Let’s look at how to create a great climax for your story. You’ve been working on your story for a while now and have figured out who the hero is and what their goal is. Your hero’s been through the beginning, a turning point, and the middle of the story.
Now that you’ve gotten this far, it’s time for the climax. The climax is the moment when your hero stands poised to achieve the goal that they’ve been working towards. Your reader or audience is deep into the story, living with the hero, sharing their emotions, and excited to find out what happens next. Only it isn’t just a matter of what happens next.
A climax in a story is carefully crafted. As we do this work, we have to remember that stories are constructed. They are crafted from the raw material of your life or your work, your research or your ideas. You shape that material like any skilled craftsperson working with raw materials. Imagine a tailor, you cut the fabric of your story from a much larger piece of material and cut it to show the material’s best qualities. Crafting a story follows similar principles. You observe your material carefully, keep the final product in mind, and work with care.
When you craft the climax of your story, you describe the moment that your hero achieves or fails to achieve their goal and share that experience to your audience. In order to do that well, you’ll need to keep a few things in mind.
Emotional High Point
If you go back to the diagram for story structure, you’ll see that the story curve is at its highest point at the climax of the story. That is because the climax is the emotional high point of the story. It’s the moment when your audience’s heart is beating fast, waiting to see what happens next. Right up until this moment, your audience is in the dark. They only know as much as your hero knows and even your hero doesn’t know whether things are going to work out or not.
That’s in part because at the climax of the story, the hero confronts their greatest challenge. They must call on all they have learned and experienced during the story. They must depend on friends and knowledge gained along their journey. They doubt themselves and see the possibility they will fail. You make this moment more emotional by emphasizing all that the hero has to lose and making sure the audience can’t forget.
Let’s go back to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. At the climax of the film, he’s survived a series of obstacles meant to protect the stone. Ron has sacrificed himself at wizarding chess and Hermione is watching over him encouraging Harry to go on because they can all see now that he is going to have to be the hero in the story.
Harry descends dark stairs and arrives in a torch-lit room where he sees Professor Quirrell gazing into the Mirror of Erised, which shows the person looking into it their heart’s desire. Harry and the audience learn that Quirrell and not Snape has been the bad guy all along and when he’s forced to look into the mirror, Harry finds that the Sorcerer’s stone is in his own pocket.
Voldemort demands the stone. Harry says no. Voldemort tries to convince Harry to give him the stone by offering him the opportunity to see his parents again. Harry’s parents appear in the mirror as Voldemort speaks. Harry pauses.
This is the moment when Harry and the audience realize Harry is considering giving Voldemort the stone so that he can see his parents. Harry desires his parents so much that he just might give Voldemort the Sorcerer’s Stone.
At this moment, the audience does not know whether Harry will protect the stone or give it to Voldemort. His misses his parents, misses their love, and wants to be part of a family. He puts all of that aside, though, when he refuses to give Voldemort the stone. A struggle follows, Quirrell dies, and Voldemort’s spirit knocks Harry over.
We see in this scene that everything is at stake. Protecting the stone is important for keeping power out of Voldemort’s hands but in order to do it, Harry has to choose good not over evil but over his own desires. It’s an emotional and exciting climax.
Not every story climax will be as exciting as final scenes of a Harry Potter movie, but it should be the high point of the story. In a scientific presentation, you can let the audience know what’s at stake by reminding them what the field or your group has to lose if the results are negative. If you tell a personal story, you can remind your audience about the resources you committed to an endeavor so they are thinking again about all you could have lost.
These reminders can be as brief as a phrase or two in a story, but they are enough to remind the audience that what they are watching is important to the hero and that there is a lot at stake.
The fatal flaw
One of the reasons the audience isn’t sure about whether the hero will succeed or not is because the hero’s fatal flaw appears one more time at the end of the story. As the hero is about to grasp the prize, whatever personal flaw that has marked their character throughout the story comes back to haunt them. Doubt or pride or fear appear one last time in the story trying to derail the mission.
In Harry Potter, we see Harry consider the possibility that Voldemort can offer him his parents. Harry doubts his own abilities and resolve until he defends himself against Quirrell’s attack and kills him. This intense moment reveals the hero’s true character and shows both the hero and the audience what they are capable of.
Heroes need flaws in order to be relatable. If you’re talking about a scientific presentation, it could be that a gap in your knowledge turns out to be a problem at the last moment or the inability to get a sample delivered or a problem with a particular analysis. Any of these could be seen as fatal flaws, flaws that threaten to undermine all the work. In a personal story, you get to make a choice about how much you want to reveal about yourself. Perhaps an inability to stop yourself from eating the entire bag of chips is your fatal flaw. But maybe it’s more serious and you insist on doing everything yourself, which can lead to problems at the moment when you survive by asking for help.
Whatever the situation, stories are more gripping if the hero isn’t perfect and if the audience sees these imperfections shining through and creating problems at crucial points in the story.
Tie up loose ends
The climax is also the moment where you tie up most of the loose ends of your story. That means leaving nothing for the reader to have questions about when it’s all over. In the final scene of the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry learns that Snape was trying to save him, that Quirrell let in the troll, and that Voldemort is back and has been drinking unicorn’s blood. In one scene with just a few moments of dialogue, a number of the film’s central mysteries are solved.
Don’t leave your audience with lingering questions after the climax. On the contrary, you want to answer as many questions as possible at this moment. The idea is that there is nothing left to do in the story world after the climax of the story has passed. Instead, the hero returns to their normal world after completing the challenges of their transformative journey.
In your research story, that may mean giving a hint about some of the secondary results you found during your work or explaining how a number of problems were resolved. If you’re telling a personal story, you’ll want to also include the endings for additional players in your story.
It takes skill and tact to tie up loose ends at the end of a story and to do it without giving a laundry list of results. But taking care of the work is important for allowing the audience to move on to the next stage of the story.
You’re ready to craft your story climax now. Check the following points as you work. Is there an emotional high point? Is the hero’s fatal flaw glimpsed for one last time and are all the loose ends tied up? If you have managed all those points, then you’ve got a pretty good climax to your story and can start writing it up, trying it out, and making revisions.
Do you still have questions about how to write a great story climax? Put them in the comments here or you can post them on Facebook, and I’ll answer them there!