Climax makes your story relevant.

Climax is more than a tickle

I read that the “climax” is simply when hero meets challenge. So I dutifully wrote a “climax” to describe a scene my hero had dreaded and wondered why even I found the story boring.

It did not rock the hero’s world. Meeting what I thought was her greatest challenge did not blow my hero’s life apart and that’s what a climax must do if your story is to resonate with your audience.

stressed businessmanLousy climax, lousy story – walk away and write a manual; that’s what I was ready to do.  Was my hero so weak that she wasn’t capable of generating strong feelings?  What was the fundamental flaw in my first story?

After several rewrites, I discovered the key to my hero. She wasn’t shallow, as I’d begun to suspect; I hadn’t given her a relatable crisis.

How I found the climax

Finding the climax was a synthesis of figuring out what made the hero tick and destroying it.

Humanize the hero

In the original version of my boring story, lived a forgettable scene. My hero interacted with a bystander in a trivial “buy bread and eggs” chore I’d written to make the hero more human. Bonus: it slowed the action, helping to pace the story.

Inject conflict

When I decided the story was boring, I edited the whole thing, injecting conflict along the way. Reaching this pointless scene, I almost eliminated it. Something about the bystander gave me pause. Who was he?  Who’s the only person my hero would abandon the chase to share a moment of intrigue? No character should be completely expendable; I handed this bystander a pivotal role and the story came together in a whole big ball of crisis and conflict. My hero had a moral compass. Bonus: their interaction injected doubt into the hero’s love interest, redoubling the conflict.

Identify the moral compass

The “moral compass” is the element that defines and drives you hero’s soul; it’s where your hero looks for guidance when there’s no easy answer.

Recognize the climax

The climax came together when during the hero’s “challenge,” a catastrophe brought her moral compass on stage; his loss blew away everything that defined her.

The climax must eviscerate the hero.

In my story,the hero had to lose her moral compass – it’s the only loss significant enough to rock her world. Loss defines a climax.  That’s why, in the sections about character development techniques and about completing your fledging story, I’ve come to realize the importance of identifying your character’s moral compass.

Know your audience

Your audience will have to buy into the moral compass.  Generally, that limits you to a few universals: lover, family, deity, the world, humanity, the environment.

  • Avatar the moral compass was the alien world but it was also our hero’s belief in who he was, his core identity.
  • Gone With the Wind posited the antebellum South as both setting and core identity of Scarlett and Rhett; in losing him, she lost her love and the last remnant of the world she’d known – which is why the consolation prize was her home, Tara.
  • Rocky, what was on the line during the climax was everything the hero identified as “self.”

Fallout of the Crisis

Your elevated, core-cutting crisis also elevates what was a “resolution” to a broken recovery; if the climax is followed by a few boring beats that tie up loose ends, the story’s a bust.


“Recovery” should be people dragging their tattered carcasses back from an explosion that shook them all and trying to go on with their lives. And the love interest or partner or whatever witness you choose isn’t just standing there like a plastic dummy, a prop to wander off into the sunset with your hero; having watched the crisis tear the hero apart, they must decide what to do with the broken remains.

Once I found my hero’s moral compass, I wrote the climax of my story in a single night.  But I didn’t know my very first hero until I’d put her through a thousand different scenes, and it took every one of those scenes for me to realize that to her, the “moral compass” I’d identified wasn’t merely comic relief.

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