Many beginning novelists think of the climax of their story as one single, explosive event. While that’s true to a degree, the climax of a novel actually has four components:
- The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions)
- The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving)
- The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome)
- The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing).
A word on setting before we begin: Many times, all four of these will happen as a stand-alone set piece, a huge scene (or series of scenes) that constitutes the endgame. Often, this is done in a location we haven’t seen yet. In those cases, the final act, which we’ll call Act 3, is easy to identify.
Battles and monsters and betrayals have tried to bar their way, but Frodo and Sam finally arrive at Mount Doom. The whole Cracks of Doom sequence is the climax portion of Act 3 in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
After all the ups and downs, the Nazis really are going to open the Ark of the Covenant. The entire mountaintop sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark is the set piece that comprises the climax portion of its Act 3.
In these stories and more, there’s an actual location element to Act 3. It’s as if the set designers have built a special arena just for the final showdown. I actually quite like the feeling that the curtain fell on Act 2, the stagehands have taken off the old set and are preparing something new and wonderful, and then the curtain rises to show us the climax of the play.
But there’s nothing that says your climactic moment has to be in a different location. If it’s a sports story, for instance, the climax may occur in the same place as much of the rest of the book: the court or field. If the characters have been trapped in an elevator for the whole book, the climax will most likely take place in the elevator. So long as you cover all the elements, you’re fine. But why not take it to a new fun location?
Think about your story a moment. You may have a good idea for where the big showdown needs to happen. And even if you’ve thought of a place, considering other options will help you find surprising wonders or can verify that you have, indeed, found the right place for this crucial action.
What is the ultimate setting for the final conflict in your book? If you’re writing a thriller about a killer who preys on children, could the final standoff occur on a playground? If you’re writing a romance about flirtatious ornithologists, could the final will-he/won’t-he moment take place in the world’s largest aviary? If it’s a pirate story, the climactic scene had better be on the high seas.
There’s appropriateness about your story regarding the “right” location for the big scene. Where is the perfect place for your book’s climactic sequence?
If you’re still not sure, perhaps looking at each element of the climax will help you decide.
The Run-Up to the Climactic Moment
Act 3 is the whole book in miniature. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. Rising action, climax, and falling action. Things have to be set up for the big event, the big event happens and then there is the fallout.
If your Act 3 takes place largely in a new location, the run-up begins when the hero arrives at the new location. So somehow you’ve got to get from the last item on your Act 2 map to this location. Maybe at the end of Act 2, your hero can set out for the Act 3 location: She heads to the launchpad, he runs toward the stables, she picks up her sword and strides toward the villain’s lair.
If your Act 3 does not take place in a new location, you can still indicate the hero’s intention to purposely walk toward the final confrontation. The “Let’s roll” moment can be when the curtain comes down on Act 2.
Act 3, then, begins in the next logical point on that journey. He arrives at the airport. She reaches the underground silo. He blasts through the wall and begins his assault.
Now your Act 3 has begun. The rest of your task in this portion is to get him from that starting point to the climactic moment.
Again, it’s a simple matter of connecting the dots. Well, once she enters the lair she’ll have to do some looking around. She’ll probably encounter guards of some kind, who she’ll have to fight or outwit. She’ll get deeper into the bowels of the den. We’ll need lots of descriptions of what she’s seeing and smelling. Somehow she’ll have to encounter something that leads her to the right place. Her goal will be in sight and she’ll move toward it. But then of course the villain and his chief henchmen will appear. She’ll deal with all the other obstacles and finally come face to face with the villain, who is about to do the dastardly deed that will doom the realm. She draws her sword and charges in!
Or, well, he gets to the airport and jumps out of his car. But because of his character, he can’t bear the thought of going up against the Department of Homeland Security, so he politely gets back in the car and finds a proper parking space and places his parking stub on the dashboard. Meanwhile, the airline closes the door on the plane. She’s on board! He runs across the parking garage and enters the terminal. He checks a screen to see what gate she’s at and off he goes. And so forth, right on through to the climactic moment.
What will happen in your book? What are the final adjustments needed to set up the climax? Write them down.
See how this part is writing itself? After you make a few key decisions, everything else is a matter of servicing and enabling those decisions.
The Moment of Truth
The main character’s moment of truth in her inner journey needs to take place late in the story but still before the external climax. This is because what she decides to do or become in her moment of truth affects how she will behave in the climactic moment.
Let’s say a character has been a coward the whole time and now, with the villain about to make off with the treasure and the girl, he has a choice to make: man or mouse. If he decides to go with the old way and remain gutless, he’ll probably escape his own danger, be rejected by the villain’s henchmen as a coward, lose the girl and the treasure … and hate himself forever. If he decides he’s not going to crawl away one more time, then he’ll face a new set of consequences for that choice. The villain and his men will fight him, he may still lose the treasure and the girl, but he will have done so as a hero.
What your main character decides in her moment of truth has everything to do with how the climax of the book plays out. It doesn’t mean that if she makes the “right” decision she’ll automatically win the day (though that is usually what happens), but it does tell you how she will act in the climactic moment of the external storyline.
So think now about your hero’s moment of truth and how it might impact the climax of the novel. You’ve probably decided whether he’ll choose the new way or the old way, so think about how that would look given the big walls-falling-down climax you’re designing.
While you’re at it, why not consider what it would look like if he were to choose the other way? If you’ve decided he’ll choose the new way, go ahead and think about how it would go if he were to choose the old way.
At this moment in Act 3, probably more than anywhere else in your novel, the inner journey and the outer journey are interconnected. The “plot” that is the story of your character’s internal transformation here intersects the outer plot that has made that transformation possible. The moment of truth decides it and the climax illustrates what she decides.
So it should be in your novel. Your hero’s moment of truth determines her behavior in the climax.
The Climactic Moment Itself
It’s finally here, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: your chance to pull out all the stops and get a little crazy.
Your characters will certainly be flirting with desperation, bordering on temporary insanity. Like a pressure cooker about to erupt, it’s all been building to this. Now it’s time to blow everything up.
You’ve already taken early shots at envisioning this moment. Do you have any refinements now that you’ve thought through Act 3 more carefully? What is your external climax going to look like? Make it crazy. Turn up the heat until you don’t think the story can bear it anymore—then triple it! All novel long, you’ve been heaping abuse on your hero to try to get her to change. Now it’s your chance to grab two handfuls of grief and drop it on her head.
The more dire you make it for the hero here at the end, the more heroic you make her—and the more you engage your reader. If the whole book up to her moment of truth has been about getting her to contemplate a transformation, this part is testing her transformation.
Or maybe it’s not a test of her decision; maybe it’s just a seemingly impossible task that must be done with time running out. It’s the last stand and the aliens are closing in. The good guys are falling like flies and the only hope for any of them to survive is for our hero to make it to the airlock and blow all the aliens away. Can he do it? He better, or else …
Keep your or else firmly in mind here. Remind yourself of the stakes. If the hero doesn’t X, the villain will Y. The climactic moment will be all about the "or else."
If you’re writing a more gentle story that doesn’t have aliens or evil masterminds about to destroy the world, you can still ramp up the tension in the climax.
At the end of Never Been Kissed, Josie is standing on the pitcher’s mound with the clock ticking down. She has wounded her would-be boyfriend but has attempted to redeem herself by writing a confessional article for her paper. She hopes Sam will forgive her and come to the ballpark before the clock counts down to zero. Everyone in the crowd is right there with her, hoping he’ll come, but there’s no sign of him. She’ll lose the one thing she most wants if he doesn’t come. But he’s not anywhere to be—wait, who’s that? There he is!
That nail-biting moment didn’t involve a single mutant, dragon, or zombie, but it did an excellent job of raising tension and producing an admirable climax to the story.
The Immediate Aftermath
What happens right after the climax? I’m not talking about the falling action in which characters sit around drinking mint juleps. I’m talking about those seconds immediately after the climax has transpired, for good or ill.
The bridge is still going to collapse. The train is still going to crash. The recital is still going on. They’re still surrounded by mutants and zombies. The main villain may have been defeated, but the walls that were falling down on the hero’s head before are still falling down.
What needs to happen immediately after the climax?
Many new authors want to end the climactic scene as soon as the villain gets tipped into the bottomless pit, but that’s a mistake. For the reader to get closure on the moment, you need to complete what you’ve started. You need to get the hero out of that dangerous place.
Show him grabbing the heroine’s hand and sprinting out of the cavern just as it collapses. Show the hero clambering aboard a fishing vessel to be taken to safety. Show the hero stepping behind a concrete wall just as the house finally explodes.
Or, in those softer stories, show the boy finally hitting the home run. Show the woman nailing the high note. Show the man recovering the puppy at long last.
Play out the logical end of the scene that contained the climax.
What will that be in your story? After the hero does the big thing to save (or doom) the day, what happens immediately afterward? Resolve the moment.
When you’ve done that, you’ve finished everything that goes into the climax portion of Act 3. All that’s left is to tie things off and enjoy that mint julep.