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Writing

How to Write a Compelling Climax for Your Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 22, 2020 • 3 min read

The climax of a story—whether it’s a showdown between the hero and the bad guy in a gripping science-fiction thriller, or the action that pushes star-crossed lovers into a difficult choice (à la the third act of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo kills Tybalt)—is a decisive moment that deserves special attention.

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What Is a Story Climax?

The climax of a story 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 rising action culminates and the story arc bends and begins its descent (known as the falling action). The word “climax” comes from the Greek word klimax, or “ladder.” The climax is generally the high point at which your main character faces their main problem or biggest obstacle.

5 Tips for Improving Your Story’s Climax

There’s more than one way to write an effective climax scene. Though the climax of your story will depend on your character arcs, subplots, and main plot points, there are a few techniques that can help you set up and write a good climax.

  1. Write the end first. Often during the writing process, tension evaporates in the middle of a novel, so it’s a good idea to write your ending first. It may not be perfect, and you can always change it later, but it’s useful to know the climax to which your characters are headed. Having that destination will help you stay focused during the “middle muddle.” While it may seem daunting to figure out the ending so early, just return to your sole dramatic question (the core idea for your novel), which already has your ending hidden within it. For example, if your question is: Will Ahab catch the whale? Then your story’s finale will be the moment when he does.
  2. Use a prologue to hint at your climax. Prologues are another great tool for engaging your reader with dramatic action. Sometimes they flash forward into the future (and show part of the story’s climax), or they refer to a significant past event that has set the story in motion (the catalyst). Prologues function as a promise to the reader that eventually you will reach that climax or explain that catalytic act, but mostly they offer a strong dose of intrigue or heart-pounding action to assure the reader that this novel will keep their interest. Prologues are especially useful in books where the opening chapters take their time introducing the hero, villain, and the world.
  3. Think of your storyline as a path. Every story decision you make puts you on a path, and the choices for your characters will narrow as the story draws to its conclusion. In the beginning, there are a vast number of forking paths. But as the novel progresses, it should become clearer in the reader’s mind not only what climax your protagonist must reach but how that climax will probably occur. The climax does not have to mean fireworks, but it does have to mean a profound change, either for your protagonist or for their world. Whatever that change is, you’ve been building the whole story toward this moment. You’ve been making a promise to the reader that this conflict would eventually occur—and get resolved—and good storytelling will deliver on its promises.
  4. Use a crucible. The crucible effect is when an environment or situation becomes inescapable for your characters and forces them toward a story’s climax. This crucible usually comes about as a result of a character’s decisions, which is a result of the pressures put upon them. Not every story will have a crucible, but most of them do. For example, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, what if Frodo had decided not to bring the ring to Mordor? Tolkien spends a great deal of time showing that Frodo is the only one who can carry the ring, and suggesting what might happen if he fails. All of this work creates the crucible effect for Frodo, making him (and the reader) feel that he has no choice but to reach Mordor, no matter what it might cost him.
  5. Remember genre. The details of your story’s climax will depend on your story elements, but genre will often determine whether that climax turns out well for your characters. Romance novels generally have happy endings, for example, while tragedies do not.
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