Advanced Storytelling


Rising to the Climax

Read the following excerpt from the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. (pp. 84–87)

  • Think of a climax as the target and the rest of your story as the flight of the arrow.
  • Think of a climax as the other shore toward which you are building the bridge of your book.
  • Think of a climax as the goal line where the winning touchdown is made.
  • Think of a climax as the knockout punch of the heavyweight prizefight of your novel.

Or think of it like this:

  • A story is a question mark; a climax, an exclamation!
  • A story is tension; a climax, satisfaction.
  • A story is the face-off, the quick draw, the pull of the trigger; the climax is the bullet between the eyes.
  • The climax is the last, for which the first was made.

The tension of a story rises through its complications to a point at which the core conflict is settled. The characters have been tested, they have been pushed and punished; as a result, they have gone through stages of development. As the tension rises to the climax things are coming to a head. The pressures on the characters build to the "breaking point"; the climax is that point. The core conflict must now be settled. How then do you settle it?

It is settled in what Egri calls a revolution.

The Greeks had a name for this revolution. They called it Peripety. Aristotle explains it this way in The Poetics:

A Peripety is the change from one state of things within the play to its opposite, and that too is the probable or necessary sequence of events . . . this, with a Discovery will arouse either pity or fear—actions of that nature being what Tragedy is assumed to represent; and it will also serve to bring about the happy or unhappy ending.

In The Basic Patterns of Plot (1959), William Foster-Harris says it this way:

Here is what [fiction] writing is trying to tell: the answer to any possible problem or question you pose is always in some fantastic manner the diametric reversal of the question. (Emphasis in the original).

In the climax, the coward finds his courage, the reluctant lover agrees to marry, the losers win, the winners lose, the saints commit sin, the sinners are redeemed. This is what is meant by "revolution." It is a reversal: things are somehow turned upside down.

  • In A Christmas Carol, the climax comes when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge his own empty death and Scrooge, in terror, pleads to be allowed to change. When Scrooge wakes up, he finds it's Christmas morning. He has been sojourning with ghosts and now he's back among people. He has been shown his death, and now he's alive once again. There is indeed a revolution at the climax.
  • In The Godfather, it appears that the Corleone family has been reduced to nothing, that they are leaving New York, beaten and in disgrace. The Michael Corleone strikes with awesome fury against his enemies, getting his full revenge in a single day of destruction. The family's reputation and position are restored. This is certainly revolutionary.
  • Leamas, in The Spy Who Came in forom the Cold, is apparently home free at the point of the climax. All he has to do is climb over the fence and he will be out of East Germany, but betrayal by his superiors has destroyed his will to live; he chooses death instead. Another revolutionary turnaround.
  • It looks as if Big Nurse has won when she has McMurphy lobotomized. She has been winning victory after victory throughout One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. But Kesey is proving that the human spirit is uncrushable. The other patients find their courage, and one—the Chief—finds his soul and smashes his way out of the cuckoo's nest. So at the climax there is a quite satisfying revolution.
  • Lolita leaves Humbert Humbert in the climax of Lolita. Even thouhh her departure is heavily foreshadowed, it is still a revolutionary development in the story. What follows is Humbert Humbert's rapid descent into insanity, in which the man of love become the man of hate.
  • The old man in The Old Man and the Sea is apparently washed up at the beginning of the novel because he has not cuaught a fish in eighty-four days. He's a laughingstock. When he lands the great fish, everything changes. Still another revolution.
  • Emma's climactic suicide in Madame Bovary is certainly revolutionary. The woman who wanted to "live it up" embraces death.

Story is struggle. You begin your narrative just before the protagonist is presented with a dilemma, at the point of attack. The character struggles with the dilemma; the dilmma worsens into a cirisis. The crisis rises to a point where it must be resolved. An action is taken, bringing about the climax. The result is either favorable or unfavorable, but the crisis is over. In either case, the entire situation changes.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.