The Climax – this scene is often the most fun to write (for me at least), but have you ever struggled to make sure it is as exciting as it can be and it also ties up all the conflicts?

This is the scene that’s in your head when you start your story, that exciting moment when your protagonist and antagonist finally have it out. Maybe somebody dies. Blood spatters. Your protagonist looks like he might lose it all, and then, at the last moment, the dust clears, and he’s making a come back.

Emotions run high, but by the end, your protagonist has won. He’s come out on top or even if he didn’t win what he thought we was going to win, he’s learned a vital lesson in the process. He’s transformed and has come a long way from the Inciting Incident that kicked off your story.

These are the scenes we love to read, and our readers expect a great climactic scene.  Have you ever read a story or book where the climax wasn’t all that, well, climactic? It’s a bummer! You feel let down somehow.

The climax scene is a required element in a story, and writing a story’s climax is also much easier if you’ve started your story with a solid conflict and included increasing complications and obstacles for your protagonist.

Remember that the climax will be in the last 10-20% of your story, so you’ve had lots of time to build it up, and maybe foreshadow it a little bit. Your readers anxiously await it.

So, how do you write a great climactic scene? You include two types of conflict and a surprise.

3 Key Elements of a Solid Climax

1) External Conflict

Throughout your story, your protagonist has faced obstacle after obstacle, trying to achieve their overall story goal. By the end, they’re exhausted, possibly disheartened because they haven’t yet achieved the thing they’re trying to achieve.

Your climax is the ultimate scene(s) where your protagonist goes after his goal one more time, and it’s the scene where you MUST ratchet up the external conflict. He’s battling the antagonist, but you can also throw in other obstacles.

Think about the setting or other characters.

Maybe there’s a huge storm happening. Or, the antagonist unexpectedly brought a bunch of buddies with him. Maybe the antagonist completely surprises the protagonist, catching him off guard.

This doesn’t need to be a blood bath or even physically violent, but it does need to include your protaganist battling some sort of external force(s).

2) Internal Conflict

In addition to external conflict, you need to include internal conflict as well through the character arc. This is a crucial element in any story. It’s the growth that a character undergoes from the beginning of the story to the end. Maybe they learn something about themselves, relationships, or the world. In any case, they should start a story emotionally in one place and by the end, they should have grown or changed somehow.

The climax also needs to include this internal conflict and their progress in dealing with it. For example, if your character has struggled with trusting anyone up to this point, then they should take a risk and rely on somebody in the climactic scene.

I’m going to give you an example but be forewarned – spoiler alert!! In the novel Paper Towns by John Green, Q spends all of his time yearning after Margo. He even goes so far to drive across the country after her. The climax occurs when he finally tracks her down and confronts her. He loves her and always has. But in the climax, he figures out that maybe, despite his devotion, she’s not the girl for him. It’s a realization that’s painful and completely internal. It also drives the end of the story.

Try to figure out how to tie your character’s internal conflict into the climax. It’ll make the scene much richer.

3) A Surprise

The final crucial element to a great climactic scene is an element of surprise.

Nobody likes to figure out the end of a story when they’re halfway through it. Well, I don’t. In fact, figuring out the climax and what’s going to happen before it happens annoys me almost more than anything.

The best stories are the ones that surprise me, the ones where the end isn’t predictable at all, but you also don’t want the climax coming somewhere out of left field. For example, if you’re writing a realistic drama, then a ghostly phantom won’t appear in the climax. It must go along with the story and be in keeping with the characters and the genre.

This element of surprise is key in crafting a solid climax. Think about some great novels. In the final book of the Harry Potter series, we pretty much know that at some point Harry and Voldemort will have a battle. This is completely predictable. But J.K. Rowling still manages to surprise us. How Harry wins is a surprise because at that point, we are sure that he’s lost. Also, who dies and who helps who survive surprises us. The entire battle scene is an epic and a fitting end to the entire series.

Katniss strategy to survive with Peeta is a surprise in The Hunger Games.

Or, think about The Fault in Our Stars which has a much quieter ending. The Crisis Moment that kicks off the climax is Augustus’ death. It’s a quiet moment, but it gets Hazel to his funeral where she gives a traditional eulogy, very different than the one she gave at his pre-funeral. Then, who shows up but Mr. Peter Van Houten himself? This is the surprise, and Hazel’s response tells us how far she’s come. She tells him to get lost, she doesn’t care any more about his characters. That’s the external conflict. She’s learned that it’s people that matter, and she’s going to live her life around people she chooses. Her internal conflict revolves around losing Gus and surviving that.

But, she’s also come a long way. The funeral scene shows that she no longer needs to know what will happen to the characters in Van Houten’s book or even to her. She’s had her “infinity.”

In Paper Towns, the surprise is how furious Margo is with Q and his friends for finding her. He expects her to pleased that they followed her clues. She’s not.

Your story’s climax should have these three elements. Does it? Do the following exercise to check or expand your climactic scene.

Put it in Action

1) We’re going to create a mind-map. On a blank piece of paper in your notebook, write CLIMAX. Circle it.

2) Brainstorm (or list if you’ve already got it written) every obstacle that you throw at your protagonist. Write them down and circle them.

3) Then, brainstorm the key lessons that he learns in this scene or any moments that his attitude changes in relation to his character arc. Write them down and circle them.

4) Now get out some colored pens or pencils. First, circle any surprising moments in red. If you have no surprises happening, go back and brainstorm some more!

5) Then, draw lines between the events that are happening and the lessons that the main character is learning or finally figuring out. You should have lines between the external and internal events. If not, brainstorm some more. If so, nice job!!

Do you have a hard time writing climax scenes or are they your favorites? Let me know in the comments below.

Your stories matter,

Amy