make for a gripping climax, to cap off a thrilling movie.
One thing that I should mention about our definition of a climax is the word “conflict.” It may go without saying, but I want to make sure it doesn’t. You climax should be absolutely packed with conflict. Internal conflict. External conflict. Multi-dimensional conflict. Inter-personal, and interplanetary conflict. As much conflict as can possibly be had. Conflict between your hero and villain. Conflict between your hero and ally. Conflict between your hero and himself. His old self and his new self. And the conflict should all feed off of each other.
Also, your hero’s theme, his personal journey, should be reaching his climax in this scene. And, the fact that he finally learns whatever lesson he’s supposed to learn, must be the deciding factor in the scene. There’s a lot more to say on this topic, but I’ve already gone way over word-count for the post.
Hey, maybe next week? (No promises. Theme is only like the hardest thing to tackle in all of fiction writing. 😛 But hey, hard things are worthwhile things, right?)
(We’ll see. It might take me a couple of weeks to throw that post together. Anyway, y’all don’t care, right? There will be another post next week. Hopefully it will be helpful. That’s all I can say.)
(And now I’m adding to my too-long word count so I’ll see y’all later.)