When you think about writing a good climax in a novel, particularly if you’re writing genre fiction you often think about it in terms of excitement and thrills. It’s when the most exciting moment happens, it’s the apex of tension.
But there’s another key way I’d think about it that will help you unlock the best climax possible: It’s the moment your protagonist either does or doesn’t get what they want.
Does your protagonist(s) get what they want?
The power of a good climax is all tied back to the motivation you established in the inciting incident. They’ve spent the whole novel going after the thing they wanted. Now we find out if they’re going to get it.
Why tie the climax to motivation? Because thinking of it that way well help you lay the groundwork for all the tension and excitement in that final payoff.
Is Ahab going to get the whale and will Ishmael survive to tell the tale in Moby-Dick? Is Frodo going to destroy the ring in The Return of the King? Those long journeys and thrilling climaxes are all tied back to that initial motivation.
Competing desires sharpen a climax
This is why it’s so helpful to establish competing desires. It’s extremely powerful if a character has to sacrifice something they want in order to get the thing they really want.
For instance, in Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, Jacob wants to get back home to Earth with his friends, but he also begins to suspect his dad is in outer space. In the climax he has to decide which one is more important to him (once he escapes a band of angry substitute teachers, that is).
In Enduring Love, Joe wants people to believe him that he’s being stalked by Jed even as his relationship with Clarissa disintegrates because she thinks Jed is a delusion. Joe has to decide between his pursuit for the truth and saving his relationship. (The Wife of Martin Guerre hinges on a similar question).
This is the climactic moment when we truly see what a character is made of. We see their ultimate values, we see their growth as a character, and we see the way they’ll never be the same..
Lay the groundwork
Sometimes you’ll know what you want to happen in your climax before you even fully understand your character’s desires. This is totally fine!
But once you know your climax, it’s crucial to then go right back to the beginning. Figure out what’s happening in the climax and unpack what it says about what your character(s) desires. Then go back to the inciting incident and make sure you’re introducing that desire in a clear way.
Weave in desires and an ultimate resolution and you’ll have yourself a powerful novel.
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Art: Daniel in the Lions’ Den by Henry Ossawa Tanner