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Literary Climax: As Intense as It’s Gonna Get

You know the part of a novel where there’s no more build-up. No more teasing. Just raw, unadulterated passion?

In an espionage tale, this might be the moment when everything the spy worked so hard to bring around happens – only to catch her right in the middle of the resulting fray. It's enough to leave readers desperate to know…

In a romance, it might be the chapter where the heroine finally recognizes how much she loves the story’s love interest – after he’s caught a cab to the airport for a one-way international flight. Can she possibly get to him before he gets through security?

And in literary fiction, it could be that spot where the protagonist is confronted with the fact that everything he strived to accomplish the whole novel long isn’t worth anything. How will he handle that devastating determination?

That epic moment – and its immediate resolution – is called the climax of the story, with obvious reason. Because believe you me: This is as intense as the novel’s going to get.

With the temporary exception of a flashback here or there, and unless you’re writing something like Memento – which still arguably follows a five-point plot diagram – your story should naturally follow a linear progression.

There’s Step 1.

Then there’s Step 2.

Then there’s Steps 3, 4 and 5, with Step 3 being this…


After a story’s beginning comes the rising action. After the rising action comes the climax, also known as the climactic moment or the darkest moment. This is where the protagonist has to decide once and for all whether he’s in or out.

It’s meant to be a life-changing moment for the main character and a plot-changing point for the narrative. Up until the climax, the hero or antihero has been in an uphill struggle. But now it’s time for do or die – quite possibly literally.

As we’ve already alluded, the exact details of that drama depend on the genre. Regardless though, the chips are officially falling where they may.

We’re going to do a lot more discussing about how to implement literary climax later on in the week. For now though, here’s a quick rundown on how to handle it:

  • Climax is meant to take up a chapter or two in most cases, no more. Don’t drag it out longer than it needs to run.

  • Always put it sufficiently far enough into your story (as mentioned in a previous post, no less than three-quarters of the way through). Otherwise, your readers might not be motivated enough to continue being your readers, as they’ll have already gotten “the good stuff.” Really, anything after the climax is going to be a bit of a letdown.

  • Don’t try to wrap up absolutely everything in this segment. There’s still two plot parts to go that can answer any leftover questions or resolve additional issues.

On that last point, think about it as a hard-fought race, where there’s a beginning… the main stint of the competition itself… and then that final stretch where it all comes down to which exhausted competitor can push himself the most.

There’s still the cool down and award ceremony to come to take care of the details. But when it comes to those last steps before the finish line, nobody’s thinking anything except for this: Who’s going to make it.

So really, who’s going to make it? Your protagonist or your antagonist? And how much is the former going to have to sacrifice in the process?

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