Six impossible things

Story climax, part 1

Climax: any moment of great intensity in a literary work.

                     –Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.

Everybody knows what the climax of the story is, right? It’s the battle with the monster, the discovery of the cure for the plague, the revelation of the murderer, blowing up the Death Star, Harry finally telling Sally he loves her. It’s so obvious in all the most memorable stories that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it may not have been all that obvious to the writer when the story was under construction.

For one thing, as the definition above implies, most stories have more than one moment of great intensity scattered through the story. Only one of them is ever THE climax, so when people are trying to get a bit more specific they talk about things like “the highest intensity” and “the final crisis” and “the point where the problem can potentially be finally resolved.” The only trouble is, most stories have multiple problems on multiple levels, each of which will come to a final climax and resolution somewhere in the story (unless the author is deliberately leaving some of them hanging in the name of either future sequels or realism). This leaves the author not only having to decide which of the several climactic moments is THE climax, but how to juggle all the secondary climactic moments in order to give them their appropriate importance and impact, without taking away from the big one.

In most novels, the author knows what the Big Problem is…or at least, the author knew when he/she started writing. Sometimes, the plot develops in unexpected directions; the story that started out as a crime drama morphs into a story about stopping a potential plague, for instance. In this case, the solution of the initial crime problem still needs to be addressed, or the writer is breaking a promise to her/his readers, but stopping the plague is so much more important that it has become THE problem. If the writer tries to stick to the original plan and make the dramatic solution to the crime the climax of the book, it is going to fall completely flat unless the scene also solves the problem with the plague…and when the readers get asked what the climax is, they’ll say “finding the cure.”

Sometimes, the author gets distracted by shiny new subplots. The heroes set out to find the sword that will kill the dragon, but they get sidetracked into this unexpected adventure with pirates, and the author tries to make their escape from the pirates into the climax of the story. This only works in the early books of a series, where the reader fully expects the author to eventually get back around to the dragon in the last book…by which time the dragon-slaying had better be totally awesome, or they are going to be cranky about having been made to wait so long.

And sometimes, the author gets confused by the various possibilities and/or is unclear about what the story really is. This happens most commonly when there is a strong action/adventure subplot, but the main problem/plot is really on some other level. There is so much emphasis on action that it is easy for writers to assume that if there is any action thread at all, then that will be THE climax, even if the main story problem is emotional or intellectual.

There are at least four different types of climaxes that can appear in a plot or subplot, maybe more. First, there is the climax of achievement, which is when the main character succeeds at whatever he/she set out to do: win the game, kill the dragon, fall in love, survive the crash landing and make it back to safety. Second, there is the climax of revelation, as when the detective calls all the suspects together to review all the evidence and reveal the murderer. Third is the climax of discovery, when the main character discovers fire, radium, the cure for the plague, life on Mars, or a way to communicate with the aliens at last. Fourth is the climax of realization, when the main character finally has the epiphany he/she has been building toward for the whole story.

Sometimes the central plot problem has aspects of more than one type of climax. When the spaceship crew that has gone out in search of intelligent life actually makes contact with aliens, that could be both a climax of achievement and a climax of discovery. Usually, the author will emphasize one aspect or the other, depending on how the story has developed so far. The trick is to be consistent. If the story so far has emphasized the importance of the mission, then finding aliens is more of a success/achievement; if the story took the mission for granted and spent more time on the methodical search and the procedures, then finding the aliens might be more of a discovery. And if the story focused on the ship’s captain learning how to deal with people as equals, rather than just ordering them around, then the actual story climax might be one of revelation/epiphany, and finding the aliens is more of a validation or subplot climax.

Ideally, you want the Big Climax Scene to  be the climax for both the central plot problem and for as many subplots as possible, on as many levels as possible. This isn’t always possible, and it’s generally better to stick with doing a great job of wrapping up the central plot problem than it is to do a mediocre job on the central wrap-up while cramming in lesser climaxes for three or six subplots. If, however, you end up with a string of six separate climactic scenes, one for each of your six subplots, you may need to either work harder on getting them to combine, or else prune some of the subplots.

Next time, I’m going to talk more about actually writing the climax scene itself.

  1. Alfred Bester described some of his writing (paraphrasing), as going to a climax then before we get back down, hitting us again to a higher climax (repeat as necessary).

  2. “This leaves the author not only having to decide which of the several climactic moments is THE climax, but how to juggle all the secondary climactic moments in order to give them their appropriate importance and impact, without taking away from the big one.” <– This is what I'm dealing with now. I've mostly decided to wrap up most of the smaller climatic moments in one chapter, and the main climax in the next. The thing that is hard for me with this book, is that it isn't really *action* in anyway. Most of my books have had the big bad guy to fight, or the monster, or the government to take down, or what have you. With this book, it's more about internal growth and love, so it's harder for me to pinpoint. It's definitely a problem I've never had before!

  3. My first story using multiple viewpoints (only two, thank gawds) gave each of the two protagonists their own climax. I didn’t see a way to combine them without a major restructuring of, well, everything, so I made their resolutions parallel by having them both involve the same type of “prop”—one used unexpectedly successfully and the other unexpectedly unsuccessfully. It was enough to tie the two endings together that the brother and sister both used the same prop.

  4. You have great timing! I’ve just started working on the big battle scene that’s the climax of my WIP. This is the (extensively-revised) second draft, and in the first draft the climax was a different, smaller battle that still needs to be included, so I’ve tried to tone that one down a bit so the big one is obviously the climactic point.

    By the way, some of the posts from your archives on writing battles and action scenes have been a big help!

  5. “they are going to be cranky about having been made to wait so long” if you break a story up into pieces, and each piece doesn’t stand alone in some way, and reach its own climax.

    I have a story that is too long for one book; it split itself neatly into a trilogy with three different climaxes – but the first one is a bit muted as a result. I have the choice of waiting until the whole is finished before publishing – or having people read only as far as the end of the first book. It is a constant underpinning – make the trilogy good, and make each piece good.

    We tolerated the same for The Lord of the Rings – but I’m not writing fantasy. I may end up almost as long as Gone With the Wind – but have no burning of Atlanta or back ground of war.

    It made me stop and do a lot of thinking where I am, at the last part of Book 1. Any suggestions? Or do I just trust myself?

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