Six impossible things

Story climax, part 2

Possibly the most important scene at or near the end of any story is the climax. The first difficulty here is, exactly what is “the climax” when there are several possible types and a double handful of plotlines and subplots that all need to be wrapped up?

The answer starts with a series of questions. First, who is the main character? This is not necessarily the viewpoint character (Dr. Watson is not the main character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, though he is the viewpoint for most of them). Second, what is the thing that the main character has most wanted or needed or been trying to fix since the start of the story? What is most important or most in doubt? What, in short, is the central problem of the story? Third, what is the one thing that has to happen to the main character in order for the story to be over and the reader satisfied? Or, to put it another way, what is the thing that, if the writer left it out, will leave the story lopsided, out-of-balance, and unsatisfying, even if all the other plotlines and loose ends are tied up?

We’ve been conditioned by years of action-adventure stories, TV shows, and movies to be able to identify an action/achievement climax easily, and to expect that to be “the climax.” It isn’t always the case. In Lois Bujold’s Memory, for instance, I’d say that the climax of the book is the chapter that Miles spends alone in his room, wrestling with temptation. It’s his epiphany, a climax of realization. The action climax comes afterward, with the “assault on Cockroach Central,” and it ties up the climax of achievement and the climax of revelation in a fast-paced swirl of events, but without the epiphany that precedes it, the whole book would be off-balance and the main character’s victory would feel hollow.

When the action/achievement climax is not actually THE climax, it is usually possible (not easy, but possible) to leave it out of the story. Sometimes, an author does this by ending the story with the hero, fresh from his epiphany or personal revelation, heading out for the final battle (as, in the musical Camelot, the story ends on the night before Arthur’s battle with Mordred. Because even if we didn’t know the story already, it’s obvious how the battle is going to come out, and anyway, who wins isn’t the important thing by then). Sometimes, the author does it by skipping forward a few days or hours. These are tricky to pull off, because readers, too, have been conditioned to really, really want resolution of the action-adventure part of the story, even if it isn’t the climax, but pondering the possibility can help make it clear whether or not the action/achievement is the real climax or not.

Actually, “Could I make this story work if I left out this scene/event/incident/climax entirely?” is a pretty good test for whittling down which of several possibilities is “the climax.”

But what about stories that have an ensemble cast or a braided plotline – that is, there are two or more independent-but-related stories that follow different “main characters?” In that case, you start with the same set of questions, only the first one is “which of my main characters do I care the most about? Which one will the reader care the most about? Which one do I want the reader to care the most about?” Because no matter how “balanced” an ensemble cast is, the readers are always going to pick one as the main character. (This may not be the same as their favorite character, but even people who love Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy recognize that Captain James T. Kirk is the main character in the original Star Trek series.)

To summarize: The main climax of the story a) happens to the main character, b) whom the reader cares about, and c) leads to the resolution of the main story problem (whether that is an action problem or something else). To achieve all this, the scene usually needs to be clear and focused. Ideally, the main climax also resolves as many of the secondary plotlines as possible, or at least sets them up to be swiftly resolved, but if doing so would dilute the clarity or focus on the resolution of the main problem, then one is almost always better off leaving them for later.

The main climax is repeatedly described as the moment of highest intensity or greatest tension in a literary work. Resolving it causes a large drop in tension – usually the largest drop anywhere in the story. This means that resolving subplots and secondary plots is generally most effective if done after the main story climax, if they don’t naturally wrap up during the main climactic scene. This is because resolving anything, even a completely different part of the story, tends to lower the overall tension level, and you don’t want to lower the tension level right before you are supposed to hit the highest point of tension in the whole book. The exception is if resolving a particular subplot in advance of the main climax will cause a net increase in the tension around the main plot; in that case, it is sometimes desirable to put that resolution before the main climax, as a sort of appetizer.

Once the main climax is over, it is quite often obvious how the remaining plotlines will resolve themselves, or at least, it’s obvious that they will be resolved. Going back to Memory, the climactic scene (Miles wrestling with temptation) ends with his recognition of who he is and what his decision must be, which in turn allows him to have the crucial moment of insight that leads to solving the main action plot. Bujold then entirely skips all the preparations for the next move, and goes straight to the action climax, which is no longer about whether the action plot will be solved (that is inevitable at this point), it’s about exactly how the solution will happen. Everything moves along briskly, because we’re on the downhill slope of the story. Pausing to add a new complication or an explanation might, just possibly, increase the tension, but at this stage of the game, increasing the tension would be an annoying and unnecessary delay.

12 Comments
  1. These are all helpful points! In my WIP the action climax is the main one, with the romantic subplot getting wrapped up later. What I’m still trying to figure out is just how *much* later the wrapping can reasonably happen. The characters have a good week’s worth of tidying up to do after the big battle, so do I let the heroine and hero sort things out somewhere in the middle of all that, then go on with the tidying, or do I make them wait until it’s all over and the heroine is about to leave for home?

    • I should think you can let the story slowly decline from the climax to the end, if that’s the way it wants to go. Consider how _The Return of the King_ spends five chapters and three years after the Ring is destroyed, cleaning up and putting out fires and getting people to the Shire, to the Havens, and back to the Shire again.

      As to when in your plotline the hero and heroine do their sorting, perhaps you can let them decide? Start with the tidying-up and see if some point turns out to be the right one. Your characters may surprise you; and it’s such fun when they do.

      • That sounds reasonable. Thanks!

        The hero already surprised me once by telling the heroine “I love you” sooner than I expected him to…

        • This is the coolest thing that can happen. In addition to getting you out of a bind, it’s a clue that your characters are well-developed. Cardboard never interrupts you in mid-sentence to tell you what it wants to do next.

          • “Cardboard never interrupts you in mid-sentence to tell you what it wants to do next.”

            I am *so* looking forward to quoting that out of context!

  2. Hmmm… with my current story, I always planned on putting the main resolution last. I thought that might be more suspenseful. But now I’m thinking of tying up all the other loose ends after… I’ll have to think it through…

  3. In school, they told us that the climax in Shakespeare was in the middle, in the third act.

    I never could see that, really.

    Which is probably why I took mathematics and not English.

  4. I am so grateful for that analysis of Memory; it’s turned on all sorts of light bulbs for me about my own work. Not least that “the climax” doesn’t have to be at the end of the book — I got that idea somewhere in school, and trying to force a story into that mold when the real climax is five chapters earlier… well, let’s just say I’m really glad I don’t have to do that.

  5. Leaving out the big battle – especially in a book geared towards a big battle – never works for me as a reader. I remember one book where one of the major objecties was ‘get rid of the evil king’ and there is a big battle at the end… and the protagonist gets knocked out shortly into it and wakes up again when someone else has won the day and everything has been sorted out. I felt completely cheated to *not* see how things worked out, even if the protag’s decision had to be ‘don’t try to sort it out yourself, place your trust in someone better qualified’.

    I think this comes down to the contract with the reader: if you promise relationship or character development and don’t deliver, that’s not satisfactory; if you promise a particular thing to happen and gloss over it you take away its importance.

    • >the protagonist gets knocked out shortly into it and wakes up again when someone else has won the day and everything has been sorted out.<

      I wonder if that author had been reading The Hobbit? That sounds a lot like what happens to Bilbo in the Battle of the Five Armies.

      In the first draft of my WIP, the defeat of the evil governor happened offstage, and the heroine didn't learn about it till afterward. My readers for that draft kindly pointed out that this was perhaps not the most satisfying of climaxes. I'm now in the middle of writing an attack on the governor's palace, with the heroine front and center!

      • I wonder if that author had been reading The Hobbit? That sounds a lot like what happens to Bilbo in the Battle of the Five Armies.

        If Thorin had been the protagonist, then the events of the battle would have been key. We would have wanted to be dragged through them in greater detail, up-close-and-personal.

        Of course, Tolkien managed to give the reader a pretty complete picture of the battle, in spite of Bilbo’s unconsciousness.

        Since Bilbo is the protagonist, however, his big moment is when he must weigh personal loyalty to Thorin against what is right, along with a longer-sighted loyalty to Thorin and the dwarves.

        • That’s kind of what I meant – because it works very well in The Hobbit, the author might have thought (mistakenly, apparently) that he/she could get away with it too.

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