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point. The Climax is the reason for the story. This is where the author reveals
what the journey the character just endured was really all about—and, in a
positive change arc, why that journey has turned out to be worth all the
heartaches and trauma.
Most important to our discussion, the Climax is where your character proves that
he really is a changed person. Your readers have witnessed his evolution.
They’ve seen him get shaken up when he was kicked out of his Normal World.
They watched his desperate reactions as he tried to regain his footing in the
First Half of the Second Act. They saw his revelation at the Midpoint, and his
subsequent transition away from his Lie and toward the Truth. They saw him act
on the Truth at the Third Plot Point—and pay the price for doing so.
Now, approximately halfway through the Third Act, the conflict has revved to the
point where a confrontation must happen between the protagonist and the
antagonist. If the protagonist is to have any chance of winning that conflict, he
must prove he is able to stick with the Truth for the long haul. If he can’t gather
all the lessons he’s learned throughout the story and hang onto them now, when
the pressure is greatest, then all will be lost forever.
As you consider what has to happen in your character’s arc in the Climax, keep in
mind the following structural guidelines for your plot as well:
* The Climax is a scene or series of scenes that forces the protagonist to face
the main conflict in a decisive confrontation.
* The Climax brings the primary conflict to a resolution in a way that fulfills the
book’s every promise, while still surprising readers in pleasant ways, because
not every bit of what happens is what they could have predicted.
* The Climax begins near the 90% mark in your story and ends right before the
final scene or two.
* The Climax will sometimes be divided into two climaxes (the first of which is
known as a “faux climax”), depending on how complex the conflict is and how
many antagonists the protagonist must confront.
Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 13: The Climax
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We closed out our discussion of the Third Act by mentioning the renewed attack
upon your character’s new paradigm (i.e., his embrace of the Truth). Although
that renewed attack can take place entirely before the Climax (as it does in Jane
Eyre when St. John tries to prevent Jane from returning to Thornfield), more
often than not, this psychological attack will continue right into the Climax
itself. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler explains:
The psychological meaning of such counterattacks is that neuroses,
flaws, habits, desires, or addictions we have challenged may retreat
for a time, but can rebound in a last-ditch defense or desperate
attack before being vanquished forever.
Timing the Final Rejection of the Lie Your Character Believes
Rejecting the Lie in the Climax
Depending on the nature of your story, and particularly how closely the exterior
conflict with the antagonist is related to the character’s internal conflict, the
character may not throw off this assault until the Climactic Moment itself. The
antagonist may batter the protagonist with the Lie, hammering at the newly
healed skin that’s formed over this old wound. This is the protagonist’s weak
point, and the antagonist knows it.
Placing the renewed attack and the final rejection of the Lie and embrace of the
Truth in your Climax allows you to harmonize your exterior and interior conflicts.
It also ups the stakes and the tension. Readers sit on the edges of their seats,
chewing their nails, because they know full well that if the character can’t
complete his arc right now, the antagonist will destroy him.
However, harmonizing the two conflicts also has its downfalls. Because the
Climax is such a busy section of your story, you won’t always have the time and
space to logically complete your character’s arc at the same time as he’s battling
the antagonist. A saber duel to the death isn’t usually conducive to involved
Rejecting the Lie Before the Climax
Depending on your story’s pacing, you may decide your best choice is to have
your character face and defeat his Lie for this final time before he charges into
the Climax. At this moment, your character will reject the last remnants of doubt
about the Lie and step forward to claim the Truth. He is, at last, completely
centered—and, as a result, completely empowered to face the antagonist. He is
The Climax begins as the character acts upon his new Truth, finally and fully. By
this point, the character should be finished with all lengthy internal pondering.
The uncertainty that remains now is more about the ramifications of his new
Truth (will it let him defeat the antagonist? or will it get him killed in the
process?) than his own inner choices.
Whatever you decide, keep in mind Jordan McCollum’s advice in Character Arcs:
One of the biggest things to watch out for with this type of ending is
making sure that the character learns her lesson very close to this
climax. If these events occur too far apart, the causal link between
learning the lesson and the ultimate success at the climax is
weakened. If it’s possible to make the final choice in learning the
lesson coincide with the climax instead, that helps to prevent the
The Climactic Moment
The Climactic Moment is the climax within the Climax. It’s the single moment
that resolves the story’s overall conflict. In identifying your Climactic Moment,
look for (or create) the one scene readers have been waiting for from the
beginning of the story. The bad guy dies. The hero proposes. The girl gets the
job she’s been after.
The conflict ends because the protagonist has finally conclusively destroyed the
antagonistic force. The obstacle between him and his plot goal disappears. This
does not, however, mean that the character necessarily gets the Thing He
Wants. Positive change arc stories are primarily about the character finding the
Thing He Needs.
As such, by the time he reaches his plot goal, the goal itself may have
completely transformed, so that he no longer desires the Thing He Wants. (In
Clarence Brown’s National Velvet, Mi Taylor has gained self-respect and no
longer wants to steal from the Browns or trade off his father’s name.)
Or he may still desire the Thing He Wants, but he rejects it, knowing he can’t
possess both it and the Thing He Needs. (In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Peter
Parker rejects the opportunity for a relationship with Mary Jane, because he
knows it’s the only way to protect her.)
Or his reasons for wanting it may have changed, giving him mixed feelings about
his victory. (In Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid, Russ Duritz finally gets rid of his
younger self, only to find that he misses him.)
Or he may gain the Thing He Wants, but only because he is now focusing on the
Thing He Needs. (In Jane Austen’s Emma, Emma gets to marry Mr. Knightley, but
only because she’s overcome her selfishness and conceit.)
How Does the Climax Manifest in Character Arcs?
Your character’s arc in the Climax could manifest as:
* A renewed attack in which Thor's brother taunts him, briefly, back into his
aggressive mindset. Thor then finally proves his devotion to his new Truth by
destroying the Bifrost and (seemingly) any chance he has of returning to his new
love, in order to protect the other realms. The Climactic Moment arrives when
Loki (seems to) kill himself, thereby removing himself as the obstacle between
Thor and his goal of peace. (Thor)
* Jane fully rejects St. John’s renewed attack upon her Truth when she hears
Rochester calling her and drops everything to return to him at Thornfield. She
proves her new mindset in her determination not to marry him—only to be
happily surprised when circumstances, including her own transformed self, allow
her to be with him after all. The Climactic Moment arrives when she tells
Rochester she has returned to him. (Jane Eyre)
* Dr. Grant battles the raptors at the risk of his own life in order to save the
children (not exactly a renewed attack, but it fulfills basically the same function
in this action-heavy, character-lite story). The Climactic Moment arrives when
the T-Rex crashes into the lobby and destroys the raptors. (Jurassic Park)
* Walter holds fast under the physical attack by his mother’s abusive boyfriend
and refuses to believe his beloved uncles are thieves. He actively claims as
Truth their stories of youthful adventure and proves he is willing to be tortured
for it. The Climactic Moment arrives later when he confronts his mother and
insists she allow him to stay with his uncles. (Secondhand Lions)
* The other toys scoff at the idea that Woody has changed his tune about Buzz,
even after he jumps into the moving van and tries to use RC to save Buzz. The
Climactic Moment arrives when he and Buzz land safely in Andy’s car. (Toy Story)
* Archie, Troy, and the Chief's superior officers threaten to court-martial them
and return the Shiite refugees to Saddam’s soldiers. The Climactic Moment
arrives when, in order to allow everyone to survive, they decide to barter their
gold in a deal to get the Shiites across the border to safety. (Three Kings)
* The renewed attack comes mostly from within Matt himself. He can’t bear the
thought of leaving his mates to fight by themselves when he knows they’re
likely to die. He returns, with his sister and nephew, in an attempt to help them,
only to realize the best thing he can do for them is protect his family. The
Climactic Moment arrives when his brother-in-law sacrifices his life in order to
help them escape. (Green Street Hooligans)
* The renewed attack comes from Leo, who straps Bob to cases of dynamite,
calling it “Death Therapy.” After a moment of fear, Bob finally embraces the
therapy and is “cured.” The Climactic Moment arrives when Bob ends his own
ability to torment Leo by accidentally blowing up the lake house and sending Leo
into a catatonic state. (What About Bob?)
Further Examples of the Climax in Character Arcs
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Scrooge’s transformation is basically
complete before he exits Christmas Future and enters the Climax. He swears to
the Ghost of Christmas Future that he will be a changed man if only he is given
the chance to live again. Once back in his bedchamber, in the present day, he
immediately sets about proving his change, by doing good for everyone he
snubbed in the First Act. The Climactic Moment arrives when he decisively
demonstrates his devotion to his new Truth of charity and goodwill by donating
gifts and food to the Cratchits and giving Mr. Cratchit an extravagant raise.
Cars directed by John Lasseter: Lightning embraces his friends and their
importance in his life when he joyfully accepts their help as his new pit crew. He
races with renewed purpose, making up lost ground. But even though his
attitude toward the townsfolk from Radiator Springs is demonstrably different
from how he treated them in the beginning, he still hasn’t actually done
anything to prove his devotion to the new Truth. He gets his chance when Chick
Hicks acts selfishly (just as Lightning would have at the beginning of the movie)
and wrecks the respected old racecar The King. Lightning, just about to win the
race, sees what’s happened and realizes helping The King is more important
than winning the race. In a lovely Climactic Moment, he slams on the brakes,
just before the finish line, allowing Chick to win. He then circles back to help
The King finish his race.
Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Arc in the Climax
1. How does your character prove he is a changed person in the Climax?
2. Does the renewed attack upon his new Truth happen before the Climax or
during the Climax? What are the pacing challenges of either choice?
3. How does the character’s final embrace of the Truth enable his victory in the
4. Does he fully embrace the Thing He Needs in the Climax?
5. How does he use the Thing He Needs to defeat the antagonist?
6. Does he gain the Thing He Wants?
7. How has his view of the Thing He Wants changed? Does he still want it?
The beginning of your story asked a question: Will the character overcome his
Lie to gain the Thing He Needs? In a positive change arc, the Climax answers
that question with a resounding yes. More than that, it provides visual and
dramatic proof of how the character has been changed by the Truth.
Congratulations! Your character has just completed his arc. He leaves your story
a better person than he entered it, and readers can be sure that, whatever trials
he may face in the future, he is now better equipped to face them. All that
remains now is the (very important) emotional mopping up of the Resolution.
About the Author: K.M. Weiland is
the internationally published author
of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining
Your Novel and Structuring Your
Novel, as well as the western A Man
Called Outlaw, the medieval epic
Behold the Dawn, and the epic fan-
tasy Dreamlander. When she’s not
making things up, she’s busy
mentoring other authors. She makes
her home in western Nebraska.
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