That point which should be the tensest, most enthralling portion of the book. Done well, a climax can be simply stupendous. However, there are also few things in writing that are as bad as a climax done poorly.
As one example, there was a series that I was reading a couple years ago that had a ton of promising potential. It had great characters, gave an amazingly-executed theme, had a thrilling setting, and was explicitly Christian without falling into any of the traps that Christian fiction can have a tendency to fall into. The first book was stellar and was my favorite novel that I read that year.
But then I came to the second book, which, while it maintained much of the momentum from the first book, failed to have a climax. It merely set up the last book and thus lacked any real type of conclusion.
I still think the first book is excellent, and still want to finish the series sometime. But I finished the second book two years ago. And I haven’t brought myself to read the last book of the series since then. Despite everything that the series had going for it, it had a distinct lack of a climax. And that lack killed everything else going on in the series.
Obviously, this isn’t the type of reaction that you want to get from the readers of your book. While on the outset, the climax may seem rather simple—it’s where everything gets resolved after all—it can often be trickier to execute than it seems on first glance.
“And given how devastating a poor climax can be to an otherwise good book, a lot rides on the success of a climax, so it’s a part of your story that needs to be planned very carefully.”
There’s a lot that could be said about a novel’s climax—after all, it’s a big topic. However, as I’ve been thinking of the climax, there are three basic things that every climax ought to have. Or, rather, three balances. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
1. A Balance of Epicness and Realism
Now, I’m primarily a fantasy writer. So when I think of climaxes, the first thing that pops into my head of what they ought to be is ‘epic.’ However, for all of you romance or slice-of-life writers out there, this kind of a description may be a bit less than helpful, so I should probably elaborate some on what I mean here.
Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that something needs to set your climax off from everything else in the book to make it the most exciting, most tense, or most enjoyable part of the book. If the climax is overshadowed by something else in the book, chances are that you’re not doing it well. So as much as possible, you want to make sure that the climax has some of the biggest and best moments in your book.
However, particularly in adventure/action types of stories, this can lead to another problem: where a climax is really epic, but is completely unrealistic in a way that quite simply kills the story. This was one of the issues that I personally had with Avengers: Age of Ultron. The ending was most certainly epic. But flying a huge chunk of earth up in the air in order to bring it smashing down as a meteor was a bit too unrealistic for my tastes, and so while I enjoyed the movie, the climax was less than spectacular for me.
This sort of thing doesn’t only happen in adventure/action types of stories, however. It also happens in slice-of-life novels where conflicts are orchestrated artificially, and where perhaps all the major characters show up for one last major debate or decision, but several of them were rather sloppily and randomly inserted there. We all love to end our books with big scenes. But if we do it in a way that the reader finds unbelievable, at that point, we’ve lost the reader. So climaxes ought to be epic. But they also need to be realistic.
2. A Balance of Surprise and Inevitability
Of all the things that need to be balanced in a climax, this is probably the most difficult thing to balance. But it’s also the most essential. You see, in a climax you need to do something surprising. If the reader already knows what’s going to happen in the climax, you’ve probably failed. Perhaps the reader knows that the heroes will win because, well, no one writes tragedies anymore. But if there isn’t some element of surprise or mystery in the climax, the reader is going to rightly be upset. You can’t just pull off the obvious ending—you need to surprise them as well. However, this is where we can get into trouble.
The thing is, while the reader wants to be surprised, the reader also wants to think that he could have guessed what’s going to happen. In other words, if you surprise the reader, but you surprise him by pulling something completely out of left field, then the reader isn’t going to be impressed with this kind of deus ex machina.
“The perfect climax surprise is one that the reader never saw coming, but the one which, looking back, he realizes that he could have seen coming. It needs to be an ending that’s surprising—but also, in retrospect, inevitable.”
As I said before, this is one of the trickiest things to be able to pull off, and often requires a lot of careful foreshadowing. However, when you are able to pull it off, you have perhaps the most important part of what’s needed to have an amazing climax. So while this will take a lot of thought in order to balance, given the potential reward, doing this well is something that is definitely worth your time.
3. A Balance of Internal and External Conflict
Now, unlike the other things on this list, this isn’t really a balance, but I kind of wanted to keep my symmetrical pattern going here. =P Essentially what I’m trying to say here is this: your character’s internal struggle needs to be related to his external struggle. In the best kinds of books—the books that aren’t just fun to read but also have a point—your main character has been struggling with some internal struggle in addition to the external struggle. And in the climax, these two different struggles need to come together.
If your protagonist can solve the external struggle without solving the internal struggle, then your story is probably doing something wrong. In the best stories, the internal and external struggles are linked to such an extent that eventually, one is needed to solve the other. And so in your climax, you need to bring these two conflicts together.
Perhaps they’ve been obviously connected for the whole story; perhaps they haven’t. But either way, they need to be connected in such a way that your character’s internal victory allows him to have an external victory as well. Essentially, it’s trying to bring back the ancient literary technique of poetic justice: where the good are rewarded, and the evil are punished. We all want the protagonist to win—but it’s so much more satisfying for the reader if the protagonist wins because he did the right thing instead of just because he was stronger/more clever/more skilled than all of his antagonists.
So, there are the three things that I think need to be present in every climax. While you can perhaps slide on some of these elements and still end up with a good climax, why skimp on it? Readers remember few things like a well-done climax.
And so you want to do everything you can to make sure that when the reader finishes the book, the last memories that he has of it are positive. Balancing all of these elements can be difficult. But balance all these elements well, and your climax will be well on its way to creating a solid finish.