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September 19, 2017

What Should Our Story’s Climax Include?

Sun setting over water with text: Story Climax: How Should Our Story End?

Regular readers of my blog know I’m a big fan of story structure and beat sheets (even though I write by the seat of my pants). Story structure is what makes our story feel like a story, so it’s important for storytelling.

(And if we’ve ever read a marginally crafted book that we couldn’t put down, we know the value of storytelling for overcoming our writing weaknesses. *smile*)

I’ve written several posts that dig into different sections of our story and discussed what that beat or act should include:

However, I haven’t covered what we should include in our story’s Climax before because it’s a tricky topic. But I thought it might be helpful for us to at least try to identify some of the story elements we might need to include in the Climax.

The Climax Is Unlike Any Other Story Beat

First, remember that specific beat names don’t matter, and the Climax beat is sometimes also called Finale, Showdown, or Final Battle. Second, understand that the Climax beat is treated differently on a beat sheet from all the other beats.

Unlike the other story beats—which target a specific percentage or page/word count, such as the First Plot Point falling around the 25% mark of a story—the Climax story beat covers a range that takes up most of Act Three, from about the 80% mark to around the 95-99% mark of the story.

As I’ve mentioned before:

“The Climax is a special case in that the (beat sheet’s word or page count) range encompasses everything leading up to up to the Climax as well as the actual “showdown.” For example, the Climax would include: deciding to storm the castle, gathering weapons and allies, traveling to the castle, breaching the castle’s defenses, battling the minor bad guys, rescuing the good guys, and fighting the big bad villain.

It’s difficult to separate those steps into separate beats, so they’re frequently lumped together in one breathless-race-to-the-end-of-the-story rush. All of the Climax-related scenes typically take up the majority of Act Three.”

What Counts as the Climax Beat?

The Climax story beat starts after our characters survive the Black Moment (where they give up) and then rally for a comeback. As soon as they decide to pick themselves up and start working toward the story goals again, the Climax has begun.

The Climax beat ends after the antagonists (internal and external) are dealt with (positively or negatively, such as in a tragedy). After the Climax, we’re ready to wind down to the final image, resolution, happy ending, or story denouement.

(The ending point of 95-99% depends on whether we count a character’s internal/emotional arc confrontation as part of the Climax or the Resolution. Or the inclusion of an epilogue can also cause variance. The numbers are just guidelines and not exact anyway. *smile*)

Why Can’t the Climax Beat Be Broken Out on a Beat Sheet?

What happens between those Climax starting and ending story points can’t be easily captured on a beat sheet. Despite my castle-storming example above, every story needs to hit different elements in a different order depending on several factors:

  • genre and sub-genre
  • plot-focused vs. character-focused
  • subplots
  • strength or focus of the protagonist’s internal arc
  • nature of the antagonist(s)
  • etc., etc.

For example, depending on our story, the plot-focused showdown might occur last, just before the Resolution, and all subplots or internal issues would be dealt with first. In other stories, the plot showdown might happen first, and internal/emotional arcs might have their respective showdown or epiphany later.

Some stories include minions or lesser antagonists to overcome, and others don’t. Some include subplots or strong character arcs, and others don’t. Because of all that variation, it’s impossible to say that a subplot should be wrapped up at X% and the minions should be dealt with by Y%, etc.

The Climax Can Make or Break Our Story

We can probably think of a book or movie that was decent throughout until the Climax. Then everything fell apart.

A story's Climax can make or break the story. Click To TweetMaybe the storytelling was muddled at that point. Maybe it seemed to counteract the themes built up through the rest of the story. Or maybe it dropped story threads, leading to an unsatisfying ending.

Story Climaxes are really hard to get right for the same reason that story beginnings are tricky:

  • At the beginning of our story, we have to juggle several elements to introduce the story, setting, characters, and situation and hook the reader.
  • At the Climax, we have to address, confront, or resolve several elements for a story to feel satisfying.

Balancing a dozen (or more) different elements is tricky for both story beginnings and endings. Let’s take a look at what elements we should watch out for so we can hopefully ensure a more satisfying ending for our readers.

What Elements Should We Check for Our Story Climax?

How should our story end? Here's a list of what we might need to include... Click To TweetAs mentioned above, every story is unique, so the elements we need to include in the Climax vary from story to story. That said, we can come up with a “master list” of elements that might play a role in our story’s Climax.

With this list, we can then ask ourselves whether each item applies to our story or not. So think of this list as a brainstorming trigger to help us avoid dropping threads from our story’s Climax. *smile*

Story elements that might need to be addressed in our story’s Climax include:

  • rising stakes force character(s) to get involved again
  • additional setbacks prove the protagonist won’t give up again (like they did after the Black Moment)
  • gather supplies, resources, or allies to allow for a showdown
  • characters come up with a plan
  • protagonist identifies what held them back from success earlier
  • tie subplots into main plot
  • resolve subplots or tease resolution in next book
  • overcome minions or minor antagonists
  • a feared disaster occurs (showing the risks are real)
  • a final clue to move forward and solve the story problem
  • a final raising of the stakes
  • a final threat from the main antagonist
  • epiphanies of internal/emotional understanding
  • epiphanies of plot understanding
  • echo the theme through the final threats or consequences
  • protagonist must make an impossible choice (either between two good or two bad options)
  • protagonist willing or able to do something they couldn’t do before
  • demonstrate what protagonist now willing/able to do
  • protagonist re-prioritizes their needs or wants, allowing them to attack the problem a different way
  • protagonist re-experiences their backstory wound or faces their worst nightmare
  • protagonist grows into their Essence (their potential)
  • protagonist recognizes their false belief and rejects it
  • protagonist accepts what they can’t change (potentially a decision to sacrifice themselves)
  • show how the protagonist has changed or grown
  • protagonist takes leap of faith that ties into theme
  • a big revelation changes the story
  • character gives a big monologue, revealing true feelings or changing the story
  • confront main antagonist
  • confront internal weaknesses or fears
  • solution addresses the story problem established during the First Plot Point
  • solution shows relevance of puzzle-piece details mentioned throughout story
  • solution flows from what’s come before in the story
  • solution feels natural to the story but isn’t predictable
  • solution doesn’t rely on Deux ex Machina
  • solution pays off foreshadowing and other setups
  • solution meets protagonist’s goals/longings on some level
  • solution relies on protagonist’s growth
  • create an emotional impression on the reader
  • fulfillment of the protagonist’s journey
  • fulfillment of the theme (demonstrate or show how it’s true)
  • fulfillment of the premise

*whew* That’s everything I can think of off the top of my head. And as I said, not every element listed will apply to our story.

Some genres feature villains and minions and some don’t. Some stories feature a character arc for the protagonist, and others are more plot-focused. We shouldn’t look at this list and automatically assume we’re doing something wrong.

The point of this list is just to give us a place to start when making sure we’ve remembered to include all the appropriate elements for our story. Or alternately, we could use this list to gather or provide feedback on a Climax that’s not working. *smile*

Do you struggle with tying everything together in your story’s Climax? What’s trickiest about writing your Climax? Will this list be helpful to you for brainstorming or double-checking? Does this long list give insight into why Climax beats are so hard? *grin* Did I forget any Climax elements that should be added to the list?

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What do you think?

12 Comments on "What Should Our Story’s Climax Include?"

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Jan Bulawan
Jan Bulawan

Creative thoughts I start with are connecting dots. When I am focused in finding dots to connect, your list, Jami, is a treasure chest of dots.

Maurine
Maurine

This is a great post on climax. Your list is one I need to have by my computer as I write the climax of each book. So thorough for off the top of your head. I have the most trouble with working the theme in with the climax.

Thank you for keeping on with your blog even though you must feel like crap. Hope your health issues get resolved fast and you feel better soon.

Donna L Hole

I always thought epiphanies are part of the epilogue/ending as opposed to the climax.

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

Well done! Great list.
In your earlier example, I would think deciding to storm a castle and gathering allies would be a lead-up to the climax, which would be the siege or battle. Of course it might depend on how many lines were written about each segment.

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[…] The plot forms the basic structure of a story. K. M. Weiland catalogs 5 tips for organizing subplots, James Scott Bell explores how to cure mid-novel sag, and Jami Gold demystifies what our story’s climax should include. […]

Laurie Evans

Thanks for this. I’m bookmarking this article!

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[…] elements of stories include structure and metaphor. Jami Gold investigates what a story’s climax should include, Mary Kole looks at subplots, Kristen Lamb handles flashbacks, and Stavros Halvatizis explores […]

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

Hey Jami!

I’ve had this post up to read for a while, so it is interesting that I read it today. The book I just finished reading had the climax (no pun intended) followed immediately by the shortest ‘resolution’ I’ve ever seen — very dissatisfying! On the writing front, I spent a lot of time pulling my hair out over the climax of my current project. I’m still concerned there’s not enough “showdown” with the external conflict and that the internal conflict resolution is too internal.

I’m almost to the midpoint of the second draft, so I’m letting the climax portion “marinate” in my head while I work on what comes before. This December, I will have been working on this project for 2 years. I have so many “ugh, it’s a mess” novels littering my hard drive; I don’t want this one to be one more added to the pile. I’ve promised myself a good work-related reward for completing (ready to shop!) this novel. That means… back to work I go.

Thanks for another great post!!! There’s NOT enough out there about the Climax (beat and segment) and your brainstorming list will give me something to bounce off of, if my current plot plan doesn’t work on paper.

Anne.

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[…] Build Arcs & Don’t Get Stuck: What should we do if we get stuck in our plot? Or with our character? How do we develop a character arc? How can we avoid a “sagging middle”? What do we need to include in our story’s climax? […]

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[…] Similarly, if we summarize the Black Moment, the character’s crisis of faith or hope might seem like no big deal to overcome, weakening the story or character arc. The same goes for the other major story beats, like the Midpoint and Climax. […]

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