Updated: Jan 31
We need to know how to craft gripping climaxes in order to leave a lasting impact on readers, but writing a satisfying conclusion that surpasses expectations and ties the story together can be HARD. What if I told you that many writers get this element of storytelling wrong? In this post, we'll be REDEFINING what makes a compelling climax and exploring how to write one that will blow readers away and leave them thinking about your book long after the last page is turned.
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WHAT IS THE CLIMAX?
Before we can write a gripping climax, we first need to have an understanding of the purpose it has in a story.
I'll be pulling from the definition on literaryterms.net because I love their take on it.
"The climax is the highest point of tension or drama in a narrative’s plot. Often, the climax is also when the main problem of the story is faced and solved by the main character or protagonist. The phrase climax is derived from the Greek word, which means ladder. Reading a story is like climbing a ladder, with the climax at the top."
So, the climax is the result of everything that took place before it and proves that the characters have changed as a result of their journey.
Have you ever read a climax that was disappointing and felt detached from the rest of the story? Part of the reason why those books failed to satisfy you and meet your expectations was that they lacked relevance to the climax and failed to point to the final destination: the top of the ladder.
You see, reaching the top rung of a ladder comes from ascending the steps before it. The climax is not the point. The journey is. Because of this, the rest of the story should always be foreshadowing and building toward the climax in some way.
As author K.M. Weiland puts it, "The hero is not the hero because of what he did at the end, but because of what he did to get there."
The climax does not change the characters, but rather, it proves the transformative journey they've already experienced and are about to conclude.
MAKE IT MATTER
When you hear the words dramatic climax, what do you think? For many of us, an epic action scene or a showdown between the protagonist and villain comes to mind. However, while a well-written action scene within the appropriate genre can be entertaining, it's not what makes your climax memorable.
HERE'S THE TRAP A LOT OF WRITERS FALL INTO: They think that by throwing in a bunch of high-stakes action, explosions, and sword fights, they can write a good climax.
But what if you write in a genre such as contemporary or romance? If an epic event is all that's needed to write a compelling climax, isn't this saying that NOBODY should be writing in slower-paced genres? What about those stories where nothing external was happening, yet you were so invested in the characters that it was impossible to stop reading?
THE ANSWER IS THIS: The genre of a story doesn't determine how good the climax is. External conflict alone is not enough to deeply impact people. Readers don't care about a bunch of exciting stuff happening. They care about the characters.
Instead, let your protagonist's internal conflict take center stage because that will make your climax matter, not a mere life-or-death situation that has no other purpose than to be "thrilling".
It may seem like kind of a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many writers (my past self included) make this mistake.
(ON A SIDE NOTE, this is not to say that external conflict is a bad thing. In fact, it's necessary, but it should always be driven by the characters' internal conflict. Not the other way around. 😉)
The next time you're tempted to try making the climax exciting, try focusing on making it matter to your characters. This is the biggest challenge they'll have to face, and how they handle it will prove how they've changed throughout the story.
I know I said this earlier, but I want to stress it more. The climax (and what happens in it) is not the point. The character's internal journey is.
So ask yourself: What does this climax personally mean to my protagonist? What is my protagonist's internal conflict, and how will it drive their decisions? How has my protagonist changed throughout the story, and how will this transformation shape the climax?
3 KEY ELEMENTS TO TIE TOGETHER
In order to craft a climax that will impact readers, there are THREE KEY ELEMENTS to keep in mind. Think of your story as a rope where all the smaller threads braid together to create a stronger strand. Each of these key elements will interweave with one another in order to form a solid and memorable climax.
I'll be using my take on the climax of The Lord of The Rings as an example. (Yes, I'm a huge Tolkien nerd. Yes, I can't shut up about anything Middle-earth related. Yes, you'll be hearing a lot more from me about this subject in the future. Sorry, not sorry.) As a precaution, there will be spoilers, so watch out. 😉
ELEMENT ONE | THE THEME
Every impactful story has a theme or a powerful message that's resolved at the end. But how exactly do we tie the theme into the ending of our stories without being preachy?
This is a good question and one that will take more than just this article to explore. (Stay tuned for future posts!)
However, it's actually way more simple than you might realize.
I like to think of my themes as an overarching QUESTION™ that the characters grapple with throughout the story. At the end of the story, this question is answered by a realization the character has. This communicates the message.
Think of your story as a ladder again. The beginning of your story is the first rung of the ladder. This is where THE QUESTION™ will be introduced, and the final rung (your climax) will resolve it with a message. The rungs in the middle will be an uphill climb for your character as they struggle, by trial and error, to achieve their goal and find an answer to this QUESTION™.
SO ASK YOURSELF: What message am I trying to communicate with my story? What QUESTION™ will my characters grapple with from the beginning, and what will my character realize at the end of the story that will resolve it?
In The Lord of The Rings: The QUESTION™ looks something like this, "How can such a small amount of hope prevail in a time of overwhelming darkness?" This QUESTION™ is resolved during the climax with the message that "light always overcomes darkness", "goodness is worth fighting for", and "resisting temptation destroys the strongholds of evil".
ELEMENT TWO | THE PLOT
The plot is vital to your story, because otherwise the characters and theme would go nowhere. However, the mistake many writers make is focusing ONLY on the plot and passing over the theme and the characters. All elements are needed for the climax, but it's important to weave all of them together evenly.
Once you've figured out how you want to resolve your theme at the end of story, we need the plot to lead the characters to their final destination. This is where you're going to explore exactly what's going to happen EXTERNALLY that will personally impact the characters and bring them to the resolution.
What's going to happen that will bring your protagonist to the climax, and how will they win (or lose) the day? What obstacles will they have to defeat?
Figure out what type of ending your story needs. Will it be tragic? Bittersweet? Happily-ever-after? This will also depend largely on genre you write in. FOR EXAMPLE: If you write fantasy, this is probably where you'll conclude with an epic battle. If you write romance, your climax may be a love confession scene, and will most likely have a happy ending. But regardless of what your climax looks like, you must show how your characters have changed, and resolve the thematic question.
ASK YOURSELF: How is your protagonist going to win or lose? What twists will you have in your climax that will directly impact the characters? Why?
In The Lord of The Rings: The plot resolution happens when Frodo destroys the Ring in the Cracks of Doom, and Sauron's reign is ended in Middle-earth.
ELEMENT THREE | THE CHARACTERS
As we've already discussed, the CHARACTERS are going to make readers care about the climax. The plot and theme don't matter unless they're relevant to the protagonist. (Because that's who the story is about, right?)
Whether your protagonist succeeds or fails, your reader should always be able to see how the characters transformed as a result of their journey. If not, then the climax is not going to sustain the story. Because of this, we need to figure out how to make it matter to the protagonist.
In order to craft a climax that resonates, there are a few questions you can ask yourself:
Why does your climax matter to your characters, and how is it relevant to them? What will winning or losing mean for your protagonist based on their internal conflict? What will your protagonist's life look like once they've overcome (or failed to overcome if they have a negative arc) their internal and external obstacles?
The more relevant you can make your climax to your characters, the more memorable it's going to be for your readers.
In The Lord of The Rings: Frodo wrestles with the temptation and power of the Ring throughout his journey to Mordor. The character resolution happens when Gollum wrestles the Ring away from Frodo and falls into the Cracks of Doom, taking the Ring to destruction with him. This is relevant to Frodo because of the struggle between corruption and purity he's been grappling with up to this point. After the Ring releases its hold on Frodo, it's realized that goodness really is worth fighting for, and in the end, light always prevails over darkness.
I hope this post was helpful for you and gave you some good ideas for your own story! By following these steps you'll be able to craft an AMAZING climax that will not only blow readers' expectations but also deeply impact them. You may even change their lives for the better.
What's the best climax you've ever read, and what made it memorable to you? Do you have a favorite type of ending (tragic, happy, bittersweet, etc.)? DO YOU LOVE "THE LORD OF THE RINGS" AS MUCH AS I DO? Do you plan how your story will end before you write it, or are you more of a discovery writer? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!