Caveat, on this article as on all the others: This is not the whole sum of wisdom on writing craft, forever and ever amen. This is intended to be a place for aspiring writers to /start/, a little bit of foundation with which you can begin to develop your own style. If you work with this stuff here, it can be an immense aid to you in developing your skills to a professional level. I know it's true because this is exactly the stuff that I learned, and it worked out all right for me. It's a pretty good beginning.
I've talked a little about beginnings and middles. What's left? Oh, right, right. Here we go.
Stories are like sex: the buildup and the ride can be fantastic, but if there isn't a climax before the end, you might come away from the experience feeling a little frustrated.
So, let's talk about a story climax. What is a climax? Why is is important? How do you build a good one? And will the reader still respect you in the morning?
WHAT IS A CLIMAX?
A story climax is, in structure terms the ANSWER to the STORY QUESTION that we talked about earlier.
There, see how tidy that is? Simple! Again, not EASY, but simple!
For example, the overall Story Question of Lord of the Rings:
When Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring of Power from his Uncle Bilbo, HE SETS OUT TO DESTROY IT before its evil can wreak havoc upon Middle Earth. BUT WILL HE SUCCEED when the Dark Lord Sauron and every scary evil thing on the planet set forth to take the ring and use it to turn the entire world into the bad parts of New Jersey?
And the story climax of the Lord of the Rings:
See? ANYBODY could have written Lord of the Rings!
Well. Okay. Maybe it's not THAT easy. But it is SIMPLE to write a good story climax when you bear in mind that ultimately, the story climax is, on its most basic level, the answer to a question. Will the Rebels overthrow the Empire? Will the hero win the heart of the girl he loves? THAT is where you begin. It is therefore kind of important that, before you begin writing said story climax, that you know the answer to that question.
WHY IS A STORY CLIMAX IMPORTANT?
As I understand it, catharsis is some sort of toxin which humanity has never been able to remove from paperback book ink. It builds up in human fingers as they keep flipping pages, and if they get all the way to the end of the story and DON'T get a sufficiently satisfying climax, the catharsis toxins can drive them into a psychotic state, and bad things happen. The surgeon general has stated that catharsis is--
Oh. Oh, hang on. I just Googled it.
Apparently, catharsis is actually only a regional threat. I guess it's only in the ink in Greece and around the Aegean... oh. Oh. It isn't a toxin and . . . I thought my wife was being /serious/ about that. I mean, she never smiled or /anything/.
Gosh, is my face red.
(Thank you folks, I'll be here all week.)
Remember earlier, how we talked about ways to hook your readers and get them emotionally involved in the story? Well, if we've done that right, then when you reach story's end, they are INVESTED in its outcome. They want to SEE what happens, preferably as vividly as they possibly can. By the time you've reached the end of a story, a good writer has got their readers on the edge of their seats, at 3:30 in the morning, and the pages are tearing every time they turn because the reader is so excited.
You've made an implicit promise by getting your reader so bound up in the story. You've /got/ to deliver on it, or that reader is going to freaking /hate/ you for doing that to them. They are gonna go away from that ride all hot and bothered and frustrated as hell. That's what catharsis is: the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer's skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room.
EVERYTHING YOU DID IN YOUR BOOK LEADS UP TO THIS. Deliver on the climax or die as a working writer. Simple as that.
HOW DO YOU BUILD A CLIMAX?
The same way you do everything else. You start at its beginning. A climax officially begins where the Great Swampy Middle ends. To use an overly-simple metaphor, the Beginning of your story dumps the dominoes of your story out of your box onto the table. The Great Swampy Middle sets all the dominoes up into a neat pattern.
And the climax knocks them down.
Guess which is the most fun. :) For the writer, as well as for the reader. There's nothing quite as nice as flicking over that first metaphorical domino after several months worth of setting them up, let me tell you. :)
The Great Swampy Middle ends at the first of the story events that starts the dominos to toppling. In Dead Beat, for example, when Harry and Butters find the little keychain drive inside Bony Tony with the GPS coordinates in it, it sets off a chain of reactions that lead Dresden forward to the final confrontation. That little drive is the last domino to get set up and the first one to topple, and start the cascade.
The actual climax itself, the absolutely peak of it, though, is what I generally refer to as the Showdown or the Throwdown or the Beatdown, depending on my mood and testosterone levels at the moment. The most dramatic point is the actual confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist, where they are directly contending with one another, and where both of them know that the story question is about to be answered.
For THAT confrontation, there several structural components that you can use to organize it that will be really helpful, much like the components used in a Sequel, like we talked about before:
ISOLATION: At the end of the day, your protagonist stands alone. That's why that character is the protagonist. Oh sure, there can be other people around, but the one who really COUNTS is your protagonist. The more alone he is, the higher the tension levels are going to be, and the more satisfying the climax is going to be for the reader. Ellen Ripley lands on LV-426 with a whole squad of marines and various others. After the first confrontation with the Aliens, only eight others are left. During the second confrontation, THOSE companions are whittled away, one by one, until Ripley is left to enter the lair of the alien queen--a nuclear reactor about to blow up, no less--ENTIRELY alone. Now THAT is tension and isolation.
CONFRONTATION: Your lone protagonist, determined to follow things through to the end, confronts the antagonist. Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
DARK MOMENT: The confrontation Does Not Go Well. The odds are stacked against your protagonist, or the situation swings out of his control, or he just plain gets outclassed. Everything looks like it is in genuine jeopardy of going to hell. It looks certain that the answer to the story question is going to be one that the reader is NOT going to like. In the recent Narnia movie, that moment was at the death of Aslan. The Great Lion is gone, the White Witch has made fashion accessories out of his mane, the bad,guys have them outnumbered and outgunned, and there's just no way to win the fight that's coming the next day--but the folk of Narnia need Peter to lead them. Which brings us directly to:
CHOICE: It always comes back to choice. The climax of the story is the acid test, the crucible, where the rubber meets the road and where the schisse hits the fan. Your protagonist has to CHOOSE whether or not to stay true to his purpose or to let himself be swayed by fear, by temptation, by weariness, or by anything else. In that Dark Moment, he has to make the call that ultimately reveals who your protagonist really is, deep down. And the choice has GOT to be
a BAD one. If it's an easy choice, there isn't any drama to it--no tension, no release for the reader.
"Use the Force, Luke," urges ghost-Kenobi's voice. "Let go, Luke!" Luke visibly makes a choice, turning off his targeting computer, putting his faith in the Force to make the shot that the whole galaxy is literally riding on, the way a Jedi should. He's alone, with the baddest guy in the movie hot on his tail, and even his friends are telling him he's nuts. "His computer's off. Luke, you've switched off your targeting computer! What's wrong?" "Nothing!"
says Luke. "I'm all right!" Not ONLY is he about to get blown out of the air by Vader, but he might miss the shot, too. Luke is about to do something INSANE. He's about to sacrifice his life to take a literal shot in the dark.
Which segues right into...
DRAMATIC REVERSAL: The intrinsic nature of the story or of the protagonist's character influences or causes the events of the confrontation to be changed in an unexpected way, causing an outcome that is in harmony with the principles of poetic justice. Luke is an idealistic young kid, brave to a fault, dedicated to a fault, and because of that he has made a choice that is Going To Ruin Everything. But that very idealism and courage have also touched the heart of a jaded smuggler, who, instead of running to protect his own life, has returned to throw in his lot with the rebels, and who has entered the battle at the absolutely critical moment of truth.
(A quick word on Choice and Reversal. Not all heroes MAKE the self-sacrificial choice. Sometimes, the hero falters and makes the awful choice, to save his own skin or indulge his own darker nature. In that situation, the reversal is still there doing exactly the same thing--only this time, the justice that gets handed out is BAD for the protagonist. There's a name for that kind of story: tragedy. See King Lear. See also Hamlet, Othello, etc, etc, etc.
This outline works for both tragic and happy/heroic endings. Those aren't the only ways to end stories, by any means. But they are popular ways to end stories, and they are fairly simple ways to end stories, and this article is aimed at beginners and aspiring writers. Trust me on this one. If you're new, just go for a happy ending or a tragic ending. Work on bittersweet open-ended thought provoking montage endings after you've practiced on some of the simpler ones.
And, to be frank, if you're wanting to write professionally, work your happy ending skills. Real life is full of the other kind. There probably are some, but I can't think of many full-time tragedy writers.)
Finally, we get to...
RESOLUTION: Time to hand out the medals, kiss the girl, go to the wedding, put the star on the Christmas tree, raise the curtain on the rock concert, attend the funeral, or otherwise demonstrate that with the conclusion of the story, some kind of balance has been restored. The catharsis is complete, the tension eased, and the reader can catch their breath now.
My advice to you on resolutions: Keep it short. Once you've gotten through the Showdown, write as sparingly as possible to get to the end, and don't draw anything out any more than you absolutely must. You've already kept your poor reader up until 3:30, your heartless bastard. Let them get some sleep before they have to rush off to their shift in two hours!
Then you get to type the most satisfying words in any book you'll ever write:
T H E
E N D
And there you have it! Story climaxes!
Was it good for you? :)