Story Crisis & Climax

Scream

Crisis & Climax

What is the story crisis and how is it related to the climax? This post traces three variations of this most important relationship.

Crisis & Climax Back-To-Back

The climax of a story is generally preceded by a dilemma for the Protagonist in which a final life-changing decision has to be made. 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.

Crisis & Climax Stretched-Out

In other stories, however, the climax stretches out across several scenes with its own beats, its own build-up. In his book, Story, Robert McKee provides an example from Casablanca where Rick pursues Ilsa until she 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.

Crisis & Climax Separated Out

Although crisis-decisions and climactic action usually occur within the same location and within a short time interval towards the end of the story, it is not unusual for the two dramatic processes to occupy different spatial and temporal settings, although, in this instance, they should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

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.

In Summary

The crisis leads to the Protagonist taking 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.

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