The Climax

Today, I’ll continue outlining and describing the three act story structure. Next up is the climax.

Naturally, this takes place in Act III, towards the very end. It’s what our entire story has been leading to. This culmination should be both predictable and surprising. That’s a mouthful.

All good stories use foreshadowing: dropping morsels along the way that provide clues of what could be coming. But, the great novels throw in a twist at the end.

Although it’s surprising, it’s anything but impossible. In fact, it fits hand in glove. The stories that stay with us the longest are those that make us think about the ending. We prompt ourselves to mentally review the entire novel, searching for those telltale signs that we recall now but thought fairly innocuous earlier as we were reading. The climax with a twist leaves readers asking, “why didn’t I see that coming?”

The climax is where the story’s tension reaches its peak, the main conflict is resolved, and the protagonist finally accomplishes his goal. Or, doesn’t. It’s the final battle between our hero and his chief antagonist. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a fistfight or a shootout. It could be a contest, whether a chess match, a football game, or a race to become the first private citizen in space. It could be the inmate escaping prison. Recall, not all antagonists are human. The criminal justice system could be one man’s antagonist, although it seems even here, there are one or more people who personify the system.

It’s not error to consider the entire third act as the climax. Throughout, the action is rising, our protagonist is battling the forces against him reaching his goal, some are mere skirmishes. But, eventually, there must be that final red-hot scene were the war is either won or lost.

One thing we need to cover before ending. Many literary professionals believe the best novels have a protagonist who has both an external and an internal goal. Externally, he may be toiling to win a NASCAR championship or become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Internally, his goal could be to win the heart of Maggie May, or learn to forgive himself for not doing more to save the life of his childhood friend fifty years ago.

In these two-goal stories, it’s standard that the protagonist experiences some type of revelation either before, during, or after the climax. This triggers something in our hero that causes him to take some other action which might be a quiet (or loud) declaration that he forgives himself. It could be a walk across the street for our hero to ask Maggie May if she likes horses or would like to go for coffee.

The climax is the place where the opposing forces in your story finally clash. This is true whether those opposing forces are two armies or two values inside a character’s soul.

Nancy Kress

Novels are wonderful things. They don’t have to be complicated but they do need to stir our emotions.

Hopefully, next week we’ll look at the resolution, the final component of the three act story structure.

Photo by cottonbro on

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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