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Writing

Mastering Story Arc: How to Structure a Climax

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

A climax is a dramatic turning point in a narrative—a pivotal moment at the peak of the story arc that pits the protagonist against an opposing force in order to resolve the main conflict once and for all. The climax is one of the most important literary devices in plot structure; it’s the moment when the story arc bends and begins its descent.

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What Is the Climax of a Story?

In literary terms, the definition of climax is the highest point of tension in a storyline, often depicted by a confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist. A climax resolves the main conflict of the story and is the moment the main character reaches—or fails to reach—their goal. The word climax originates from the Greek word “klimax” which means “ladder.”

How Does the Climax Fit into the Larger Story Arc?

Gustav Freytag, a nineteenth-century German writer, defined the five progressions of a story, which have come to be known as Freytag’s Pyramid. The five progressions are: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Those structural pillars are still the defining elements of a story arc, with the climax at the peak.

The placement of a climax is essential to a good story. It typically occurs around 90% of the way through the narrative in order to have the greatest impact. Once the climactic moment happens, the story should be resolved quickly. If the climax happens too soon, the resolution will be too long, and readers will become disengaged. If a writer places the climax too late in the story without enough of a wrap-up, it creates an unsatisfying conclusion.

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How to Identify the Climax in a Story Arc

As tension reaches its breaking point in a story, the climax is imminent. There are certain qualities to this main event that differentiate it from smaller plot points. Here are the ways to identify the climax in a story arc:

  • It’s intense. The biggest battle scene is always the climax. The climax has a greater intensity and more suspense than any other moment in a story.
  • It’s often surprising. If there’s a shocking reveal in the final third of a story, chances are it is the climax. Writers often use the climax to unmask a killer, surprising both the main character and the reader.
  • It answers a question. The climax is the moment a protagonist learns the answer to the question that was established early in the story’s exposition.
  • It happens well over half-way through the story. If an action-packed scene takes place on page 150 of a 300-page book it’s not the climax. A climax will happen close to the end of the story with a brief resolution to tie up loose ends afterwards.
  • It’s satisfying. If a climax does the job it’s meant to do, readers are satisfied that the conflict is resolved and the main question is answered, even if it’s not the outcome they were hoping for.

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Why Is a Climax Important?

A story begins with an inciting incident—an event that ignites the primary conflict and sets a protagonist on their journey. The rising action is the increasing intensity of the conflict, creating a build-up of tension. The climax is there to release that tension. It can reveal details for a protagonist and a reader that explain the significance of the events in the story. In short, it’s the payoff of a conflict that’s been building the whole narrative. When a climax falls short of a reader’s expectations and offers no resolution to the main problem, it is an anticlimax.

2 Literary Climax Examples

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A writer’s job is to sculpt the action of the story into an arc, with a climax forming the dramatic peak. Here are two famous examples of climax in literature:

  1. In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the tension of forbidden love builds over the course of the narrative arc. Shakespeare uses plot points—dramatic turning points—to build tension, and certain of these plot points are often mistaken for the climax. For example, when Romeo avenges the murder of his friend Mercutio by killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt and is banished from Verona, it’s a major turning point. But the tension builds again to the true climax of the play: To reunite with Romeo and avoid an arranged marriage, Juliet feigns her death. Unaware of her plan, Romeo is grief-stricken when he finds Juliet’s lifeless body. Believing she is dead, he drinks the real poison. When Juliet awakens and finds Romeo dead beside her, she stabs herself with his dagger. This infamous climax leads to a resolution of peace between the Montagues and the Capulets.
  2. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a classic plot of good guys versus bad guys, but set in a world of wizards. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry grapples with the murder of his parents, tests his newfound sorcery skills, and discovers he has a mortal enemy, Lord Voldemort. Rowling weaves these tensions through the story and builds to a climax she uses as both a reveal and a dramatic showdown; Harry comes face to face with Professor Quirrell and realizes immediately that he has suspected the wrong person all along. As Harry fights for his life he also learns that Quirrell playing host to his true nemesis—Lord Voldemort.

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