Starting with the basics: what is a story climax?
Every climax is specific to its own story. Universally, it’s the height of tension in the plot – the external conflict is at critical mass, and the only thing the protagonist can do now is face it. Their internal conflict needs to be resolved, mostly – the climax will test their commitment to that resolution.
The climax of the story is the moment right before the payoff to the audience. It’s when there is no more room for the protagonist’s fear of change, or to be passively reacting to the things that have been happening to them. A climax means action, that the protagonist is doing something that they decided to do. In genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi, this is usually when the protagonist is going to face the antagonist (or their proxy) head on. In romances, it’s when the protagonist is ready to face down the last barriers between them and what they want, even if there’s no guarantee of how things will turn out. In thrillers and mysteries, it’s the last push the protagonist needs to make to discover the truth and/or to bring justice. Climaxes look a little different depending on what kind of story has been told, but there’s a few ways that they usually play out.
Here’s three popular versions of what the climax of a story can look like:
Now or never. No more time to plan, the plot forced things to happen at this very moment.
- This kind of ending: The odds have to be stacked against the protagonist in a way that seems difficult but believable for them to overcome, either of their own determination or with outside help the audience knows they have access too (even if they were reluctant to use it).
- The tension: The audience needs to be on the edge of their seat because although they’re pretty sure the protagonist will win the day, they’re invested in seeing them dig deep to pull it off. The digging deep is a kind of audience payoff in itself.
- Protagonist’s test: There’s one last thing the protagonist needs to do in order to prove they’ve accepted who they’ve changed into over the course of the story.
- The Matrix and Star Wars: A New Hope – Neo accepts his destiny and is able to defeat Agent Smith with his abilities as the One. Luke is able to complete the mission to destroy the Death Star before it fires on the rebel base by using the Force.
- Never Been Kissed – Josie had fallen for Sam while acting as an undercover reporter and lying to him about her identity. After discovering the truth, he refuses to talk her, so she reaches out to him in a news article asking at the end of it for him to meet her at a specific time and place if he can find it in his heart to give her a chance to do things right. Her raw honesty convinces him to show up.
Bait and switch. Everything is planned and victory won’t be easy but the protagonist is resolved to do what needs to be done. The antagonist doesn’t see it coming…or do they?
- This kind of ending: Something has to surprise both the protagonist and the reader. Sometimes it’s not the antagonist, but other circumstances that get in the way of what could be a smooth sailing ending. It could be that the antagonist somehow knows of the plot against them and the protagonist is caught flatfooted by the fact that they’re facing a very prepared antagonist. Or it could be a betrayal of someone they trusted, who is either helping the antagonist directly or being self-serving rather than fully on the protagonist’s side.
- The tension: Going into this kind of ending the audience knows that things seem too easy (or at least too straight forward), and they expect something to happen, so they need to be genuinely surprised by whatever it is. Or, they’ve watched the protagonist dig deep and deserve the win, but there’s one more [surprise] battle to fight. Suspense needs to be high when the surprise comes out.
- Protagonist’s test: The protagonist thought they were prepared, but they didn’t know there would be something more asked of them. In some cases, the something more might be a little too much.
- Lord of the Rings – Finally at Mt. Doom and Frodo fails to resist the ring, leading to it being Sam and ultimately Gollum’s actions that get the job of destroying it done. On the battlefield at Gondor, it’s Eowyn who kills the Nazgul King after her father is defeated.
- Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead – Sue Ellen finally has everything going smoothly with the job she forged a resume to get, but her mom comes home early and catches her using their house for a fashion show event. Having to deal with the unexpected confrontation, Sue Ellen shows just how much she’s grown as a person, and is ultimately rewarded with the promise of acceptance into a premier college where she can formally study design.
Never tell me the odds. It’s too late to completely stop the antagonist and the protagonist must find a path to victory which had not been [seriously] considered. Alternate victory(?).
- This kind of ending: The protagonist must face a moment where they realize that they might truly fail, but they push through anyway because the consequences of abandoning their quest would be unbearable, both personally and to others. It’s possible that the protagonist was never meant to prevent the antagonist’s end-goal entirely, and they must push forward form a position of weakness and/or some kind of vulnerability.
- The tension: There’s more going on than what’s at the surface. The audience doesn’t know how the story will end, because it seems like no matter what the protagonist does, they’ve already [sort of] lost.
- Protagonist’s test: Can they stay true to themselves – at least to who they want to be – while staring down the fact that they might not achieve a successful completion of their story goal.
- Age of Ultron – Ultron successfully completes his machine that lifts a large chunk of the Earth off the ground. His intention to drop it back down would have devastating effects which get worse with each minute the heroes spend fighting. Tony’s AI, Friday, and Captain America and Black Widow draw the audience’s attention to the consequences both they, and the world, face if they fail.
- Pride and Prejudice – Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have both been changed by one another in the end, but were not a couple due to both of them having their moments of realizing they were in love while separated from one another (either physically or because of circumstances and decorum keeping them apart). It is an unplanned meeting with Mr. Darcy that gives Elizabeth one final chance to run with her heart, that would not have happened had either of them given up hope.
Many times, climaxes borrow aspects from each other. Meaning that something might be a Now or Never with a Bait and Switch that rounds out into a Never Tell Me The Odds – like the first book of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Stories with multiple character perspectives usually have more complex endings because there are multiple major characters who all deserve some aspect of the climactic spotlight. Even single character POV stories can use multiple aspects, such as the finale of the Hunger Games trilogy when Katniss decides to be true to herself no matter the consequences (Never Tell Me The Odds) because she’s staring down the barrel of finding out the leader of the rebellion intends to install herself to replace – and essentially be – President Snow (Bait and Switch), so she takes the one clean chance she’s given to end things as decisively as possible (Now or Never).
What’s essential to remember is that the protagonist goes through story being shaped by the hammer that is the plot – little bends, little bends, and finally the Turning Point that gives them all the reason they needed to form into a new/more decisive version of themselves. Their Dark Moment is like when the heated metal is plunged into water and forced to harden into shape – it’s where their fear of change, which had been set aside however briefly at the Turning Point, now comes in full force and plunges them into (at least briefly) terror about the future. Their Moment of Truth comes during the climax, where they learn if their new shape can stand, or will crumble, while they stare down possible failure against the antagonist. The nearer to failure they come, the more the audience will cheer when they finally overcome. Or, in the case of a tragic ending, the more the audience’s heart will break when the protagonist fails after trying so very hard to succeed.
Of all the stories you’ve read or seen, what stands out as one of your favorite endings, and why? When you reach the climax of your own stories, what kinds of tests do you like to throw at your protagonist and how close to failure do they come? What sort of stories stick with you after you’re done with them (either creating or consuming) and how do you feel after you’ve gotten to the end of something you enjoyed? If you could name one way to be disappointed with a story climax, what would it be? The comments are always open.