Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #15: The Climax

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The climax! It’s exciting! It’s suspenseful! It’s time to learn all about it!

For the readers, the climax will be the most important moment in the novel. It leaves a lasting impression (good or bad) of your novel and of your writing. So a stinky climax can be bad news, not just for this one book, but for your whole career.

No pressure or anything…

So what makes for a great climax? It’s pretty simple:

The Climax Must End the Conflict in a Satisfying Way

This is the backbone of what makes a climax rise to the occasion of fall flat. The climax is the moment the reader has been waiting for! It must prove to the reader that this book was worth the time and energy they invested in it.

A bad climax feels like a major ripoff (“Why did I waste my time on this book?”). Readers may feel like you strung them along for hundreds of pages just to give up and drop the ball in the end.

What you’re looking for is a climax that has readers on the edge of their seats, frantically turning pages, unable to wait to discover how everything unfolds. This is the satisfaction the reader has waited for from page one.

There are a lot of things that go into a satisfying climax, so let’s break it down into smaller parts:

The Obstacle Must be Big

There is no satisfaction in a climax with a teeny tiny obstacle that takes little effort for the protagonist to knock aside. The climax needs to involve an obstacle that is so big that the reader isn’t even quite sure that it’s possible for the protagonist to win.

It’s not enough to put your character at the edge of a cliff if all they have to do is take a couple steps towards solid ground. You’ve got to throw sticks at them, and spears, and stones, and their girlfriend.

It Can’t be Contrived

There’s no faster way to kill the excitement of a climax than by coming up with a contrived way for the character to win. The character needs to succeed (or fail) on account of their own merit. An example of a contrived climax is when another character suddenly decides (for no apparent reason) to tell the protagonist something that allows her to defeat the antagonist, such as his location, weakness, etc. Why did this character just now suddenly decide to be helpful?

One of the worst contrived climaxes is when the villain suddenly decides not to be evil anymore. Well isn’t that convenient? Even if there is some foreshadowing to the villain’s decision and the protagonist was integral to the villain’s change of heart, it is very unlikely that this won’t seem incredibly contrived.

The key to avoiding a contrived climax is to only allow conditions to improve for the protagonist when he or she personally earns it.

The Protagonist Must Defeat the Antagonistic Force

The protagonist is the hero of your story, so don’t let someone else swoop in and take the glory of the climax. The main character must be the one who ultimately defeats the antagonistic force. Any assistance from secondary characters shouldn’t extend much beyond backup. This is the time for the protagonist to shine, to show the reader what she’s made of! Never take that moment away and hand it to someone else.

If you’re writing YA or MG, beware mommy, daddy, the neighbor, or teacher showing up to save the day. This is the kid’s fight, let him end it.

The Conclusion Must Feel Final

The climax of your novel needs to feel final to the reader. The bad guy should either win or lose. The character either gets what she wants or fails to achieve her goals. There is not a lot of wiggle room here. If the climactic showdown doesn’t feel final, then the novel isn’t going to feel satisfying.

Note that if you are writing a series, there will be loose ends that haven’t been tied up and of course it may turn out that the conflict isn’t over at all come book two, but the main conflict of the book should be clearly resolved.

The Solution Should be an Obvious Surprise

“An obvious surprise? You’re not making any sense!” Yes, you heard me correctly, the climax should contain an obvious surprise, something that the reader never saw coming but that seems so super obvious once it happens.

Why do you want this obvious surprise? Because if the climax is too predictable, it’s boring, but if it comes out of left field, it will feel contrived. What you need to strike is a balance in between – an obvious surprise.

This requires that you use foreshadowing, sprinkling some easy to overlook clues throughout the novel. Reading the climax should seem like an “oh duh!” moment for the reader, where they feel like they should have predicted the outcome  and yet didn’t.

The Character Arc Must End

During or immediately following the climax of the novel, the character arc should come to its end. Often this is because the hero’s “climactic act” requires him to do something that was previously difficult for him or against his character.

The climax may also cause the character to have a realization about how he could or should have acted differently.

The Climax Must Fulfill the Promise

Not just the first page’s promise, but the entire promise of the novel needs to be fulfilled in the climax. If your novel is about a horde of angry ghosts, then the final showdown sure better feature an epic fight with the giant horde! If it instead focuses on saving the protagonist’s child from a kidnapper, readers will feel majorly let down.

The climax should deliver to the reader what they have been waiting two or three or four hundred pages to get to. Anything less will fall short.

To think of it slightly differently: everything in the novel has led to this point. Everything. If that’s not the sense the reader gets while reading the climax, then you haven’t done your job.

Homework: Crafting (or re-crafting) Your Climax

Spend some time assessing the climax of your novel, ask yourself:

  • Does the climax fulfill the novel’s promise?
  • Does it logically build from the rest of the novel or does it feel unrelated or episodic?
  • Does the character arc end during the climax? Does the protagonist’s growth solidify?
  • Is the obstacle faced during the climax bigger than all the other obstacles in the novel?
  • Is defeating the obstacle sufficiently difficult? Does it seem nearly impossible for the protagonist to succeed?
  • Does the protagonist win (or lose) on his own merit or does something contrived happen that allows the protagonist to win?
  • Is the protagonist the one who defeats the antagonistic force (not side or secondary characters)?
  • Does the climax feel final? Does it make the story feel complete?

Note that in order to have a satisfying climax, you may need to rewrite earlier portions of the novel. Don’t shy away from these major changes. In the end, a spectacular climax will be more than worth the effort to get there.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

4 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #15: The Climax

  1. Roman says:

    What if you have multiple POV’s. The story I am writing is third-person limited and each chapter is a character pov. I have three pov’s and they all converge at the climaz for a final conflict against the antagonistic force. Given that each pov carries its own narrative and character arc, Should I stick to one pov or include all three in the climax? moving from character to caracter during a battle seems as if it would be a bit choppy. There is a scfi series that I am currently reading that does this (Frontiers saga by Ryk Brown), but it is in omniscient.

    • S. Coley says:

      I also would be interested in hearing Ellen’s opinion on this as In my WIP I have not one nor two or even three main characters but at least eleven as the story doesn’t so much follow a person but a kingdom and all those how stand out in the history of the kingdom, meaning that some characters are mayor in the climax but others slip from a main to more of a supporting role in the climax. Is this ok or should every main character have a separate scene that brings them a personal climax during the climax of the book?

      P.S. Thanks a gain Ellen for all your wonderful knowledge and hard work.

      P.S.S. Good luck to all and don’t stop writing ^_^”

  2. Heather says:

    When I woke up for work today, this hadn’t even been posted yet. Took me a bit to realize that there’s probably a time difference, and that most people wouldn’t be up at five am anyway.

    I really like that ‘obvious surprise’. A lot of YA has Very similar plot lines. I often find myself playing Guess the Plotline. It’s sad how often I guess it right.
    One book I recommend that had a kind of obvious surprise ending is The Thief by Megan Walen Turner. The Main in it is also a great example of a narrating character who is actually interesting.

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