Saddle up the bronco, batten the hatches, take cover, and grab some popcorn.
It’s climax time.
Near the end of a novel, your characters will confront their biggest obstacles, all the simmering plots and subplots will come to a head, and oh, yes, it helps if the climax comprises your best, most dramatic, and most surprising scenes, when the characters are experiencing their highest highs and their lowest lows, and the events have your reader cheering or crying or laughing or (preferably) all of the above (hopefully in a good way), and there is also TRIUMPH.
It’s kind of a big deal. Start planning your climax as soon as possible.
How to write a good climax
It’s crucially important to give the climactic moment some thought. The sooner you know roughly what is going to happen in your climax, the sooner you can begin laying the groundwork in the plot.
This is because no matter how well-written your climax is, the power it possesses is almost entirely determined by what you have built over the course of the novel. Whether you have an exciting climax or a total dud is determined by how successful you were at ratcheting up the stakes before the climax, whether you gave the reader reasons to care about what happens as the climax approaches, and how well you set your characters up to face their biggest challenges.
Even if you’re an improviser, the success of your novel will hinge on how well you build toward the ending. You may have to go back through and revise the plot events so that they lead to this moment, but there’s no escaping how intertwined the success of a climax is with how well the foundation has been laid throughout the course of the novel.
Here are the elements of a great climax:
The protagonist(s) face(s) their most difficult obstacle(s)
Classic genre novels have this one easy: the protagonist faces off with the bad guy once and for all. Both the protagonist and the villain bring everything they have, there’s a big battle, and we get to see who wins.
Even if you’re not writing a genre novel, it’s still important for your characters to face their biggest challenges/fears/desires of all. There doesn’t need to be a gunfight, but there does need to be a sense that your character is being tested like they’ve never been tested before.
All the major conflicts introduced in the novel are resolved
Essentially, the climax is the place where we find out whether the characters get what they want. All the obstacles they’ve overcome, and all the physical and mental miles they’ve traveled, were simply a prelude to set the stakes for the climax. Now we find out if the protagonist is going to get their love interest, if they’re going to overcome their addiction, if they’re going to resolve the angst they feel toward their parents, or if that depressed penguin really is going to find his sense of purpose (please tell me! I must know!).
Now, if you are setting up a multi-book storyline, or if you prefer a little unsettled complexity in your novels, you don’t have to tie every storyline up in a neat and tidy bow. We can still be left to wonder about some dangling threads, but the reader should be left with the satisfying sense that the main storyline feels resolved. Darth Vader might have flown off into space at the end of Star Wars, but Luke succeeded at what he set out to accomplish: he was able to use the Force and destroy the Death Star.
It’s also okay to resolve some of your storylines before the climax. Maybe a fight between two of your characters gets resolved earlier in the novel, and then they join forces for the climax. Or perhaps a subplot is wrapped up to set up the finale.
The more arcs your climax resolves, the more powerful and momentous it will feel.
We learn about the characters through the choices they make
The climax is the place that tests the characters the most, and we find out the result of their biggest choices. It is the point when a character’s conflicting motivations battle it out, and we can see what they hold most dear. That’s because a great climax is bound up in a character’s motivations.
In the climax of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, Jacob has to choose between going home with his friends and staying out in space to find his dad. He loves his friends, and yet he misses his dad terribly. How does he choose between these two things? The choice he makes, and the reasons for making it, ultimately reveal the qualities he values the most and who he is as a person.
Don’t just raise the stakes for your characters in the external world. Give them internal stakes as well. Once the characters make their final choices, your reader will feel as if they truly know who these characters are.
The events that transpire are the most intense of all
It’s not enough to just resolve the different character arcs and call it a day. The climax should show off the best of everything.
All the events that have been roiling your setting in the background should come to the fore, and we should see the setting come alive. The scenes themselves must be exciting and charged and feature some of your best ideas and your best writing.
The stakes of the climax don’t necessarily have to be life or death, but this is when we find out whether the characters will get the big thing they wanted, and the answer will arrive in the most intense fashion you can possibly dream up. The expression of this intensity can be exciting if it’s a fantasy novel, scary if it’s horror, hot if it’s romance, or all the above if you’re writing a romantic zombie fantasy.
One way to dial up this intensity is for your protagonist to experience their highest highs and their lowest lows in rapid succession either during or right around your climax. Your character might lose the person they love just as they win their biggest battle, or they might win the person they love as they lose their biggest battle.
Lay the groundwork
In order to set up these four crucial parts of the climax, you have to lay all the groundwork in advance. If you’re a planner, the climax is usually one of the easiest of all the stretches of your novel to write because you have already laid the groundwork leading up to this final stretch. By the time you reach your climactic scenes, you will know what will happen backward and forward, and you can just focus on making the scenes as thrilling as possible.
Or, if you’re an improviser, you may just have to get to your climax, write what happens, make it as exciting as possible, and then go back through the earlier sections and layer in the emotions and motivations in order to give your climax the biggest punch.
The biggest mistake to avoid as you write your climax is to rush through it. The end of your novel will feel tantalizingly close as you near the finish line, and it’s tempting to speed your way through. You will be so ready to just get your novel done and over with and become one of those exalted people who have finished a novel.
Instead? Take your time. Savor the pinnacle of your novel, and put your characters through hell. And heaven. And hell again. And then an even better heaven, one they never saw coming.
You get the idea.
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Art: The Wolf and Fox Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens
Neil Edward Larkins says
This lays it all out very succinctly. Thanks, Nathan.
Since my wip is a memoir I don’t have to figure all that out; it was figured out years ago. But the story definitely does have a climax and just writing it as I remembered it having happened is not sufficient. This was a classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back story. There was a lot of emotion involved and imparting to the reader what the two of us felt at each juncture of the tale is the challenge. I’ve written two novel/novellas and a number of short stories. How to write a climax with a satisfactory resolution had become quite easy. When I started my memoir, I thought it would be easier to write than a novel or short story because…well because I didn’t have to invent anything. Just get it all down on paper. All the right words will throw themselves onto the paper. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I stated above, getting all the emotions I felt at the time expressed in writing was a tough call. I suggest anyone who thinks they are an accomplished writer to give memoir a try. It will change your mind.
Nathan Bransford says
I’m so impressed by people who write memoirs! Novels are hard enough, let alone trying to shoehorn real life events into a cohesive narrative structure.
JOHN T. SHEA says
I’ve guessed it! Your new novel is a romantic fantasy where depressed zombie penguins seek a sense of purpose! Call it ‘The Waddling Dead Meet Heidegger’.
But seriously, I always plan my stories backwards from the climax, which is nearly always a big battle or other disaster. I love ending with a bang, literally! The questions then include who witnesses, affects, or is affected by the big bang, and what it means to them and others.