How crisis leads to the story climax

Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise
Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise

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WHAT is the story crisis and how is it related to the story climax?

This post traces variations of this most important relationship.

The story climax is generally preceded by a crisis resulting from a dilemma in which the Protagonist faces a final life-changing decision. In Thelma & Louise, the crisis occurs moments before the end of the film, right after a climactic chase by the cops, which brings them to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The choice is simple: prison or death. They choose death.

In some stories the crisis may be spatially and temporarily separated from the climax, although they are intimately linked in filmic time and space.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee provides an example from Casablanca where Rick pursues Ilsa until she finally gives in to him in the Act II climax. In the next scene, however, Lazlo presses Rick to rejoin the anti-fascist cause, precipitating a dilemma, which ends when Rick puts Ilsa and her husband on a plane to America, sacrificing his desire to be with her. The final part of the third act plays out the climactic action resulting from Rick’s (crisis) decision to help the couple escape at his own expense.

Although crunch decisions  and climactic action usually follow closely together towards the end of the story, it is not unusual for the two dramatic events to occupy different spatial and temporal settings. They should always, however, feel as if they are inexorably linked.

Crisis and climax in Kramer vs Kramer

In Kramer vs Kramer Act III opens with Kramer’s lawyer saying that he has lost the case, but could win on appeal, providing Kramer is willing to put his son on the stand and ask him to choose between himself and his mother. The boy would choose his father, but at great psychological cost. Kramer simply states “I can’t do that.” This is the crisis decision in which Kramer decides against his own needs. We then cut from Kramer and the lawyer to the climax—an anguished walk in Central Park as Kramer explains to his son about their future life apart.

McKee points out that when crisis and climax occur in a different time and place, “we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in filmic time and space,” or risk draining them of pent-up energy, reducing the effect to an anti-climax.

Summary

The crisis forces the Protagonist to take a decision which leads to the story climax. The timing of the crisis-decision and climax varies depending on the story, but should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

2 thoughts on “How crisis leads to the story climax”

  1. The thing to emphasise, Gerhard, is that mounting conflict leads to a crisis, which, in turn, leads to the final climax.

  2. The great thing about mounting conflict is that the stakes are raised as the story goes on. In Gone girl Ben Affleck’s character is aware that his wife is a psychopath and is determined to divorce her . When she realizes that he wants her out of his life she stages her own kidnapping. Her disappearances causes a media sensation and gives Affleck’s character nation wide attention, putting his personal life in the spotlight. The media make it seem as if the husband is the monster and the wife is the victim. It the same way Scar in the Lion King Hoodwinked Simba and in the process made the hero his own worst enemy.

    In short : two faced characters are good at sparking a miss-understanding that results in mounting tension.

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