Five Steps to a Heart-Stopping (Literary) Climax
A good climax can leave you breathless. The best climaxes can make you weep just thinking about them. And without a climax, the most epic story is just unsatisfying. But despite all the hype, a climax is simply the release of the tension you have built up throughout the novel—one perfectly logical step at a time—by way of literary foreplay.
In a short story, this means each detail is used to add to the suspense. In a novel, on the other hand, suspense is built through a series of tension-building scenes and turning points that tease the reader with the possibility of release. All this builds up, in your traditional fantasy, to an epic clash between good and evil, like the classic battle between the White Witch and Aslan at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Of course, climatic battles are only the beginning where literary climaxes are concerned. But no matter what form your climax takes, when done properly, it’s the snowflake that starts the avalanche, releasing all the tension that built up over the course of the novel in a thrilling, pulse-pounding scene... just as when done poorly, it’s a fizzled disappointment that can ruin the whole experience of the book. There’s nothing like practice to perfect your climaxes, but here are few tricks that should help you keep your climaxes tense, exciting, and ultimately satisfying.
1. Employ Foreplay
The chilling short story “The Lottery” is one of the best examples of literary foreplay I’ve ever read. Each detail builds the mood, mystery, and suspense: the stones the boys collect, the whispers of the girls, the carnival atmosphere, the crumbling black box no one replaces for tradition’s sake, and the ceremony most have forgotten—which leads to the climax no one can forget. The foreshadowing is so deft that even after we know who has been chosen, we do not know what it signifies—we merely know it is important—until the end. A climax like that leaves readers thinking about a story for years to come.
2. Romance the Reader (with Your Characters)
The Once and Future King does a beautiful job of investing us in its characters such that the climax is not an epic battle, but rather when Lancelot and Guenever’s affair is brought to light. It was such a horrible yet inevitable thing that it shook not only the hearts and minds of those characters we love, but also the kingdom they’d worked so hard to build and to protect. By allowing us to share in your characters’ victories and defeats, dreams and fears, struggles and sacrifices, you allow us to become so invested in your characters that we will care more about what happens to them, as we do in The Once and Future King, than what happens to the world itself.
3. Raise the Stakes & Quicken the Pace
While The Lord of the Rings (spoilers warning) has a lot of epic battle scenes between the forces of good and evil, the actual climax is the when Frodo “throws” the one ring into the volcano, with the help of his hungry friend. But before we get to that point, the stakes are raised repeatedly, until they reach dizzying heights. First, his beloved Shire is put at stake. Then, the world. His mentor Gandalf sacrifices himself to aid him. Then his companion Boromir goes mad and sacrifices himself to atone. Victory after victory has been won at great cost—and it will all be pointless if Frodo fails. In the end, all of his friends are depending on him—risking certain death on his success. When he makes the decision not to throw the ring in, our anguish is tangible—and the relief of his eventual success, however forced, is palpable.
4. Increase Focus & Intensity
In the beginning of your novel, you’ll want to explore everything, perhaps only touching on the climactic theme. But, as you approach the climax, you’ll want to start circling in tighter and tighter, increasing the pressure and the attention until the climatic scene is the reader’s sole focus. The Night Circus does this beautifully. While we are aware of the game the two magicians are playing in the beginning of the book, and of at least one’s attraction to the other, those two threads are almost a backdrop to the amazing, breathtaking experience that is the circus. But as the end draws near, those threads of romance and a deadly game are drawn tighter and tighter, until they subsume the story—and our attention--entirely.
5. Don’t Climax Too Early
For a climax to be effective, it must come at exactly the right time. If it comes too late, we will be too frustrated and tired to appreciate it. If it comes too early, we won’t be warmed up enough to appreciate it. And if it comes too early or too late, you are unlikely to get your book published, as previously stated, a strong climax is key to our appreciation of a book. This is simulated by those who prematurely reveal the twists at the end of books, like the waves of spoilers that revealed the shocking climax of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (O RLY? YA RLY! NO WAI!!), effectively causing otherwise beautifully crafted climaxes to be ruined by poor timing. A perfect climax occurs when you’ve invested us in your characters, built up the suspense, raised the stakes, and increased the focus and intensity of your story all to the breaking point. When we can take no more—that’s when you bring the book to a climax.