Let me just be upfront right away: the climax in a story is what readers will talk about, review, love, or hate about your book. It won’t matter if your characters are incredibly rich and lovable. It won’t matter if the worldbuilding is top tier and expansive.
If the climax doesn’t make sense, is rushed, or doesn’t conclude the details the reader wants finished, they will claim your book isn’t good.
This has partly to do with serial position effect, in which people remember the first and last things in a list or even in reading books (consuming content). And because the climax is what readers look forward to most—what they keep reading in order to get to—it will stand out to them.
Which is why you need to learn how to write a strong climax in a story if you want to get good reviews and collect avid readers.
Here are the steps for writing the climax in a story:
- What is the climax in a story?
- How to write a climax
- Start at the beginning
- Grow the character
- Merge plot & character
- Adding difficulty
- Foreshadowing the climax
- Beta feedback
- Examples of book climaxes
What is the climax in a story?
The climax in a story is the moment toward the end when the story comes to a head, conflicts are at an all-time high, and the character faces their biggest challenge yet. It’s at this point that the character must fulfill the story promises and close all the loops of the plot (unless it’s a series).
If you look at the book’s structure, the climax in a story comes right before the resolution—the ending.
If you’re writing a book series, you need to think about a couple climaxes: the climax in a story for each book individually, and then the climax for the series as a whole.
Take Harry Potter for example. Each book has Harry coming face-to-face with a big challenge toward the end of his school year. They all have something to do with Voldemort, but he doesn’t have the final face-off to destroy Voldemort until the final book. That’s the climax of the series.
How to Write a Climax in a Story That Feels Whole, Complete, and Compelling
A lot more goes into writing the climax in a story than you may expect. It’s not as simple as writing a cool, epic scene. Let’s uncover the many steps to write the climax.
1. Start at the beginning
This is a long section, because it almost matters the most, even though I’m talking about the beginning of the book when you want to learn how to write the ending. Hold tight! Promise it’s worth it.
No climax will ever feel complete if it’s wholly disconnected from the very first part of the story. This is where it gets tricky and a little confusing. Isn’t the climax about the end?
Well, the climax is meant to tie up loose ends in an entertaining and satisfying way. The latter part—satisfaction—is only achievable if something comes before it. Think about what it means to satisfy something:
A glass of cold water is only satisfying if you’re first thirsty, or hot.
A big meal is only satisfying when you’re first hungry.
A certain food is only satisfying when you’ve first been craving it.
A climax can only be satisfying if there is a deep want and craving of some sort prior to it happening. That craving is deepened over the course of the story, yes, but it’s created from the very start of the story. Here’s what I mean.
In every book, there is a promise at the beginning of a story. No, the author doesn’t say “I promise in this story you’ll get ______.” Instead, they show you a scene, introduce a character, and show you want that character wants more than anything, and also what’s in their way.
This can look very different depending on the character, book genre, and even author. But there is a way to structure your book’s introduction and inciting incident to do it.
- Start with their current, everyday life: What does their life look like for an ordinary day? The climax in a story will showcase how very far they’ve come from this point, so make it clear!
- Introduce your character’s wants: Given this ordinary life, what is it your main character wants most? This can be shown with an interior monologue, spoken through dialogue, or something the reader can assume.
- Show the conflict of that want: Sometimes this is a given. If what they want is a life of luxury and they labor all day long, then we can assume the conflict is the system or their status. If it’s not obvious, you can always show this by introducing the antagonist, and this is often where the reader first sees the antagonist (or a hint of it).
The story’s promise is that the main character will get what they want by overcoming the obstacle and changing their everyday life.
Now, is this perfect every time? No. Sometimes, we don’t know what the character wants. In fact, in some stories, the lack of want is a conflict in a story that must be overcome and uncovered throughout the story.
But let’s look at a couple examples of stories so you get what I mean:
THE HUNGER GAMES
Everyday life: The very first scene is Katniss in the woods hunting with a bow and arrow, and actually breaking the law in order to get food for her very hungry and poor family.
Introduce wants: As the scene progresses, it’s obvious that Katniss wants food, but what she wants more is something less tangible. It seems like she wants to not have to struggle anymore. An easier life in which her sister and her mother are safe, healthy, and at peace.
Show conflict of that want: There is a suppressive system (capitol) dictating laws and rules that make her life hard and keeps her in poverty. This is the early version of the conflict we see (further showcased by the need to go beyond the fences to find food), and is later confirmed by the heinous ritual of a yearly hunger games. Now, this is the conflict that puts her wants (family safety and peace) at risk.
If you read more stories, you’ll uncover this similar pattern in almost all of them. In some, this all happens in the first chapter, and in others this happens over the course of 2-3. However, these are always established before the inciting incident. Because that’s the moment where everything changes. If you’re writing multiple perspectives, then you will have a point-of-view chapter for each of these, switching to the next before moving on to the inciting incident.
In the case of The Hunger Games, the inciting incident is when Katniss volunteers to compete in the games, which makes her wants more complicated but also feasible. Because the winners of the games are celebrated, get a house, food, and a life of “luxury” thereafter.
If the opening of this story didn’t showcase how much Katniss loved her sister, how much she wanted freedom, or how terrible the antagonist is, we wouldn’t root for her and we wouldn’t be as satisfied when she wins the games in the end by outsmarting the establishment.
Now, it takes more books for her true “peace” to occur, and unfortunately, she doesn’t always get what she wants.
Starting the book gives clues about what will happen in the end, yes, but not about how the character gets what they want.
What the character wants is also the motivation that drives their decisions, so focus on that and read the link in this sentence.
2. Grow your character
The climax in a story is the intersection of character and plot. It’s not often thought of that way, but it is. You can’t have the climax necessary for the plot unless your character grows into the person they need to be to do what it takes to accomplish the climax.
Now, this will alter slightly depending on character driven vs plot driven stories.
Character driven will have more to do with character growth and less about a specific plot sequence. But even plot driven stories require a character arc, and they have to coincide with one another.
In fact, you can craft your plot points and the general rising action of your story so the character is forced to grow. This is where the conflict comes into play. It’s not a conflict if a trained soldier needs to go to the battlefield and take out the bad guy (not really, anyway). It is a conflict if a schoolteacher who has never held a weapon suddenly has to go to the battlefield to take out the bad guy in order to save their classroom.
That’s not the best example, but you get the idea.
How can you craft the story in such a way that the character you’ve made has to grow in many ways in order to make it through to the climax? Every conflict in the plot is an opportunity for you to move your character close to the version they need to be when the climax arrives.
As you plot your story, especially if you’re using the 5 milestones or a three act structure, think about this at every stage. When approaching how to move your story forward, ask yourself, “what event would my character be poorly suited to solve?” and put them in that situation. Because this forces them to grow.
Without the character’s growth, you can’t merge the plot and character, which is necessary for the climax in a story to be satisfying and effective.
3. Merge plot and character arcs
When learning about the climax in a story, most people will talk solely about the plot, because the climax is something that happens. But the events of what happen during the climax are entirely dependent on the main character’s decisions and motivations and how they’ve grown throughout the plot, which we covered in the above two sections.
You cannot have a climax without your character’s arc completing. They happen at the same time.
“Character arc” is just a term used to describe how a character grows throughout a book. It’s the journey of them overcoming their weaknesses and learning to work with their flaws. Merging this journey with one of the plot can be a little more complicated, and having the two meet in the climax is simple, but not necessarily easy.
Here’s how it’s simple:
In order for the climax to happen (the main character overcoming the biggest challenge, setback, or goal), they have to overcome their weakness.
That is how the climax needs to come together. This is, ultimately, what makes for a good story as a whole. It’s the satisfying moment when the main character is finally able to step out from the shadow of the weakness they’ve been struggling with for the entire story in order to make the biggest change. It’s your job as an author to construct the plot in such a way where that happens.
Take the Harry Potter books, for example.
A recurring weakness Harry has is the fact that he feels like he has to face things alone. This is understandable, given how he was raised in such an isolated way, how he’s the “chosen one” (alone), and even by the prophecy stating he alone has to be the one to kill Voldemort.
And yet repeatedly, his friends are there to show him that he doesn’t have to do it alone. This is actually repeated in many of the books, with character even telling him directly that he can’t and won’t do it alone.
So when it comes time for the climaxes in every book, Harry accepts help, and only then is he able to be successful. This is even true at the very end, during the battle at Hogwarts. What’s especially genius about how JK Rowling wrote this climax is that at first, it seems like Harry does have to go it alone. In fact, it’s heartbreaking and even Hermione wants to go with, but he says no. He has to do it alone.
But when he faces Voldemort alone, we realize that this isn’t the moment. There’s more, and his friends aren’t finished helping him yet. So he doesn’t defeat Voldemort alone, even though he is the one who has to kill him. In fact, multiple friends finish destroying the horcruxes, down to Neville destroying the very last one that actually allows Harry to kill Voldemort in the end of the series.
This technique can take time. It takes knowing your character well. And usually, it takes a few drafts to tweak in order for it to make sense in the end.
4. Make the solution difficult for the main character
The climax in a story should never be easy. In the book world, that’s synonymous with “bad”. If the characters don’t have to work hard, if they don’t lose something (whether it’s physical, emotional, or otherwise), then it won’t have the satisfaction necessary to make it good.
You can solve whatever the problem is and accomplish the character’s goal in any number of ways. It can be easy! However, you have to make it hard for them. More importantly, you have to make it difficult in a way that is hardest for who they are and their flaws and weaknesses.
The climax should be the main event. It’s the most challenging obstacle the main character will face in the story. They’ll have to pull out all the stops, including everything they’ve learned, in order to succeed. And even then, there’s a risk of losing something.
Work on the climax until it’s truly difficult and even seems like the main character won’t succeed.
5. Foreshadow what happens
The climax has to make sense. That’s incredibly important. If some new character randomly comes out of left field and saves the day and that’s the climax…your readers will be pissed. It’s true! Even if this new character is cool and can solve all the problems, if that person wasn’t foreshadowed, the climax will fall flat. The reader will feel robbed.
This was sort of the problem with the last season of Game of Thrones. If you’ve seen it or were on the internet anytime after it aired, you’ll know as much. At the end, Daenerys, a main character we’ve been rooting for, was killed after she “went crazy” and destroyed King’s Landing, killing many, many innocent people, even after Cersei “surrendered”.
One of the biggest issues with this isn’t that fans were rooting for Khaleesi. It was that we didn’t feel like the downfall of Daenerys was foreshadowed. We didn’t think there was adequate foreshadowing that this would happen, and therefore it felt forced and inauthentic and like the writers were doing it more for shock factor than delivering us a quality story. There are plenty of people who argue that this was indeed foreshadowed, but if the majority of the audience doesn’t think so, then it wasn’t good enough.
Foreshadowing is hard. You don’t want to give away the climax. While you want it to be inevitable, you don’t necessarily want predictable. So how do you balance that (keeping in mind that there will always, always be some readers who figure it out and predict what will happen—they will still be happy so long as it’s satisfying!)?
6. Listen to your beta readers
There is a caveat to this piece of advice! Beta readers are necessary for many reasons, but the most important is to gauge if the climax is satisfying or if it doens’t make sense. If only a few out of 20 beta readers are unhappy, you don’t have to change things just to please them.
It’s the trends and the majority of feedback that matters here.
I won’t get into how to find beta readers because here’s a blog post all about beta readers. But you do want to pay attention to what predictions they make and what they think about the character’s arc and the climax. If these three elements aren’t good, you have some work to do in order to fulfill some of the steps above.
BONUS NOTE ABOUT THE CLIMAX IN A STORY:
Many stories can come together in many ways. What you want to focus on is crafting a good story that’s satisfying. If you’re like me, choosing what happens and how can be hard. How do you know the best one? How can you write something both exciting and tension-filled while also fulfilling so many different aspects like the ones listed above?
In truth, this comes down to practice and knowing the character and story well.
Don’t worry so much about creating massive plot twists. You absolutely can reveal something during the climax and shock the readers, and that’s really interesting and exciting! But there are so many amazing, great books that don’t have plot twists, and instead have satisfying, inevitable climaxes.
Your reader is allowed to know what happens during the climax. It’s the how they will want to read and experience.
This is almost always the case with any hero’s journey. We as readers know that the good guy will win in the end. But we don’t know how it will happen or what will be lost in the process. That’s why we read it.
This is why you shouldn’t focus on making your climax completely unpredictable, because even science has proven that readers like a story better if they can predict it. This is because they feel “right” and good about their ability to do so, yes, but also because that means the story makes sense.
Do don’t stress too much! Find that intersection of plot and character arc coming together and go with it!
10 Examples of Strong Book Climaxes to Learn From
If you want to learn how to write a great climax in a story, you have to study the greats. These are books that are continuously hailed as having excellent climaxes that are very well done, and some so popular they’ve been made into movies and TV shows.
Any books mentioned in this post should obviously be read, along with these examples of strong climaxes:
- Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
- The Middle Game by Seanan McGuire
- The Brass City by S.A. Chakraborty
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner
- Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
- The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
- The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks
Give these a read and start to piece together why these climaxes work so well!
I hope you’ve realized by now that you can’t write a good climax in a story without taking into consideration the entire plot and character/s. Without context, a climax is just some events that happen. The real magic comes from how you set the climax up.