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This Is Where It All Goes Down… Literally (and Literarily)

Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is for the word “Climax.”

In the literary world, when it comes to story-telling, the climax is essentially where your main character wants to die.

It’s hopefully not where they actually die. But they nonetheless feel like laying down and giving up.

Does that sound bad? And mean? And rotten?

Well, it is. Your protagonist doesn’t enjoy this part one bit. Moreover, you’re kind-of cruel for making them go through the story’s climax. But it’s a vital part of your novel-in-the-making regardless.

Remember that diagram I gave back on Friday for last week’s writing rule? The one that showed the five main parts of a story?

It showed a diagrammed mountain that the protagonist needs to climb, featuring the:

  • Beginning/Exposition

  • Rising Action

  • Climax

  • Falling Action

  • Ending.

Sometimes called the darkest moment, the climax is where everything goes as wrong as it’s going to get. So it comes fairly close to the ending, or at least definitely closer to the ending than the beginning, since there’s a lot of build-up that needs to come first.

At this point in the narrative, the protagonist is at his or her lowest, and the drama is at its highest. Things have gone right and things have gone wrong, but somehow or another, everything has led up to this moment: a moment of dramatic tension where everything is on the line.

For those of you who learn best by examples instead of definitions, consider the following:

If it’s a love story, then the love interest has just walked away. He can’t handle how the main character is going to take that job across the Pacific in Australia. It’s not that he doesn’t love her; it’s just that his last relationship was a long-distance one, and it nearly destroyed him. So she’s left standing there, watching him – the love of her life – walk off without her.

If it’s a horror story, then the hero is about to get eaten. The five-eyed, twenty-tentacled blob monster has ensnared the hero in its lair. He's all tied up and dangling from the ceiling, waiting to be turned into lunch. Twisting and turning and trying to escape results in nothing but physical and emotional exhaustion. Should this main character simply resign himself to being eaten?

If it’s a sci-fi story, then the space battle is going against the good guys and it looks for all the worlds that it’s not going to end well in their favor. The bridge is flickering, and the power could shut off altogether at any moment. The first mate has three tears sliding down his cheek in despair, and the captain is desperately trying to think of what else she can do to save the ship and crew. But is there anything to be done?

More than likely, unless you’re one of those mean writers, the answer is yes.

And the climax brings that into play too. The hero only has to dig in and overcome: to make the big decision or come up with the brilliant plan to save the day or turn the tide or any of those other clichés the reader is craving so much.

So in that love story example where the protagonist is watching her sweet babboo walk away, she realizes that he’s worth it. He’s worth choosing over her dream job. After all, she did also get an offer from her second business choice – and she knows very well that she’ll love it there too. So all she needs to do now is run after him and tell him that she chooses him.

In the horror story, the hero sees something sneak into the lair, and he braces himself for the newest – and maybe last – round of torture. But wait! That’s not his evil monster captor. It’s his friend, Alaina. And she has a knife to cut him free!

Or for the sci-fi story. At the last minute, right when the captain thinks it’s over, the first mate remembers a key detail about the alien ship’s schematics that he happened to spy on his diplomatic mission two days prior. It’s a flaw in the structure that’s small, yes. Yet if their gunner can manage to fire on it in just the right way, it will change the whole outcome.

That’s what a literary climax looks like. The culmination of everything that comes before, it’s the point that decides the rest of the story, whether good or bad, and sets up exactly how the narrative is going to end.

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