by Becca Puglisi
Escalation is an important element of story structure. The opening pages are often quiet as key players are introduced, the setting is established, and readers are given a glimpse of what's wrong in the protagonist's world. The catalyst then provides a choice, where the hero leaves their ordinary world and steps into a new one. In the next half of the story, they work their way toward the goal that will fulfill them, facing many conflict scenarios that challenge their methods and way of thinking. In those story moments, the stakes get higher, the consequences more drastic, and the clashes more incendiary until everything culminates in a final confrontation that will determine if the hero achieves their goal or not.
This confrontation is the climax of the story. The reader has known from the beginning that this moment would occur. It's what they've been looking forward to, why they've stuck with the protagonist for so many pages. A successful climax will help determine how satisfied the reader is with the story, so it's vital that we get it right.
The two may have butted heads already—multiple times, possibly—or this might be the long-awaited battle they’ve been working toward. Different structure models position this pillar at various places, but it's generally agreed that it works best in the last half of Act Three. This allows for the proper build-up to the climax while leaving enough time for events to resolve afterward.
Numerous conflict scenarios have tested the hero’s resolve and abilities so far. They haven’t always succeeded, but as the struggles have gotten bigger and the stakes have grown, they have moved steadily toward their outer (and inner, if they’re working a change arc) goals. And now comes the biggest test of all: the final meet-up with the nemesis. It's the protagonist’s last chance to prove themselves. If they fail here, they fail for good. As a result, the climax should definitively determine who wins.
Whether they’ve acquired skills, identified a strength they thought was a weakness, rejected a long-believed lie, or adopted a new mindset, what they’ve learned should tip the scales in their favor during the climax. This is often where the inner and outer journeys merge because the changes they’ve undergone and the lessons they have learned about themselves are exactly what they need to achieve the outer goal. When it's done artfully, that synchronicity creates a satisfying resolution for readers as the pieces click into place.
As Michael Hauge says in Writing Screenplays That Sell: “Just as the aftermath contrasts with the setup at the beginning of a screenplay, the climax of the story mirrors the opportunity (catalyst). While the opportunity begins the forward movement of the story—begins the hero's visible journey by taking him to a new situation—the climax ends that journey by resolving the hero's outer motivation (story goal).”
In a story with a three-act structure, there's an invisible hinge at the midpoint that divides the story into two halves. James Scott Bell likens the midpoint to a mirror because the events on one side reflect the other. In this way, the climax relates back to the beginning, closing out the journey that started in your first pages.
To recap: a successful story climax should tick the following boxes:
To illustrate how these elements can be used to craft a perfect climax, let’s use Star Wars: A New Hope as an example. In a nutshell, here’s what happens in this important scene:
Luke Skywalker uses his Jedi training to destroy the Death Star, crippling the Empire and sending the enemy packing. Peace and safety are restored to the galaxy.
Luke’s fight to destroy the Death Star is the last confrontation between him and his enemy in this story. It should be noted that the true villain here isn’t a tangible one that Luke can face off against; it’s the empire. But every protagonist needs a physical adversary to battle. That’s provided in the form of Darth Vader, and Luke’s defeat of the empire is also a defeat for him. It’s a good reminder that if your hero is going up against an antagonistic force rather than an actual person, you’ll want to introduce a physical antagonist for them to fight against.
Luke’s catalyst occurs back on Tatooine, when he’s invited to learn the ways of the Jedi and help the Rebellion defeat the empire. The climax mirrors this as the journey he began culminates in him destroying the Death Star. It’s also a nice touch that the person who offered Luke his catalyst opportunity (Obi-Wan) shows up unexpectedly in the climax to remind his protégé that he must use his Jedi training if he wants to succeed.
This is made clear in the rout of the empire and the medal ceremony that follows.
Luke is unsuccessful in destroying the Death Star until he embraces the lessons he learned from Yoda—mainly, his knowledge of and connection with the Force.
Luke’s goal was twofold: learn the ways of the Jedi and defeat the empire. Thanks to Yoda, he has begun his journey to becoming a Jedi and has completed the first part of his objective. With the destruction of the empire, he achieves the second.
If you’re writing a tragedy, such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Into the Wild, or Up in the Air, the hero will fail to defeat their adversary and/or achieve fulfillment and improve themselves.
Maybe they’re unsuccessful because they didn’t learn what they needed to learn, or they weren’t able to fully embrace those lessons during the final confrontation. Sometimes, their internal conflict remains unresolved, and they allow self-doubt, fear, pride, or another habit or hang-up to rule the day. It’s also possible that they achieve their goal only to discover that it was a false goal—one that made things worse or ended up ruining them.
If your protagonist is doomed for failure, element #4 becomes inverted: they don’t succeed precisely because they haven’t gained the knowledge they needed or they failed to utilize it when it mattered. The rest of the key ingredients remain the same, regardless of who wins.
While many thrillers, suspense, and action movies require a gargantuan clash at the end, other kinds of stories don’t necessarily need this. The climax of Pride and Prejudice, for example, happens with Lizzy and Mr. Darcy going for a simple walk. They don't even argue at this point. Instead, they admit their past failings, express their love for each other, and decide to get married.
It's a quiet climax that still achieves its purpose. It is their final confrontation as antagonists and happens at the right point in the third act. Lizzy's recognition of pride as her fatal flaw allows her to overcome it and find true happiness with Mr. Darcy. And her choosing him for a husband reflects the catalyst (her determination when she first met him to have nothing to do with him).
This is something to keep in mind if you’re writing the kind of story that calls for a low-key resolution. A quiet climax can work as long as it does what it’s supposed to do.
As you can see, the climax is important, both for your characters and readers. And the necessary elements for this moment can be applied to all kinds of stories, giving you a blueprint for success when writing this vital scene.
Do you have any questions for Becca? What are some of your favorite climax moments in books or movies? Please share them with us down in the comments!
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 500,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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Thanks for a timely post. I'm almost ready to write my climax scene (actually having two because I have two antagonists) so this gave me some new ideas which will make it deeper and richer. Favorite ending from a move: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
That is excellent, Maggie!
This was an excellent and helpful article for me. It reinforces that my story moments are solid and, personally, I love the climax. What I'm struggling with is tying up the loose ends after the climax while leaving the ending hinting at the next in a series.
Great article, Becca. I love a satisfying climax but writing one isn't easy. The climax in the movie, Lethal Weapon, is well done. Riggs begins being suicidal and crazy, at the end his fight with Joshua demonstrates he's no longer suicidal and the final scene where he leaves his suicide bullet with Murtagh is a mirror to the beginning where he puts the bullet in his gun and his gun to his chin.
It's always such an emotional part in the book for me when writing.
Thanks, Becca! This was thought-provoking for me. I don't know if I've ever hinged my book in half and looked at how well the first and second halves reflect each other. It think it would be a fascinating exercise, and definitely a stellar way to find plot holes. 🙂