What is the Story Climax?
The climax of a UNIT OF STORY is when the protagonist decides and acts on the binary question raised by the CRISIS. The climax also fulfills the promise of the INCITING INCIDENT. We see the true character of the AVATARS only in the choices they make under pressure.
The climax is the fourth of the FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING.
2 Rules for the Story Climax
1. Must be on the Page
The reader must see the climax for the protagonist happen on the page. If we move the climax off-page, it robs the reader of the cathartic release of seeing the protagonist’s decision to change or stay the same.
2. Must be a Choice by the Protagonist
The dreaded deus ex machina is a reference to early Greek theater when playwrights would resolve impossible situations by having a god show up to magically fix the problem in the protagonist’s favor. While this is rarely done anymore, the same effect results from having another AVATAR intervene to resolve the situation without the protagonist making the choice herself.
2 Types of Climaxes
The heroic climax is where the protagonist decides to break their cognitive frame and change in a positive direction. For example, in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Elizabeth abandon’s her prejudice and risks humiliation by proclaiming her love for Mr. Darcy.
An antiheroic climax is where the protagonist chooses to stay the same and rely on old patterns of behavior. For example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Dorian decides to destroy his portrait, which is evidence of his corruption, rather than confess to murder.
Analyzing the Story Climax
The following questions will help you to determine whether the climax of your story or the story example you’re studying effectively illustrates the choice the protagonist makes.
- Does the protagonist of the unit of story make the choice? Ensure the protagonist of the unit of story is making the choice. This should be the same character that faced the crisis choice.
- Is it complicated in some way? Explain the complications that occurred while the protagonist enacted the climax decision. The climax should be a full unit of story with complications, instead of a simplistic execution. Explain the complications that occurred while the protagonist enacted the climax decision.
- What does it reveal about the protagonist’s character? Describe how the climax illuminates the protagonist’s character by reviewing the alternative options the protagonist did not choose. Look at how the climax reveals the protagonist’s priorities and how they value different costs and benefits.
Examples of Story Climaxes
- Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Scene 2 – “Aaron Burr, sir”
- In the last line of the song, Hamilton openly rejects Burr’s advice by saying, “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?”
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, global story
- After defeating the spider, Bilbo decides to carry on with his mission, search for his companions, and lend them aid.
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, Chapter 25, Scene 26
- Poirot accuses Sheppard directly instead of going to the police.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Scene 1
- Dorothy turns back to rescue Toto instead of saving herself.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Chapter 14, Scene 55
- The monster determines that his death is required to complete the “series of my being.” He announces that he will die instead of deciding to go on living.
What’s Next After the Climax?
Once the character of our AVATAR protagonist is revealed by their decision, we move on to see the result of the action they have taken in the RESOLUTION — the fifth and last of the FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING.
Additional Resources for Story Climax
- The Five Commandments of Storytelling by Danielle Kiowski (Portions of this article have been taken from this book.)
- In-depth Course: The Five Commandments of Storytelling
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