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Adding Dimensions (3) -- A Fantabulous Climax

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Mon Oct 05, 2009 7:06 pm
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Master_Yoda says...

Cracking Climaxes

There are those rarer books that pull you in, slowly building you up to a massive epic showdown. This “showdown” is ultimately the piece of the book that answers the story question. Will your hero kill the evil lord or will he perish tragically? Will the unrequited love finally be returned or will he just be scorned?

You've worked the entire story towards this showdown, so you'll want to make it remarkable. To be perfectly honest, the actual content of the climax itself does not have much in it at all. I distinctly recall a t-shirt that was released soon after Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince that said something to the effect of
Spoiler! :
“Snape Kills Dumbledore on page 596 – I just saved you 4 hours and $30”.

Essentially, the person who invented the t-shirt was right. But it's not the destination that made thousands of people wake up at midnight to read Harry Potter. It was the journey that made J K Rowling's books so loved. I admit to having been one of those raving mad Harry Potter fans. In fact I am going to use Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's) Stone to explain how a brilliant climax is built.

Recently I came across an article by one of my favorite authors, Jim Butcher, written several years back where he details a set of steps to creating a climax. It's by no means the only way to build excitement, but it's certainly an effective one. He summarizes the steps as follows:
:arrow: Isolation
:arrow: Confrontation
:arrow: Dark Moment
:arrow: Choice
:arrow: Dramatic Reversal
:arrow: Resolution

These six steps constitute what is possibly the most helpful piece of advice on writing that I've ever learned. Following these steps will almost always result in a tasty climax. They do however need a little more clarification.

The Isolation:
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J K Rowling begins to build the climax as any good writer would. She isolates Harry, creating the greatest tension imaginable. He's the protagonist, so he must stand alone. She starts off by eliminating Dumbledore from the equation. To Harry, Dumbledore was the one person who would actually be able to handle the situation, but when he needs him the most, Dumbledore's no longer at Hogwarts. She then progresses to eliminate Ron and Hermione one by one, his only allies in this. He is left completely and totally alone.

This method of isolating your protagonist, does not necessarily only apply in an epic or action story, but it can apply even to a soppy romance or drama that I would, more likely than not, not care to read. Your character doesn't need to be alone physically, but emotionally. A character could feel like the world was against him. He could be the one who's friends have stabbed him in the back numerous times, or the one who has been dumped by every girl around. But if you truly want us to feel for him, you'll make us really pity him. The sorrier we feel for him, the more pleased or affected we'll be when he overcomes his issues.


This brings us to the confrontation: “You!” gasped Harry... “But I thought --- Snape ---” Or perhaps the far more potent confrontation: “It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils” – Voldemort himself. Your protagonist confronts the antagonist. He tells him what he intends to do. He shows his determination. The confrontation shows the reader what your character is made of. It firmly establishes his position as the hero in your story.

In the case of the drama, he confronts his shyness around the girl of his dreams, and walks up to her to tell her that he loves her.

Dark Moment
It is here that you show the hopelessness of the protagonist's cause. He seems to have little class or skill compared to the antagonist. The chances of the story being completed in a way that the reader will like begin to look slimmer. The slimmer the chances of your protagonist's victory, the more amazing the reader will find it when he finally prevails.

In Harry's case what makes us feel the hopelessness is the brutal nature of Quirrel and Voldemort. J K Rowling further embodies Harry's weakness by showing the ease with which Quirrel ties him up and the careless brandishing of Killing curses. The horror of Voldemort himself also contributes to this image. It is certain that he'll get killed by these monsters.

In your story about the boy who is going to talk to the girl of his dreams, he could face a state in which he finds himself getting flustered and stuttering. The dark moment must show his shyness and issues begin to prey on him. He should get more and more embarrassed before you allow him to choose to overcome them, which brings us to:

The Choice
In Harry Potter, it's give the Philosopher's Stone to Voldemort or die. Whatever the choice is, the bigger you make it, the more of an impact it'll have on the reader. The bigger the choice the more excitement will be amplified as the character makes it. He must find himself struggling so much to make the right choice, and you might want to throw in a couple of sacrifices that he needs to make. The harder the choice, the greater the tension. And finally at the last moment of his sanity, he must make the right choice. He must show the audience why he's the protagonist.

In the drama story, he must make the choice to sideline his emotions and his past failures that are haunting him still. He must decide to overcome his ego. He must decide to put the girl before himself.

If the protagonist makes the wrong choice, the story begins to turn into a tragedy. For a true story of heroism, he will make the right choice, but there is not much wrong with turning the story into a tragedy. As the writer you need to decide where you want to take the story, and you need to follow the appropriate steps to achieve that end.

The Dramatic Reversal
Against all odds, your character must find the strength he needs to win the battle. Or if there is no hope for him alone, an external force can come help him, and allow the reversal to occur.

In Harry Potter, this is facilitated by the arrival of Dumbledore. Finally, the one person who Harry knew could deal with the situation arrived to help him. Because Harry made the right choice, and did not give the stone to Voldemort he facilitated the victory. It doesn't matter that Dumbledore comes to help, because you have already proven your protagonist's strength. It is this strength that allows Dumbledore to save the day. The antagonist is defeated.

The man overcomes his past failures in the case of the drama. He finds the courage to speak to the girl, just when we thought he was going to make an utter fool of himself.

Occasionally, you'll find that the Dramatic Reversal just doesn't arrive. The protagonist makes the sacrifice and, like it would if he'd made the wrong choice, the story becomes a tragedy.

The Resolution
The resolution has the sole task of bringing your story to the close. The protagonist will finally be at ease. Harry Potter wins the house cup for Gryffindor. The boy in the drama marries the girl. Whatever happens here, it's purpose is to slow the heart-rates of your readers who you've just stunned with a magnificent display of tension.

Your resolution makes the readers happy that what they've just been through was worth it. It shouldn't be overdone at all. In fact try to make it just long enough to consolidate the reader, but not too long that the reader has moved on from the climax. The reader must still see the climax as the turning point of the story and it should be fresh in his mind as he lowers the book amazed at it's magical ending.

Have a great one! :)

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
-- Robert Frost

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Mon Jan 25, 2010 8:05 am
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spike71294 says...

Nice formula for a nice climax.

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Thu Apr 01, 2010 4:58 pm
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LookUpThere says...

Julius' Uncle! I never commented here? I'm sure I did...

Yoda! Thanks for this, I've used it tons. I have a novel planning software and with some scene's chapters I've titled: --ISOLATION or --CONFRONTATION
So thanks man. :)

Fly On,

The poetry of the earth is never dead.
— John Keats