First-time novelists often grapple with the idea of a novel’s climax. I’m always amazed at how many of my students claim their novels have “more than one climax.” Well, no. Your novel’s climax should be identifiable and a story gets only one.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are some tips for nailing down your novel’s climax scene:
When Should the Climax Occur?
Your novel’s climax must be in a particular place in the story. In a movie, you can usually identify the climax by paying attention to the swelling musical score. In writing we don’t get soundtracks, however, so here’s another way to identify the climax: Take any print novel and flip to about 30-50 pages before the end of the book. This is where the majority of story climax scenes will unfold. Why? Because you have built tension, suspense and disappointment up to this crux. And when the Main Character finally takes action in the face of certain defeat, either the goal is won, lost or there is a stalemate. After the question of win or lose is answered, readers know the big story question has been answered and they’re usually only willing to stay on while a short resolution plays out (the last 30-50 pages). If you give your character the climax scene before he’s been adequately tested, readers know instinctively that it’s not that big a deal. So save your climax for very near the story’s end.
What’s the Climax About?
Your novel’s climax echoes the main story goal set out in the opening pages. If the goal has changed, readers must be assured that the switch was logical and necessary. Generally, climaxes occur just after the “All is lost” moment, the darkest hour, the place where your character wonders why she ever thought the goal was possible. Readers love to see a character rise up once more, calling upon his last bit of strength in order to fight that last battle. The climax scene also reflects all that the character holds dear–another reason for writers to truly know their characters. Be sure your climax scene relies on the character to battle for these things–no one else can fight his battle, even if others are better qualified or more willing. If the cavalry (or adults in a children’s or YA novel) rides in to save the day, it’s referred to as deus ex machina or letting the “gods” come at the last moment to set things right. Nope. Your character must fight her own battles.
Refine the Goal
No discussion of climax would be complete without touching on the problem of not being able to pinpoint the climax scene. If you are tempted to think your novel can have more than one climax, one of two things may be happening: Either you’re misidentifying a lesser scene leading to the climax, or your story goal and stakes may not be high enough. Remember, the story goal/stakes must pass the “So what?” test. If your character doesn’t succeed, so what? Will anyone besides the protagonist care, and why should readers care? I’ve posted about raising the novel’s stakes here if you need help in that area.