November 15, 2011

Story Climax: The Whole Point — Guest: Victoria Mixon

Picture of Victoria Mixon

I’m excited to share today’s guest post by editor A. Victoria Mixon with everyone.  Her new book The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual recently came out and is a great addition to our writing craft library.

In fact, her blog tour posts have been excerpts from this book, so we can get a sneak peak at some of the insights she shares in her latest release.  She was gracious enough to let me choose any excerpt I wanted for today’s post.  When I read this section for the first time, I got goosebumps along with the “Ah-ha!” moment.  I hope it helps all of you as well.


The Whole Point

What’s the Climax of a novel?

We must understand, for now, only this one, fundamental thing: the Climax is the real reason we write our stories.

Once upon a time, two teenagers became so distraught over their passion for each other they committed suicide—that’s the premise. Cause? Their parents wouldn’t let them marry or even date—that’s the story. Cause of that? Their families hated each other—that’s the backstory.

—Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare

Once upon a time, a man succumbed to idiocy over the death of the woman he loved—that’s the premise. Cause? His rival for her love stole her from him and then killed her in anguish over the betrayal he’d committed against a saintly man—that’s the story. Cause of that? His rival was an old and close friend of his—that’s the backstory.

—The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Once upon a time, a woman nearly lost the man she loved through her own machinations—that’s the premise. Cause? She was an inveterate social meddler—that’s the story. Cause of that? Although good-hearted, she had always been spoiled—that’s the backstory.

—Emma, Jane Austen

Once upon a time, a woman became so distraught over her adulterous affair that she committed suicide—that’s the premise. Cause? Society ostracized her for her affair, while at the same time her lover made her intensely jealous—that’s the story. Cause of that? She was a married female aristocrat of nineteenth-century Russia with an intensely passionate nature—that’s the backstory.

—Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Once upon a time, a man encountered a ghoul and disappeared—that’s the premise. Cause? He was out at night after spending the evening competing with another man for the love of a young woman—that’s the story. Cause of that? He was an unattractive schoolteacher in a highly superstitious time and place, with a ruthless and contemptuous rival—that’s the backstory.

—”The Legend Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving

Do you see how the Climax is, bizarrely enough, the premise? We must dwell on this in the depths of our soul until it makes total and complete sense. Mull it over. Meditate upon it. Make it a part of our writing identity. We cannot take this fact too seriously.

The Climax is the whole point.

Otherwise, we have no reason for writing any of this.


Victoria Mixon has been a writer and editor for thirty years and is the creator A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, voted one of WritetoDone’s Top 10 Blogs for Writers. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and the recently-released The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, published by Prentice Hall, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. She spends a lot of time helping writers on Google+ and Twitter.


Our story’s climax is the premise.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d never heard the tip that they will (must) match laid out so clearly before.  It’s seems too simple, too straightforward, doesn’t it?

So I tested this with some of my stories, going in the opposite direction as Victoria with her examples above.  Sure enough, when I described the climax in one short sentence, I’d nailed the premise too.

What can we do with this knowledge?  Plenty.  As Victoria said, the climax is the whole point of the story.  If we’re missing the point, the story will miss its mark.

  • If our climax doesn’t match our premise, we need to figure out why.  Is our climax not bringing the right conflict to a head?  Is our climax missing a critical piece because all the players aren’t in place?  Has a subplot taken us off-course?
  • Or if we’re pantsing our way through a story and we’re not sure what the climax should look like, we can try to describe the premise in one sentence.  That’s what the climax should center around.
  • From the other direction, we now have an easy way to boil down the premise of any story.  Think of the climax and work from there.

So far, I haven’t encountered problems with the two aspects not matching, but by understanding this link, I can bring out my premise (which is often related to theme) to the fullest extent in my climax.  No matter what, I know I’ll never look at climax and premise the same way again.


Do you have any questions about this concept, or other questions for Victoria?  Do you see the link between the premise and the climax?  How well do your stories match up?  Can you think of any other ways we can use this link to steer our writing?  Did anyone else find this really cool, or was it just me?  *smile*

Pin It

Comments — What do you think?

Click here to learn more about Lost Your Pants workshop
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Talk about an ah-HA moment.
The minute I’m done commenting here I’m off to buy that book (but not before I share this post with all my Tweeps) I know they’ll be grateful for this fascinating lesson.
Thank you Jami for always sharing relevant and intriguing posts, and thank you Victoria Mixon for your generosity in allowing Jami to cut a snippet from your book.
Love this!!
Have a great Tuesday!

Victoria Mixon

You’re very welcome, Tamara! I’m happy to be a part of your writing journey. And I’m grateful to Jami for bringing me to her blog to meet all of you–such fun to see your new faces!

Angela Quarles

Love this tip! I’m also working on my hook for my query letter, so this will also help me boil all that down. Thank you! Very timely for me 😀

Victoria Mixon

Yes, Angela, this helps a lot with querying, when you must be able to condense your story into to its kernel. You have a little more room in a query to walk the agent through the story–think of a movie trailer in which they shift from startling to soothing to dynamite. You’ll notice how often that ‘dynamite’ ends on the protagonist facing an impossible obstacle.

What will they do?

Stephen T. Harper
Stephen T. Harper

Great post Victoria and Jami! I used to teach creative writing to high school students, and one of the things I learned from that experience was that most of what makes any kind of writing good is actually having something to say. You don’t have to be in high school to get that part of it wrong. This is a great test for that. Let me try it… Once upon a time a young man who had never once stepped outside the borders of his city, left for the first time to give up his life for a girl he’d just met. That’s the premise. Cause? She had come to him in search of his long-dead father, believing that, as her enemies closed in on her, she had secretly given him a strange talisman that causes her to remember many past lifetimes. That’s the story. Cause of that? The young man and the girl he just met had found the talisman together, long ago. As they died together, knowing one would remember and the other would not , a plea between lovers was made “Wait for me.” He did. I think I agree with Angela too – reverse engineering your story could really help with pitches and queries too. But you have to be careful about spoilers. Generally pitches end before the end. Like with my example above, you might want to leave out the opening sentence. But it absolutely would help in crafting a good pitch. Great post. Very…  — Read More »

Victoria Mixon

Beautiful, Stephen! And so your whole reason for writing this story is to show that young man facing his final decision: should he stay or should he go? You’re bringing the reader to the arc of the rainbow and revealing this extraordinary view over their own choices: “Once upon a time, a man gave up his entire life for a woman he didn’t know.”

That gives you his two conflicting needs that will keep bouncing him from pillar to post throughout your story: he needs his established life, but he also needs—for some mysterious reason—this strange woman.

And you’re right about spoilers in a query. Agents don’t mind knowing the end (they’ll insist on it in the synopsis), but more and more they want to see that you know how to create tension.

So you lead them to that question, “What will my protagonist do?” And if you’ve written your query right, they request your partial because they simply have to find out.

Julie Hedlund

Wow! Just … wow! It’s funny how the things that seem the simplest are the most difficult to do. Or is it just that we writers over complicate EVERYTHING?

Victoria Mixon

🙂 Yes, Julie, we do. Otherwise we wouldn’t write novels, we’d write aphorisms.


Love Victoria! I won an edit of my climactic chapter from her a couple years ago, and I really appreciated her help. (Plus, I sold the book two weeks ago!)

This article also made me look at the novel I finished yesterday. I keep thinking of the (very long) battle as the climax–but reading this made me realize that the actual climax begins during the battle and comes in the very last scene.

So mine:
Once upon a time, two archaeologists found a prophesied Viking treasure (and fell in love). Cause? Girl archaeologist believed guy archaeologist’s unshakeable faith in his theory (and used their wits to find and follow clues)—that’s the story. Cause of that? Girl archaeologist needed something to believe in after losing all her dreams.

Whoa. Just took the characters to the next level. Woot! Off to do this with all my other rough drafts!

Victoria Mixon

Hi, Jordan! 🙂 Congratulations on selling your novel!

Fabulous story break-down. You’ve got your Climax in that very last scene, where it can blow up the very best.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

Oooohh, lemme try.

In a time yet to come, a bounty hunter of rogue androids learns that life is precious from a dying synthetic soldier. Cause? The androids came to his city search for a way to prolongue their very short life.
(Blade Runner)

Or my NanoWrimo:
In a time yet to come, a contract hacker ends the oppression of a computer-run economy, giving the human race a chance to escape absolute poverty. Cause? Automated systems outperform the human elements in management of the economy, making all people obsolete. (political jab: 1%, meet your machine overlords)

Victoria Mixon

“(political jab: 1%, meet your machine overlords)” :))

That’s hilarious, Roxanne.

Kerry Meacham

I’m off to look at my WWBC and NaNo loglines from this perspective, Jami. I’m also buying your new book, Victoria.

I once worked with a great engineer. Of course engineers are notorious for making things too complex, but not him. He is the smartest person I’ve ever worked around. You know, the scary smart kind of person. His genius was taking things that were extremely complex and breaking it down to the point that it became simple. That’s what I see here with breaking the novel down to premise, story, backstory in one paragraph. Great things are never easy, but they’re usually simple.

Thanks. ~clink~

Victoria Mixon

How very kind of you, Kerry! And I saw your tweet—thank you so much.

You know, engineering is a great place for a writer to learn how to distill difficult concepts into simplicity. I was a tech writer in the computer industry for years. So many of those engineers live in unbelievably complex worlds of spaghetti code, and the best tech writer is the one who can make that stuff look just intuitive.

I’m very pleased if you’ve gotten that experience from me about fiction!

Gene Lempp

Epiphany! I’ll be looking over my projects using this concept. It makes a great deal of sense. I’ll also be looking into getting a copy of Victoria’s book to see what other great tidbits are in there.

Thanks for hosting her, Jami. Super fantastic!

Victoria Mixon

Thank you, Gene! I saw your tweet too—thank you so much.

I love that you’re talking epiphany here, as that’s the goal of all great fiction: to give the reader an epiphany that makes an permanent difference in their life.

If you’ve gotten that here, then I am living my dream. 🙂

PW Creighton

Very interesting way of looking at the composition. Refine the entire piece to a single sentence, or two and the truth is revealed. Sounds like Victoria has an amazing resource for us.

Victoria Mixon

Isn’t is amazing how profound simplicity is? It’s those still waters running deep. As you say, “the truth is revealed.”


[…] Gold runs her blog under the slogan, “Beach Reads with Bite.” Her eclectic crowd of paranormal and, as […]

Clifton Hill

Wow, that is an incredible tip. I’m still trying to mull it over in my head. I need more examples. But I think I can just about see the brilliance on the horizon if I squint real hard.

Victoria Mixon

If you both want to put up your general stories in a few sentences, I’ll help you frame the premises. Think of it as a choice: what two overwhelming needs must your protagonist choose between?

Another example?

Once upon a time, a young man in great agony and exhaustion confronted his own intense hunger for ultimate power—that’s the premise. Cause of that? He has become the only person capable of guarding the key to ultimate power until it’s destroyed–that’s the story. Cause of that? The evil creator of this key dominated his world for hundreds of years until the lost key recently resurfaced–that’s the backstory.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R.Tolkien

Clifton Hill

Thanks for another example. Take my own story? Ok.

A warrior of unique power, with a secret past and a troubled mind, helps rid the land of an enemy host—that’s the premise. Cause of that? The warrior regains a sense of purpose in an army of a great general, who struggles to unite the land to fight off their oppressors—that’s the story. Cause of that? Internal strife divided the land, making it ripe for conquest, while the warrior was driven from his home by the inaction of his people to fight in a war that could not be won—that’s the backstory.

Ugh, that doesn’t seem nearly as neat and tidy as your presentations, but then I’m writing epic fantasy. Do I get a pass?

Victoria Mixon


I don’t believe in grading. Fiction is a craft of infinite subtlety.

This is fine! You’re right that the more streamlined it is, the easier it is to pinpoint the moment of Climax. But you can’t make it too streamlined. We wouldn’t say of Romeo & Juliet, “Once upon a time, two kids died.” You need the characters’ motivation in there to show why it happens.

Think in terms of what your protagonist does even more than what he helps do. Why is he the center of this story instead of the general? What’s more important about him than anyone else? Does he use his special power in the Climax? (I’m sure he does!)

Clifton Hill

I only say he “helps” to be honest that he does not do it all by himself. There is a lot of “doing” by him. The story revolves around him, the general is an accessory to him FOR the story, even though he commands him IN the story. The general serves much as the Mentor character, a father figure and perhaps the moral backbone of the story.

Thanks for the post and the insight. I’ll hope to hear you on Writing Excuses some day. For anyone interested in pushing the cause, go to: and tell them to have Victoria on the show.

Victoria Mixon

You’re totally on the right track here. You just need to say as succinctly as possible what he does that tips the scale and routs the enemy. This is what an agent or publisher want to know: why him? why this? why now?

Conveniently, this is also what your reader wants to know!

“Once upon a time, a young/old/troubled/gifted/etc warrior with a secret past [used his gift] to rid/defend his beloved land of/against [his enemies]/[an enemy invasion].”

And thank you for the link to ‘push the cause’! Your support is really heartwarming, Clifton. 🙂

Daniel Swensen (@surlymuse)

It’s not often that a piece of writing advice genuinely and immediately makes me reconsider my own work. This was one of those times. Great post, and thank you. I have a feeling I’m going to be deconstructing some of my favorite media over the next few days using this method. 🙂

Victoria Mixon

Wonderful, Daniel. I’m so pleased to be a part of your work in this tremendous craft! Deconstruction is a fabulous way to learn.

Clifton Hill

I’m reading this stuff and SO wanting to hear you do your deconstructions on the Writing Excuses podcast.

Victoria Mixon

Thank you, Clifton! The best way to get me on their show is probably for them to invite me, so if you mention this to them. . .maybe they will. 🙂

I’d be happy to demonstrate this with any books they’d like to throw at me. (Famous last words, I know!)

Clifton Hill

Oh yeah, I jumped on the Writing Excuses facebook right away and left my endorsement.

Victoria Mixon

Thanks, Clifton! You’re heck of kind.



I think I must be dense tonight. I feel like Robin Williams in the movie “Hook,” right before he connects with his inner child and can see all the cool food at the food fight…

Can you please say a few more things about premises? I may have a semantic crossed wire.

Thank you so much, Victoria. Your books are on my Christmas list.

Veronika Walker
Veronika Walker

WOW…that makes total sense. I never thought about it that way before, Victoria.

That’s why you’re the master and I’m the padawan. 😀

Now I have to go see if this truth holds out in MY story…

Melinda Collins

*headdesk* O….M….G!!!

How is it that the things that appear to be so simple can be one of the hardest to get your brain to wrap around. I seriously have an epiphany going on right now! 🙂

Now I’m re-thinking book 1 of my series (which is with a CP) as I write book 2. No, I’m not going to make changes just yet, but I’ll definitely be holding onto those notes so I can discuss them with my CP.

Thank you for this post, Victoria and thank you Jami for hosting her on your site! 😀

Robert Datson

An excellent test – I want to try too:

Once upon a time, a young man comes to realise that his job is terrible because his bosses are evil, and is forced to take action – that’s the premise. Cause? The evil bosses have a nasty plot requiring our young man’s assistance – that’s the story. Cause of that? The evil bosses need something desperately for their ongoing existence – that’s the backstory.

Did I get it right?

Victoria Mixon

Hey, Robert!

Tell us what the young man does when he’s forced to take action. That’s the event that makes this story worth telling!

Julie Musil

Holy cow, that’s brilliant! I’m still wrapping my brain around this. I’ll have to compare my stories to this and see how they rate. Thanks Jami and Victoria!


[…] First is a post that gave me a wonderful epiphany and hope it will for you as well. Jami Gold hosted the wonderful Victoria Mixon with Story Climax: The Whole Point. […]

Claire Caterer

Fabulous post. If you do this exercise with any really great story, you can see how climax is the INEVITABLE outcome of the preceding events. I think that’s important.


[…] A. Victoria Mixon guest posts on Jami Gold’s blog, Story Climax: The Whole Point — Guest: Victoria Mixon – great way to look at your story in a macro way; it helped me hone my hook for my query […]

Cath Rene
Cath Rene

Awesome! I’ve been stalled out revising a novel, not sure what needs to go and what should stay. I sat down and applied the theory above, even though I would never have come to that conclusion on my own, and am delighted to report that The Climax=The Premise is an excellent way to clarify the story. By determining the premise, the cause of the premise (story), and the cause of the story (backstory), I have a much clearer understanding about what I’m doing now. So glad I subsribed to this blog! Thank you.


[…] been talking over on Jami Gold’s blog last week about the Story Climax, which is—it turns out—the whole […]


Uck. I have such problems filling out forms like this where they ask you to identify the climax of your story, the premise, etc. I put all of those things in a story automatically, because I taught myself to write by reading books and they ALWAYS have a climax and a premise, but identifying them in a form makes me freeze and feel all sick to my stomach.

I don’t know what it is about it. I suppose I’m just being silly. I hate how little things can make me so nervous. Excellent excerpt, by the way. I have to look into this book now. It sounds good. Maybe I’ll learn something from it. Thanks for the great suggestion and I’ll have to look into nailing down my climax and premise…maybe. I probably have those two written down somewhere already. XD

Have a great day and happy writing!

Click to grab Pure Sacrifice now!