How to Strengthen Your Climactic Scene

As has been mentioned in a previous post, scenes are composite clusters of dramatic action, which usually (but not always) occur within a unified spatial and temporal field — within a specific time and place. Each scene has a specific function to perform according to its location within the story. Scenes correspond to the structural units that have been the main subject of these posts — turning points, mid-point, the pinches, etc., but they can also be simpler, less powerful clusters — adjoining units acting as transitional bridges to more important and dramatic scenes. By identifying, naming, and studying the structure of each scene as a type in the films and literature we admire, we are able to apply the insights we gain in our own work.

The Climactic Scene

One example of an important scene type, arguably the most important of all, is the climax, also known as the must-have, or, do-or-die scene. This scene occurs when the protagonist is forced, or, chooses, to face the antagonist in a winner-take-all confrontation towards the end of the story. At the beginning of this scene the stakes are at their highest, the outcome uncertain, as is the theme and moral premise of the story. By the end of the scene good (in the form of the protagonist) either triumphs over or succumbs to evil (in the form of the antagonist), thus settling the theme and moral premise. The question now arises as to how we may ramp up the climactic scene in order to squeeze the most juice from it, knowing that a failed climax inevitably means a failed story. Here are a couple of suggestions.

Ask yourself these two questions:

1. What is the primary strength of your antagonist?
2. What is the primary weakness/fear of your protagonist?

Now create a scene that plays to your protagonist’s chief weakness\fear, while promoting your antagonist’s primary strength. Additionally, ask yourself what setting best enhances the antagonist’s chances of winning, while simultaneously increasing the chances of your protagonist’s failing?

The Matrix

In the film, The Matrix, for example, an important late confrontation between Neo and agent Smith takes place inside virtual space — Smith’s own world — a place where he holds the most advantage. At the end of a sustained fight sequence Smith shoots Neo, who, for all intents and purposes, dies. It is only when Trinity administers the kiss of life/love to him on the Nebuchadnezzar — in the real world — that Neo recovers and is able to defeat Smith inside the matrix.

In Summary

The climactic scene represents the dramatic highlight of your story. It pits the protagonist against the antagonist in a do-or-die confrontation whose outcome determines not only the moral premise and theme of your story but its ultimate success. Improve your writing by exploiting an appropriate setting that strengthens the antagonist while simultaneously weakening the protagonist.

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. I post every Monday.

11 thoughts on “How to Strengthen Your Climactic Scene

  1. Russ Welsh

    Does an anti-climax signify a failure in storytelling? As in, can an event SO significant and SO amazing happen in the mid-point and, everything else from there, spiral downward. Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” is a prime example of what I mean. Nothing else in that movie lives up to the suspense of Superman saving a passenger jet from crashing into a baseball stadium filled with fans but the movie itself is not terrible. It has some good moments after that one advent… just nothing as amazing. The closest it comes is a floating Kryptonian island at the end. And that scene doesn’t last long enough. Ok. So, why I’m asking if an anti-climax is seen as a story failure is largely because I have structured my screenplay specifically to be anti-climactic. I’ll send you a finished copy of my screenplay in the next few days. But I’m just very cautious if I have destroyed my story by taking the route I took.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the question, Russ. Remember, these posts deal primarily with conventional story-telling, based on our story having a beginning, middle, and end. Unconventional story forms — such as multiform and multistrand stories — are a lot freer and experimental. The question to ask is: what feelings do I want my ending to solicit from my audience or readers. Have someone who’s opinion you trust read your work and comment — listen very carefully to the response. That’s the first step in getting an inkling on whether or not you’re on track.

      Reply
  2. Shea Moir

    Dear Stavros,
    How fabulous, another inscription in the path towards writing a successful narrative. Always do enjoying your writings Stavros.

    My climax seems to open a wound for my antagonist and draw a dark curtain over my protagonist life. But my protagonist is almost the lungs of my story. He allows people to come back to their senses, with a breath of fresh air, and some comedic relief always helps even if it is from a guy who’s only slightly less crazy.

    Would it be normal for the antagonist and protagonist to not know each other, but during your climax, your antagonist list a bunch of reasons why you should actually be rooting for him and not people like the protagonist at all and during the confrontation in the resolution the antagonist is defeated.

    It sounds right. I am just not sure if that would be a behavior that might occur during the climax, (breaking point for the antagonist.) Keep in mind hes just wiped out a bunch of students.

    Look forward to your next post.
    Ta Ta
    S. M

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Shea. It’s unconventional for the antagonist and protagonist to be unaware, or not to know each other, but there’s no reason that can’t work. It all depends on how the rest of the narrative has been set up, and its specific genre.

      Reply
      1. Shea Moir

        Yes
        I didn’t think it was normal that the two were unaware of each other until the resolution. But they are connected by blood. The protagonist only becomes aware that he shot his half brother after forensics investigation.

        But I have a strong feeling about this, Stavros. Granted my grammar still sucks, but my developmental skills since being taught by you have significantly improved. Thanks for coming back and teaching me your secrets. And selling me your book, and your iPad. It was certainly a cool ride.

        Is this what it feels like to be enlightened? lol
        Ta ta
        S.M

        Reply
  3. Azure

    I was wondering if maybe you would do a post on climax LENGTH. Can a climax be too long, and when why how would it be a disservice to the story. Is there a time when it would be OKAY to do a long climax. The climax in my first novel, DEVIL WANTS A CHINA DOLL is like fifty pages of an epic tournament fight, and I had to ask myself, is THAT TOO LONG? I treated the tournament like a story within a story, using hooks, building the stakes and tension. But a reader can only take so much of a good thing, you can wear them out! Guess in this day and age, that would be REALLY hard to do, lol, now that I think about it!

    PS
    I think it would be nicer if your comments started with the first comment first so that i’m not having to go down to find the meaning to responses I’m reading. Other than that, your site is nice and easy to navigate, good job.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the comments and suggestions, Azure. Yes, I’ll certainly do a post on climax length sometime in the future. As to whether the climax can be too long: that would depend on whether there’s any ramping up within that long climax itself for a final “exclamation” mark. If not, it might seem that your story is one long climax without release. I think the main thing to remember is that a story has to breathe. Every crescent in the wave needs a trough in order to gain meaning and prominence. It is this well placed variation that creates the flow – the music in our writing.

      Reply
  4. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Mark. In the traditinal story – by far the most common – the climax occurs close to the end, or resolution. I think this is the most satisfying place for it in that kind of story. Once we enter the realms of the unconventional, such as multiform and multistrand stories, however, other structures emerge, which jumble, or rearrange the sequence of narrative units, in effect, creating alternative or “false” endings. I suppose it all depends on what kind of story we are telling.

    Reply
  5. Mark Landen

    I’ve read there are generally two options where the climax could occur: at the middle of the story or near the end. What are your thoughts on this in relation to this post?

    Reply

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