Today we're talking about how to write the climax of your novel. In other words, I'm going to be dodging orgasm jokes left and right. Pray for me.
The climax is the apex of your story. It's the most exciting moment when whatever conflict your main character is navigating comes to a head. If your main character finally faces off against the villain, it happens at the climax. If your romantic couple finally gets together, it happens at the climax. If your detective finally solves the case, it happens in the rising action. Just kidding, it happens in the climax. Just making sure you were paying attention.
The climax is one of–if not the most–important parts of your novel because essentially it’s what the reader signed up for. They want that payoff, and if you don't deliver it could completely ruin the reading experience. No pressure.
That's why today I am breaking down my ten best tips for writing an epic climax that doesn't leave your readers throwing the book at the wall and leaving one-star reviews. I covered how to write a climax roughly a billion years ago, but I've written a lot more books since then and I have way more experience, so I figured it was time for an update. Let's dive in.
This video is sponsored by Milanote. As always, all opinions are my own.
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Number 1: Genre Doesn’t Matter
But it also does matter. Let me explain. It doesn't matter which genre of fiction you're writing, the story needs to have a climax. Some newbie writers assume that the climax is reserved for action-adventure novels because we usually associate excitement with that genre. Those writers are wrong. No matter the genre, your story gets a climax. Romance gets a climax. Mystery gets a climax. Contemporary gets a climax. Everyone gets a climax! So many orgasm jokes.
That said, the genre you choose is going to affect the overall intensity of the climax. (That’s what she said . . . ) A rom-com is gonna have a much less intense climax than say, a horror novel. That's when the genre matters. It’s gonna dictate how high or low the stakes are, which in turn will affect the climax. Some climaxes involve life-and-death stakes. Others just involve whether or not the boyfriend says I love you. Remember, the term “excitement” is subjective, and you need to choose the right excitement level that fits your story.
Number 2: Have a Plan
One of the smartest ways to ensure that you have an effective climax is to plan for it ahead of time. If you know where the story is going, it's gonna be a lot easier to leave the appropriate foreshadowing and to evolve your characters so they reach the appropriate point in their character arc. Because of this, the climax is usually one of the very first things I plan when crafting my novel. I can ensure my story builds correctly to get my characters where I want them to go. Some people don't like to plan their writing, and if that works for you, have at it. But if you're like a vast majority of writers who need an outline or some type of guide to get going, I promise you, starting with the climax–or at least planning it really early on–will make the writing process a lot easier.
One of the smartest ways to ensure that you have an effective climax is to plan for it ahead of time.
Number 3: The Breaking Point
The breaking point is a plot device that goes by many different names, but ultimately it is the lowest point for your main character in this story. They suffer a major loss that leaves them feeling dejected or jaded. This point always occurs right before the climax and that's for a very important reason. You want to take your characters to a new low in order to make the climb toward the climax that much steeper. The climax is supposed to be the most intense moment in your novel, and having your character start from rock bottom is a great way to achieve that.
Now, a lot of people are confused by the breaking point. They think they can add it to any old place in their novel, and they're fucking stupid. It has to go before the climax. That's literally its entire purpose. And no, the breaking point does not have to be the lowest moment in the character's life. It just needs to be the lowest moment in the story. Go through your library, rewatch some of your favorite movies and you'll notice that the breaking point is a staple in so many pieces of fiction. That’s because it does a fantastic job of raising the stakes right before the climax, which is exactly what you want.
Number 4: Make Your MC the Underdog
If your MC walks into the climax as the assumed winner, it’s going to lose all sense of excitement. Yes, in most novels, the MC succeeds during the climax, or at least learns a valuable lesson. But the odds need to be set against the character. Even if readers assume the MC will succeed, they need to be racking their brains wondering how that can possibly be the case.
This is one of the reasons why the breaking point is such an important tool when writing your novel. Your character is reeling from a major loss, which usually puts them at a disadvantage. If your hero lost the previous battle, that means they're going into the climax wounded or outnumbered. If your heroine broke up with her girlfriend at the breaking point, she's going into the climax on the outs. Making your MC the underdog not only intensifies the stakes, it also makes the reader invested. Most people have experienced hardship or struggle, so even if what the MC is going through is wildly different, readers will be able to relate in some way. This allows readers to root for the character and feel immense relief at their inevitable triumph.
Number 5: Make Your Villain the Top Dog
In The Savior's Champion, Tobias walks into the climax injured and without a weapon. Meanwhile, the villain is completely unscathed and has two weapons. Like the previous point, this intensifies the stakes, but it takes it to a further degree. Not only is your MC the underdog, but the bad guy is at their absolute best, which is a very intimidating situation to be in. Please note, this can still be done even if your book doesn't have a literal villain. Sometimes your characters are dealing with a difficult situation, an antagonist, or a force of nature. If your main obstacle is a storm, that bitch needs to be the worst it's ever been at the climax. Remember the idea here is intensity and excitement, so pull out all the stops.
Number 6: The Almost
The “almost” is a pivotal part of the climax and it basically translates into an almost fail. Sometime during the climax, while your MC is facing their obstacle, they need to almost lose. In a romance novel, this could mean that they missed the last train that could’ve taken them to their love interest. In an action novel, this probably means they almost died.
The “almost” has been a facet of storytelling for eons. You'll see it in books, movies, TV shows, and even comics. And a lot of criticism about more recent films is that storytellers have been leaving out the “almost,” making it more of a power fantasy instead. People want the “almost.” They want to see the character struggle and nearly fall flat on their face. Or flat on their sword . . . it depends on the story. Again, this is for relatability. We all have almost failed–or actually failed–at some point in our lives. Seeing a character struggle like that endears them to the reader. Plus, it’s way more exciting to see the character trip up a few times and still persevere.
Number 7: Bring the Fire
The climax doesn't have to be your reader's favorite part of the book, but it needs to be the most difficult and intense part of the book. That means whatever you've written in early chapters, you need to top it. Again, we’re going to see different extremes depending on the genre. If you're writing an epic fantasy with dark magic, that magic needs to be its darkest and deadliest at the climax. If you’re writing action-adventure with tons of fight scenes, then the fight at the climax needs to be the most intense, whether that's due to weapons, injuries, death, explosions—whatever. And if you’re writing a romance with tons of swoony moments, that climax needs to bring the most romantic gestures, ones that top all the rest. If you're not sure how to achieve this, simply look back at your previous plot points and aim to surpass them.
Number 8: Time for a Plot Twist
Not all novels require a plot twist. In fact, not all genres are suitable for a plot twist. But if you’re going to feature a plot twist, the climax is the perfect place to do so. This is especially prevalent in adventure, horror novels, crime fiction, and basically any story involving mystery or with a high reliance on action. That's not to say other genres can’t feature a plot twist, they just might not be necessary. There's not a whole lot to say on this point. If you got a plot twist, the climax is a great place to put it. It'll amp up the excitement, which is exactly what you want.
Number 9: Take Your Time
Your readers have been slogging through the entire manuscript just to reach the climax. They've been watching your main character struggle to achieve whatever goal they're trying to achieve. If they reach the climax and suddenly the goal is achieved very easily, readers are gonna feel ripped off. They went through that entire novel for three pages of nothing? Why write an entire book if it was going to be a piece of cake?
A quick climax essentially contradicts the point of a novel. Stories are about conflicts that take time to resolve, otherwise, you wouldn't need 400 pages to do so. This means when you get to the climax, you need to take your time. The conflict should be at its worst at the climax, which means it's not going to be easily resolved. That's not to say you should ramble on for hundreds of pages, but at least give your readers a full chapter, and let the characters sweat it out a bit. If you followed all of the previous steps, this should be easy enough to achieve.
Number 10: It Ain’t Over
A lot of writers view their climax as the end of the novel, and yes, it is very close to the end. But it's not quite there yet. The climax occurs right before the falling action and resolution. Now, those two plot points are brief. They usually last for a chapter. But the point is they exist, and their entire job is to finish answering questions that the characters and readers have, as well as resolve the overall conflict.
This means you do not have to do all of those things in the climax itself. Yes, there should be some sense of finality in the climax. The couple needs to get together. The battle needs to be won or lost. The case needs to be solved. But we don't need all the answers, all the explanations, or all the resolutions. When you try to shove this all into the climax, that's when you slow down the momentum and bog the content down with too much exposition, making the climax less believable. Just remember, you still have another chapter to tie everything up in a pretty bow, so if you weren’t able to do that in the climax, that's fine.
So that's all I've got for you today!
So there you have it: My 10 best tips for writing a climax that doesn't piss off your readers. I also have an entire chapter about how to write an epic climax in Shut Up and Write the Book, so if you were surprised to learn that a lot of what goes into writing an epic climax involves the scenes surrounding the climax, rather than just the climax itself, pick yourself up a copy and really dig in. Now that you’ve got the info, it’s down to you to cook up a thrilling third act for your readers.
How do you write your story’s climax? Do you know how your book ends before you start, or do you figure it out as you go?
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