Friday, April 02, 2021

Story Structure: How The Climax Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The climax resolves the plot problem and makes readers glad they picked up the novel.

There’s a popular series* with a climax that made me so furious I stopped reading that author. Until that moment, I’d devoured all eight books, loved them, and in that last 10% of the final book, the author had the protagonist make a decision that invalidated the entire series and made me go from “Yes, I want you to win!” to “You don’t deserve the victory what the heck were you thinking???”

I was livid. I had to stop reading and call my niece (we were reading the series together) and we hashed out how awful this ridiculous decision was. I gritted my teeth and dived back in to finish it, and then watched in horror as the story I’d loved dissolved into a pointless, deus ex machina ending.

This is not the climax you want for your novel.

You want a climax that thrills, delights, and satisfies your readers, because the ending is what they’re going to remember most about the book.

The climax has the most impact on how much readers enjoyed the novel.

And if it fails, most readers won’t say, “Well, 90% of the book was awesome.” They’ll say, “That book sucked. I hated the ending.” Or worse, a lackluster ending makes them say, “Eh, the book was okay, I don’t really remember” when asked about the novel—even if they’d loved it up until that point.

The climax is that important.

It’s the moment readers have been waiting for all novel. It’s the payoff and the reward for reading the book. It answers the questions they’ve been wondering about, resolves the problems the protagonist has been facing, shows the final step of growth they’ve been struggling to achieve, and does it all with flair and panache.

A great climax is the full-on, fireworks and fanfare finale of the novel, and readers expect it to be good.

This doesn’t mean you need literal fireworks and fanfare, just that the climax is the highest point of the novel in terms of plot, tension, stakes, emotional excitement, and reader investment. So whatever levels of those elements are in your novel—a quiet, emotional journey or a thrill-packed adventure—the levels will be the highest in the climax.

Let's break down the basics:

Quick note: I’m using movie examples here because the turning points are more clearly defined, and they’re easier to watch and study than novels. But the same principles apply.

What it is: The climax is the moment when the protagonist faces off against the antagonist in the final showdown. It resolves the core conflict and solves the main story problem of the novel. It’s what the protagonist has been working toward all book.

Not all climaxes are the same, so keep your genre in mind. For example, a romance novel’s “face off” is typically facing an emotional issue keeping the lovebirds from taking that final step to happiness. A novel’s “final battle” can be emotional, mental, or intellectual as well as physical. Some climaxes use all four. Mix it up to suit your genre or subgenre.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson, the military team, and the locals band together to stand up to Ra and his soldiers.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss Everdeen faces the Capitol and the Gamemakers and beats them at their own game.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart uses her feminine strength to catch the bombers and save the pageant and its contestants.

When it happens: The climax falls around the 90% mark of a novel. Just like the opening and inciting event covers the first 10%, the climax and wrap up cover the last 10%, and the opening and the ending often mirror each other in some way.

The climax and the ending are so entwined that’s it hard to talk about one without mentioning the other. The ramp up to the climax starts with the act three plan, where the protagonist puts the plan into action, and as the steps of that plan unfold, the stakes get higher and the pace picks up. In a slower, more emotional story, the emotional tension kicks up and the personal stakes and investment grow higher.

Note the “ramp up” is the critical element here. Climaxes are all about escalation.

There’s often a surprise or twist as well, where something unexpected happens that the protagonist has to deal with on the fly. Either a new plan, or an adjustment to the plan must occur or the protagonist loses everything.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel and the soldiers hide in the caravan bringing a load of mineral to Ra’s ship, and when they get close, they jump out and attack. While this is going on, O’Neill is prepping the nuclear bomb to go off and destroy Ra’s ship. Lots of things go wrong (such as Sha’uri getting killed). The surprise is that the bomb they finally reach won’t disarm, Ra will escape, and everyone else will die.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss faces her ultimate test and choice, which is her last opportunity to show she’s grown as a character. She and Peeta have reached the end of the Games, but the Gamemakers change the rules yet again—only one can win. She can survive, but only if she kills Peeta.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie has to make it into the Top 5 contestants on her own. She has no help, she’s all alone, and she has to rely on both sides of who she is to do it. Her acceptance of herself is just as critical as catching the bomber. The surprise here—she’s not alone, and the other contestants come to her aid, and her partner returns to support her. She belongs.

What its function is: To end the novel and resolve the conflicts and problems the protagonist has been struggling with all book. The plot and the character arc often come together as well, showing character growth and whatever change the protagonist underwent during the story.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel and O’Neill have to figure out how to disarm the bomb, stop Ra, save everybody, and get home again. And the surprise (the nuclear bomb that won’t shut off) is the key. They send it to Ra’s ship as he’s fleeing, which destroys him and saves everyone on the planet. Thematically, this makes O’Neill realize he has things to live for, and Daniel realizes he wants to stay on the planet, not go home.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss refuses to play by the Gamemaker’s rules anymore, and she and Peeta declare they’d rather die together than living apart. They threaten to eat poisoned berries. Katniss has grown, and is willing to sacrifice herself rather than kill Peeta just to survive. And the Gamemakers have no choice but to declare them both victors.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie accepts her two sides, uses both of them to stay in the competition, find the bomber, and stop him just in time. She proves her instincts are right, and stands up for those who need it, even when no one else will. There’s also a fun thematic moment where the other contestants drink the water she needs for her talent (she plays the water glasses), forcing her to use her FBI side in the talent portion. She gives a self-defense demonstration instead.

Why the climax is important: It’s the end of the novel and the reason readers picked up the book in the first place. They want to see how it all turns out, and how the protagonist solves the novel’s problem.
  • In Stargate, it's seeing Daniel, O’Neill, the team and the villagers stand up and defeat the oppressive Ra, chasing him off the planet and blowing his ship to bits. The good guys win, the bad guy loses, love prevails, and the villagers are freed.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's seeing Katniss go from selfish to selfless, using her intelligence and strength to thwart the Gamemakers and earn the love and respect of the people watching the Games. She proves she’s not willing to sacrifice others for her own survival, and there’s more to life than simply existing. The Games are wrong and she’s saying that loud and clear.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's seeing Gracie go from hiding behind her tomboy gruffness to being a strong woman who embraces who she is to protect those who need it. Others like and appreciate her for who she is. Catching the bad guys is almost secondary, but even that’s exiting as the clock ticks down and Grace’s friends are in danger. But she prevails and stops the bomber from hurting anyone.

In essence, the climax is when the protagonist finally gets to win. It’s also the reader’s reward for reading the novel.

(Here’s more with 5 Common Problems With Endings)

Things to Remember When Crafting Your Climax

1. It resolves the core conflict and main problem of the novel.

This is the ending, so everything needs to be resolved in a satisfying way. Even if it’s the first book in a series and some things are left open, the conflict of that book is resolved. If there’s no sense of resolution and closure, readers will feel like the novel never ended, it just stopped.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel and the gang defeat Ra, free the villagers, and the team goes home.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss stands up to the Gamemakers, saves Peeta, and survives the Games.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie uses both sides of who she is to stop the bomber and save the pageant—and her new friends.

Even if the conflict is step one of a larger problem, it still ends and is still resolved. Readers need to feel that they got their money’s worth and read a compete story. The killer is caught, even if their henchman got away to wreak havoc in the next book.

(Here’s more with Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)

2. It resolves the protagonist’s character arc (if there is one).

Not every novel will have a character arc, but if yours does, that growth is made clear in the climax. And that growth is often the very thing the protagonist uses in the final twist or surprise that allows them to defeat the antagonist.
  • In Stargate, it's when O’Neill chooses life over death and doesn’t sacrifice himself. He can move on after the death of his son. Daniel doesn’t have as strong an arc, but he chooses to stay and live in the history he studied versus just studying it.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss stands up to defend Peeta instead of using him to save herself (as she’d been doing the second half of the story). It’s no longer about survival, but doing what’s right.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie accepts who she is and that her feminine side is just as strong as her masculine.

The final remains of the protagonist’s flaw falls away and they embrace who they really are and want to be. They’ve learned their lessons and are a better person for it. Or the world has changed to agree with them if you’re using a flat arc.

(Here’s more with The Reason Readers Didn’t Care About Your Protagonist (and 4 Tips on Making Them Care))

3. The pace kicks up and the tension is at the highest point.

The climax is when you throw everything on the table and don’t hold back. It’s now or never, do or die, and everyone is going full tilt to win. The pace is fast (for your genre, of course), the tensions are high, and there’s a sense of the story gaining speed and snowballing toward its inevitable ending.
  • In Stargate, it's when the attack on Ra begins and there’s no turning back now. They defied their god, and he’s not going to let that slide. It could mean the death of Daniel, O’Neill, the team, and the villagers they’ve come to care for.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss and Peeta face the last horrors and challenges of the Games, and it’s no longer the contestants against each other but the Capitol against Katniss. And more importantly—the Capitol against its own people.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie takes on the pageant and the bomber on her own, and any mistake now could cause the deaths of people she’s come to care about. On a quieter side, not only is she risking her life, but her career as well if she’s wrong.

The pacing in the climax is critical, because you want readers turning those pages fast, glued to what’s happening and dying to see how it all turns out. You might use heart-pumping action to do that, you might use gut-clenching tension, or even heart-wrenching emotion. It will vary by the type of novel and the type of conflict, so adjust to suit your genre’s needs.

(Here’s more with Tips to Understand and Control Your Novel’s Pacing)

4. The stakes go up, and frequently get personal.

No matter how high the stakes have been, they get kicked up just one more notch. Often, things get more personal and losing will affect the protagonist deeply. It’s not uncommon for the stakes to include a different type of risk, such as an emotional risk if the risk has always been physical before, or vice versa.
  • In Stargate, it's when Sha’uri is killed, and when Skaara is put in danger, who both Daniel and O’Neill have come to care for. It’s not just the team anymore, they’ve made personal connections to the people on the planet.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss realizes she can’t let Peeta die. She also sees the larger problems with how the Capitol forces its people to compete in the Games for entertainment. It’s no longer about her, but everyone.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie is willing to risk her career and life to protect women she’s come to respect and care for. It’s not just about doing the job.

Making the stakes personal adds a deeper layer to the climax, making what happens matter more to the protagonist as well as the reader. When there’s more to lose, there’s more to worry about.

(Here’s more with Raise Your Novel's Stakes by Narrowing the Focus)

A great climax leaves readers breathless, satisfied, and happy they read the novel.

You spend all book working up to this last showdown, so make it a good one. Pull out all the stops and push the emotions and actions as high as you can. Use what you created in the story to make those final battles and actions resonate to earlier moments in the book. Connect those subplot threads, reveal those final secrets, and give readers the ending they’ve been waiting for.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your climax. Does it resolve the core conflict in a satisfying way? Is it as exciting and engaging as it could be? Is there anything you can do to crank it up?

Does your ending make readers glad they read the novel?

*I’m not saying which series it was because I don’t like to trash an author publicly. If you really want to know, email me and I’ll tell you.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Hi Janice. I'm glad to see you are finding time with your new schedule for the Story Structure series. Will you be writing one regarding the wrap up? As I contemplate the disaster called a first draft, I'm finding the opening scene to inciting incident and climax to "the end" the hardest to wrap my head around. Very little seems written on the very end of a novel. Even if the climax is outstanding I can see the denouement being a disaster if the story plot(s) and character arc(s) aren't wrapped up properly. Just curious...

    Again, wonderful little series. I'll be pouring over the draft ensuring I've worked the structure properly.

    1. I will wrap up the series with the Wrap Up post. The wrap up is just as tough, because it's hard to know how much to do, what should be there, what makes the end vs the wrap up. I'll be covering all that :)

      Thanks! It'll be nice to finally finish it. I can't believe I never realized I was missing a few moments!