Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Every reader has had that ‘wow’ moment when they put down a book. The moment when a story’s climax is so stunning that it can’t be absorbed right away. Such stories are few and far between but when they come along, they stay with your for days.
Trying to write that kind of climax is difficult and risky. Like an extreme sport there’s the thinnest of margins between being rewarded for your daring and making a fool of yourself.
For those brave enough to attempt it, this article presents the devices authors use to write a breath-taking climax and gives advice on how to implement them yourself.
Does the climax have to be at the end?
No, but it should be. The climax is the most exciting, upsetting or amazing moment in your story. The moment when the reader’s commitment pays off. The satisfaction that comes from that moment is the feeling you want to leave your reader with.
With the whole novel to build up their involvement and bring plot elements together, the end of your novel is the natural home of the climax. It’s the point where you’ve had the most time to prepare, and where it benefits you the most.
There’s a little debate that the end of a novel is where a story should climax, but when they say this, most authors mean the final act of the story or the last few chapters. The dangerous truth is that for a really out-of-this world climax it needs to be the last few pages.
No matter what follows the climax you’re going downhill. The reader isn’t going to feel that same high again, and so every sentence that follows is worse than what they’ve already read. Not only that but more information encroaches on their experience, diluting that powerful emotion that should be kept as pure as possible.
When it comes to your story’s climax, the best thing you can do is blow their minds then run away. As with so many things in writing the obstacle that most often gets in the way of this device is the author’s ego. Ending the story on the emotional climax often means you don’t get to explain the after-effects. You don’t get to wrap things up for the characters and you don’t get to finish your story with a comfortable epilogue.
All writers suffer from this to some extent, and when you’re writing a climax there’s a direct trade-off between your own satisfaction and the reader’s emotional reaction. The more post-climax events you can let go, the more amazing the climax becomes.
The key is to write the characters and plot in such a way that the reader knows what happens after the climax. The temptation to keep writing will still be there but knowing it’s not necessary should help you resist.
Irvine Welsh’s novel Filth climaxes with a shocking act of violence in front of the last person on Earth who should witness it. The book ends immediately, not mentioning any sort of reaction, and yet the reader knows exactly what kind of devastation will follow. Welsh loses nothing by skipping an aftermath the reader can already envision, instead ending on a truly jaw-dropping moment.
If your characters are fully realized and the stakes of the plot are understood then the reader will know the cost of the climax without you explaining it.
You only get one
The climax is the most extreme moment of your story, not just a quite extreme moment near the end.
Your story can’t have two climaxes, so if you want to stagger your reader you need to make sure the final peak really is the biggest.
Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxyseries is filled with wit, truly evocative moments and surprisingly dark humor. Despite having a lot of incredible moments to contend with, Adams finishes the series with a true climax.
The fifth book in the series,Mostly Harmless, (spoiler alert) ends with the destruction of Earth and the (heavily implied) death of all the main characters. There are barely two paragraphs between the realization of what’s about to happen and it being over.
The ending had to be both abrupt and total to top the rest of the series, and Adams pulls off a climax that divides fans by taste but undoubtedly leaves the reader stunned.
Suspense or Surprise
There are two ways to give your end-of-novel climax impact. The first is to spring it out of nowhere, as Adams does in Mostly Harmless. While the event should still make sense within the plot, there’s incredible power in blind-siding the audience.
We see this all the time in movies, with cars zooming in from off-screen to fell a character who’s finally got their life together. Be a little more meticulous than this by planting clues of the end shock along the way – Adams reveals the Earth’s destruction by referring back to a passage in the third book of the Hitchhiker series – while still keeping your reader in the dark.
The opposite side of the coin, although just as effective a device, is to use suspense to build tension. Forcing the release of this tension at the book’s climax concentrates the reader’s entire emotional experience into a single moment.
Throughout Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler teases the reader with whether the titular protagonist murdered his best friend. First it seems certain he did, then that he didn’t, and the reader oscillates between believing the friend got what he deserved and desperately wanting Barney to be innocent.
It’s not until the last page that the reader gets their answer, and all the faith, hope and worry that they’ve poured into the question is focused on a single line for an exhausting emotional climax.
Handle with care
Each of the devices above can be either effective or disastrous. While it’s brilliant writing to end a story at the emotional pinnacle you better be sure that readers understand what would happen afterwards, or they’ll go away feeling short-changed and confused.
Likewise, not every story is meant to have its most significant moment late on, and a surprise ending can feel tacked on if done badly.
The potential for great reward comes with great risk but if you can nail a climactic ending then you’ll have written the kind of book people force on their friends.
If this has made you determined to write an all-action climax then check out our article Here’s how to write a damn good fight scene. Or if all this talk of abrupt endings seems too severe try Writing an epilogue can be useful (as long as you do it right.)
Which novels have given you that ‘wow’ moment, and which missed the mark? Let us know in the comments.